MALABO, Equitorial Guinea, February 10 – Mali will be more cheerful than Ghana ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations third place play-off in the Estadio de Malabo Saturday.
While the Eagles exceeded expectations by reaching the semi-finals and taking title favourites Ivory Coast to the wire, the Black Stars are reeling after a shock defeat by Zambia having failed to score from an early penalty.
The countries who never clashed in 27 previous tournaments now square off for the second time in 15 days with the venue changing from Franceville in south-eastern Gabon to the island capital of neighbouring Equatorial Guinea.
Ghana gave their best display of this Cup of Nations to overcame Mali 2-0 in Group D last month with star striker Asamoah Gyan scoring the first goal and creating the second for Dede Ayew.
United Arab Emirates-based Gyan was at his boastful best after that success, telling reporters he was so good that the Black Stars could afford to deploy a solitary striker.
He was far less talkative this week, though, after having an early penalty pushed to safety by Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, and it proved a costly miss with Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) snatching a late winner.
Gyan has an unfortunate record with penalty kicks — he slammed one over off the bar against Uruguay in 2010 that prevented Ghana becoming the first World Cup semi-finalists from Africa.
There was sympathy for Gyan in the Black Stars camp with assistant coach Kwesi Appiah saying “it is always the best players who miss penalties” and captain John Mensah revealing: “I told Asamoah to concentrate on Mali”.
“We will try hard to finish third,” said South Africa-based Mali defender Ousmane Berthe, who could not catch Gervinho as he sprinted from the halfway line to score the goal that felled the Eagles.
The outcome may hinge on how coaches Goran Stevanovic of Ghana and Alain Giresse of Mali react. Will they field full strength sides or experiment with those who were mainly substitutes during the three-week tournament?
Fatigue is also likely to be a factor with Ghana and Mali understandably looking wearier in the semi-finals than opponents who had an extra rest day after easier last-eight games that did not involve extra time.
Ghana have a one win-one loss record and Mali three losses in a fixture that has produced 73 goals since 1962 at an average of three per match and DR Congo won on penalties in 1998 after trailing Burkina Faso 4-1 with four minutes left.