Egypt and South Africa clashed in the Round of 16 at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Saturday evening in Cairo. In an open and entertaining game, Bafana Bafana scored late and held on to win 1-0 and progress to the quarter finals to face Nigeria. Hosts Egypt were knocked out of the competition.
For Egypt, there were three changes from the lineup that started in the 2-0 win against Uganda. In central defence, Mahmoud Alaa replaced Baher El Mohamady, whilst Nabil Emad was left out with Tarek Hamed preferred in central midfield.
Up front, Ahmed Hassan dropped to the bench with Marwan Mohsen returning to lead the line alongside Trezeguet and Mohamed Salah.
Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter made two changes from the side that lost 1-0 to Morocco in their final group game. Dean Furman was fit to start after a knock to the knee and he replaced Thulani Serero, whilst Themba Zwane’s suspension meant a first involvement of the tournament for Thembinkosi Lorch.
BUILD-UP & WIDE FULLBACKS
From the start, Egypt looked to play out short from the back. Both central defenders dropped into their own box at times to receive off the goalkeeper with Hamed also regularly coming deep to start attacks. Both fullbacks, Ahmed El Mohamady and Ayman Ashraf were very adventurous in positioning themselves high up, but Bafana Bafana’s wide players were sure to block passes into them, instead making Egypt try to play through midfield.
In that area of the pitch, South Africa had Furman holding, with Bongani Zungu and Kamohelo Mokotjo to the sides. The latter duo had a big task – they were both instructed to close down aggressively in their area, whilst also moving wide to assist against the fullbacks. Mokotjo was the man tasked with protecting the left half-space from where Salah usually looks to cut inside and hit shots.
Egged on by the home crowd, Egypt were very adventurous in the opening stages and nearly scored early as Salah drilled a shot wide after El Mohamady’s cross fell to him. At the other end, Bafana Bafana were getting an inordinate amount of space to counter-attack. Whereas against Morocco, Percy Tau had found himself defending deep inside his own half at times, he was clearly instructed to look to stay higher up on the right flank in this game, looking to lead counter attacks.
In the first 23 minutes, Tau had one counter direct from a long Ronwen Williams kick, linked with Lebo Mothiba and forced Egypt into a risky last-ditch tackle on the striker, had tested Mohamed El-Shenawy from long-range and then had a freekick tipped over the bar. With a higher starting position, less defensive duties and vast spaces to exploit, Tau was having his most effective game of the tournament.
The first half pressure, largely on counter attacks and transitional play, continued for South Africa as Lorch had two shots in quick succession, first after a clever Tau dummy in a central position, and then a strike when Sifiso Hlanti’s deep cross found him at the back post.
One notable feature of the play was Mothiba’s hold-up ability. Whereas in the previous matches, he was aggressively challenged and isolated, he was able to drop off the front in this game as Tau and Lorch came inside from the flanks to occupy the central defenders.
FURMAN FOCAL, BONGANI BUZZES
The return of Furman in front of the back four was crucial for Baxter’s men. He would look to drop deep to try to start the buildup from Ronwen Williams, although the goalkeeper’s accurate long diagonals into the spaces in wide areas was often more effective. Furman did have a big task in stopping counter attacks though. One excellent challenge stopped Salah, whilst a clever tactical foul ended another break for Egypt.
Perhaps the best chance of the half for the hosts came as they broke from South Africa’s own attacking corner, the same situation from which Cote d’Ivoire scored in the opening group match. Salah found himself in a two versus two situation but surprisingly decided to pass instead of shooting and the chance went a-begging as Trezeguet side-footed weakly and Williams saved.
Further forward in midfield, Zungu was excelling for his side. He was aggressively closing down, whilst also proving a good aerial target. With Furman to protect the back four, he could focus more on getting forward and lending support to counter attacks or forcing turnovers.
Egypt were dominating possession, having 65% of the ball in the opening 27 minutes and 67% by half-time, but they were not making many in-roads as Thami Mkhize and Hlanti defended well when facing the wingers, including the latter being booked for aggressively fouling Salah when the Liverpool man was in a dangerous position in front of the back four. When El Mohamady crossed the ball, the box was usually very well guarded in the air with Mohsen having little effect on the game up front.
EGYPT CHASE WITH CHANGES
After a disappointing first half, Javier Aguirre made a change at the break, taking off Mohsen for Ahmed Ali in attack. Salah was also playing higher and higher up, often taking up positions as a second striker as The Pharaohs looked to crank up the pressure.
Certainly, they started the second half far better. In possession, Egypt were more patient and less reckless in committing men forward, whilst looking to involve Trezeguet more with switches of play or diagonals to isolate him against Mkhize.
Having come inside to set up a long-range shot for Mohamed Elneneny, Egypt’s left winger then had the biggest opening of the match for his side. Salah’s superb slide-rule pass put Trezeguet one-on-one with Williams, but he could not finish. His perfect run on the blindside of Mkhize had led to the chance.
There was another change just passed the hour mark as Amr Warda was introduced after serving an internal suspension for inappropriate off-field behaviour. He replaced number ten, Abdallah El Said and played in a fairly free wider role, further allowing Salah to play centrally to look to get into goalscoring positions.
By this stage, both sides had become more conservative. Tau’s vast expanses of space from the first half was no longer there as Ashraf stayed deeper at left back, but there were still some gaps elsewhere and Bafana had a big chance to open the scoring with twenty minutes left.
Mothiba played an excellent one-two with Mkhize and the fullback put Lorch through on goal to test the goalkeeper. The latter had made an excellent diagonal run inside off the left flank. Both sides had started to play longer from goal kicks by this stage as they became concerned with making mistakes at the back and Egypt became more impatient in looking for a winner.
PHAROAHS LOST SHAPE
With seven minutes left on the clock, Egpyt went for broke. Off went defensive midfielder Elneny for number ten Walid Soliman, leaving the midfield completely open. When Tau took a quick throw-in and Zungu swept Lorch’s pass out to Mothiba on the right, nine Egyptian players had been eliminated in a flash. The striker found Lorch’s run and the reigning PSL Footballer of the Season calmly steered home to put Bafana 1-0 in front with 85 minutes played.
The goal was a perfect up-back-through counter-attacking move, featuring a layoff, a quick pass to find a runner and then a square ball to assist an onrushing player. The slow Ahmed Hegazi had dropped 20 yards deeper than the rest of his backline and played everyone onside.
Having made no changes in the 90 minutes, Baxter finally brought on fresh legs to run down the clock as Furman and Lorch went off for Hlompho Kekana and Lars Veldwijk. There were more counters to relieve pressure as Veldwijk went close, and Bafana Bafana held onto their lead well.
This was a well-deserved win for South Africa, despite the two big chances missed by Trezeguet from Salah passes. Baxter’s team were outstanding in midfield, with Zungu and Mokotjo covering massive distances to screen passes forward, defend wide and press to force turnovers.
Egypt were unbelievably open at times, and gave Bafana Bafana numerous good chances to counter-attack. The presence of the disciplined midfield three gave greater freedom to Percy Tau to stay up-field where he is most effective, whilst Lorch – despite not playing a competitive match in eight weeks – worked extremely hard in both directions, made great runs and scored the crucial goal.
The home side were guilty of playing too much on emotion, committing too many men forward and making changes which left them open defensively. At times, they played as if they were trailing in the game instead of drawing 0-0. After the game, coach Javier Aguirre was sacked whilst Hani Abu Reidah stepped down as president of Egypt’s Football Association.
Baxter’s men will face Nigeria in the next round. If they can maintain this sort of control of the midfield area and again allow Tau to be freed from defensive duties, then they can cause the Super Eagles very real problems.