African Cup of Nations - Hosts Gabon start with win
African Cup of Nations co-hosts Gabon got off to a flier with a 2-0 Group C victory over Niger in Libreville.
Goals from star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Stephane N’Guema put the hosts 2-0 up at half-time and they should have scored more against a spirited but limited Niger side, who were enthusiastic enough on their Nations Cup debut but made repeated errors in defence and offered little going forward.
Victory was essential for Gabon if they are to escape a very tough group including North African rivals Tunisia and Morocco, whose derby clash follows on Monday.
And as expected Gabon – as hosts and with the greater European experience in their ranks – were the dominant force in front of a packed home crowd at the Stade d’Angondje.
Niger were ragged defensively and looked one-dimensional in attack as they played direct balls to Belgium-based forward Ouwo Moussa Maazou and hoped for set-pieces – from which they occasionally threatened, in fairness.
Niger keeper Kassaly Daouda gave a taste of things to come as he made a succession of poor punches, also fumbling a daisy-cutter as he struggled with crosses and corners.
But he was not punished and showed his main assets – bravery and reflexes – as he denied former Milan forward Aubameyang with a rush from the line, while Niger defender Chikoto Mohamed was fortunate to escape with a clear handball in the box as he fluffed a defensive header.
In the meantime Niger winger Alhassane Issoufou was fortunate to escape with merely a yellow card after a pair of two-footed tackles ordinarily worthy of a straight red – he was substituted soon afterwards as coach Harouna Doula Gabde decided he was too much of a liability.
Aside from the occasional Maazou run down the right, Gabon were playing all the football and they took a deserved lead on the half hour.
Strangely though it came from a break following a concerted spell of Niger pressure, as N’Guema floated over a hanging cross that the hapless Kassaly flapped at atrociously to allow St Etienne’s Aubameyang to squeeze in a header at the far post.
That coaxed Gabon into a counter-attacking tactic that suits their attributes more than the possession game they had been playing: using the pace of Aubameyang they almost got a second following a Niger corner, and went 2-0 up just before half-time in similar fashion.
A superb slide-tackle by Nice forward Eric Mouloungui allowed Charly Moussono to put in a wicked cross: Aubameyang should have scored with a point-blank header but he was denied by a reflex stop from Kassaly. However, the loose ball fell to N’Guema, who plays back in Gabon after spending much of his career in France, and he made no mistake from six yards.
Gabon were totally in charge and the pattern continued into the second half as Niger somehow escaped conceding an early third after some comic defending.
A couple of strong but risky challenges by the ‘adventurous’ Mohamed kept out Mouloungui and N’Guema in quick succession, but the defender who plies his trade at South Africa’s Platinum Stars was at fault alongside Amadou Kader Dodo as they both missed a clearance to let Mouloungui clean through: he was denied by a brave save at feet by Kassaly.
Niger were all over the place as a dreadful back-header from Dodo forced Kassaly to rush out of his box to clear, while N’Guema denied himself a shot on goal with a poor second touch after his first played him in.
Aubameyang was denied a second both by a superb tackle from Dodo and a rogue linesman’s flag but, just before the hour mark, that signalled a lull as rash tackles from both sides broke up the spectacle.
Niger were reduced to 10 men late on as, after using all their substitutions, one of said replacements Moutari Amadou Kalala came off with an ankle injury.
They fashioned their best chance after that though, as Boubacar Issoufou’s fine cross was headed on target by Maazou: the finish was matched by a smart stop from the otherwise underworked Le Mans keeper Didier Ovono.
Aubameyang’s last act was to drag a fizzing drive just wide, the 22-year-old replaced by veteran former Rangers and Hull striker Daniel Cousin, now plying his trade in Gabon.
Cousin should have won a penalty, taken out by a waist-high tackle from the liability that is Mohamed, but the very lenient Seychellois referee inexplicably waved play on.
Less clear-cut was a shove by Mohamed on Mouloungui late on after a brilliant Cousin cross, but it was a fourth good penalty appeal that the hosts saw rejected.
It mattered not though as Gabon played out the win in style, keeping possession to chants of ‘ole’ as they got three vital points on the board ahead of two very tricky tests against the fancied teams from the Maghreb.