Wednesday evening saw the final round of Afcon 2017 group stage fixtures. The eyes of Africa fell on Group D as Egypt took on Ghana in a heavyweight clash at Stade Port-Gentil. Avram Grants’ men had already booked their place in the next round after two successive 1-0 wins and Egypt needed a draw or better to join them in the next round. In the other simultaneous match of the night Mali took on the already eliminated Uganda who would be fighting for nothing more than pride. The Malians unfortunately knew progression was out of their hands and all they could do was win and hope that the Egyptians lost.
Mali already had an uphill struggle on their hands as the conditions in Oyem were treacherous with a rain-soaked pitch making football of any kind difficult. Under the circumstances the match was understandably a scrappy affair.
Back in Port-Gentil the sparse crowd would not have to wait long for an opening goal. Roma’s Mohamed Salah executed a stunning free kick from the edge of the area in the 10th minute. The Egyptian’s shot penetrated the Ghanaian wall and rifled into the top corner. The Ghanaians immediately looked to get back in the game but the North Africans continued to show why they are seven times African Nations Cup champions as they defended valiantly.
The half continued to be a tentative affair as the half time break approached with the games other major talking point turning out to be an injury that forced Ghana’s talismanic attacker Asamoah Gyan to come the pitch. Within seconds of the resumption of play, Daniel Amartey came close to grabbing the equalizer, but the Leicester City midfielder could only watch his header go wide of Essam El Hadary’s near post.
As all four teams returned into the tunnel for half time the current standing would see Egypt top the group with Ghana finishing second and the Malians crashing out. The match in Oyem did not live up to expectations as the ridiculously poor conditions meant chances were few and far between.
The second half resumed in both games and at the Stade Port-Gentil the match continued to be a tightly contested affair. While this game was an intriguing end to end encounter, in Oyem not much had changed from the first half. Possession was turned over far too easily and the game was in desperate need of a goal to liven up proceedings. In the 70th minute that’s exactly what the fans got as Uganda grabbed the lead. Farouk Miya’s wonder strike saw Mali’s slim hopes go up in smoke. The Standard Liege forward’s goal will go down in Ugandan history as it was their first goal at the tournament in 39 years.
The historic celebrations did not last long though, as Alain Giresse's side grabbed an equaliser. This time it was Yves Bissouma with a stunner of a free kick that almost broke the back of the net.
In Port Gentil as the fulltime whistle neared, Jordan Ayew had one final opportunity to salvage a draw for Ghana. But the 44-year-old El Hadary showed that he is still as agile as ever as he produced an outstanding save to deny the Aston Villa man.
At the final whistle Egypt emerged as group winners and will take on Morocco in a North African quarterfinal derby while Ghana had to settle for second place and an unenviable quarterfinal date with a fiercely competitive DR Congo.