COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
When Asamoah Gyan winced in pain at the end of Ghana's final group game against Egypt, the sharp intake of breath could be heard all the way to Kumasi. The 1-0 defeat was not fatal; it served only to bump them down to second place, allowing them to escape the graveyard of limbs that is the surface at Port-Gentil.
First though, the sands delivered a final parting gift, and that one most unpalatable of all. Gyan trudged off shy of the half-time break, and it was feared it would signal the end for the “Baby Jet”. The former Rennes and Sunderland man may be all of 31, and may be plying his trade in China, but for Ghana he is more than just the captain. He is a talisman.
His fitness is certainly not what it once was – he is a lot less mobile, not quite as trim about the midriff, and has perhaps lost a bit of explosiveness off the mark – but he possesses that quality best defined by the colloquialism ‘clutch’: that ability to turn up in the most difficult circumstances.
It was not solely a concern for Ghana, however. He may be diminished in vigour, but he was arguably the only striker left in the competition at that stage capable of a game-deciding contribution.
Cameroon and DR Congo each used three different centre-forwards in the group stage, and found no resolution, even though the Indomitable Lions brought on Vincent Aboubakar to win them the final; Burkina Faso used two, as did Tunisia. Aziz Bouhaddouz and Mame Biram Diouf were dull points for impressive sides, while Marwan Mohsen seemed to exist solely to occupy opposing defenders, rather than to score.
On the whole, the 2017 Afcon was not been a good outing for centre-forwards. Both Islam Slimani and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang managed two goals apiece, but had poor tournaments, while the likes of Wilfried Bony, Geoffrey Massa and Moussa Marega seemed to almost impede their team’s efforts.
The exception was probably Emmanuel Adebayor, who put in a hugely impressive shift leading the line for Togo. Typically, he failed to find the back of the net himself.
It is remarkable because the Africa Cup of Nations has rarely seen such a dearth of attacking quality, especially in the knockout stage.
In keeping with the trend of international football, there has been a drop in the number of goals required to win the tournament Golden Boot in recent times, as goals are now spread around more evenly across the team.
That said, Dieumerci Mbokani and Bony were the standout centre-forwards last time out in Equatorial Guinea, and both got to the last four. Emmanuel Emenike’s goals propelled Nigeria to the title in 2013, while Emmanuel Mayuka and Didier Drogba contested the final in 2012.
The effect of this striking famine, aside the lowest goal haul since the universally panned 2002 edition, is that the competition was a lot more even.
All tournament long, in spite of the fact the gradient (by Fifa continental ranking) between the best and worst teams in the competition was the highest it has ever been, only one match was won by a margin greater than two goals, and that came in a game which was essentially a dead rubber. As recently as 2013, there were four.
It therefore forced teams to seek comparative advantage elsewhere. It is no coincidence that, tactically, this was the most interesting Cup of Nations in a long time. There were tense match-ups all over the pitch, interesting contrasts in style and strategy, and greater cohesion than we had come to expect in previous tournaments.
Teams who failed to fall in step with this change, in spite of their star power, such as Algeria and Ivory Coast, exited the tournament very early on. Perhaps, when we look back down the line, that will be true legacy of the 2017 tournament – not the sparse crowds or the terrible playing surfaces, but adaptation.