MALABO, Equatorial Guinea, January 24 – Substitute Max-Alain Gradel’s late equaliser earned a disjointed Ivory Coast side a 1-1 draw against Mali in the Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday as the Elephants kept alive their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals.
It looked as if Bakary Sako’s superb seventh-minute strike, a contender for goal of the tournament so far, would give Mali a famous first win against their west African neighbours at the continental finals.
But Gradel, who was introduced from the bench in the first half, finished an excellent move with four minutes left to leave Group D wide open.
Both sides had already drawn 1-1 in their first matches, and must now wait to see how Cameroon do against Guinea in the second game of a double-header in Malabo on Saturday evening.
In an effort to kickstart his side’s Cup of Nations campaign, Herve Renard made three changes to his starting line-up after the draw against Guinea, with Seydou Doumbia replacing the suspended Gervinho and Ismael Diomande and Siaka Tiene also being promoted to the starting line-up.
Renard also changed his tactical line-up, opting to play three central defenders with skipper Yaya Toure in a deep-lying midfield role.
But it was a move that failed to pay off and Mali opened the scoring from the game’s first chance, much to the delight of the huge contingent of Eagles fans in the Estadio de Malabo.
When Diomande was robbed of possession in midfield, the ball came out to Sambou Yatabare on the Mali right and his hanging cross towards the back post was met sweetly on the half-volley by the unmarked Sako, whose strike gave Sylvain Gbohouo in goal no chance.
– One sniff –
Just as had happened in their opening game, the Ivorians’ opponents had scored from their first chance, and Renard’s side were again left to chase a game.
Doumbia had one sniff of goal, but couldn’t convert from close range after Wilfried Bony headed a Tiene cross down towards him.
New Manchester City signing Bony then saw his appeals for a penalty fall on deaf ears on 33 minutes after he went down in the area under a Molla Wague challenge, although Ivory Coast came desperately close to equalising from the corner that followed.
Yaya Toure swung the ball into the area and his brother Kolo’s header was instinctively turned against the bar by Mali ‘keeper Soumaila Diakite.
An unhappy Renard wasted no time in changing his approach, with Diomande being hooked off six minutes before the interval and his Saint-Etienne colleague Gradel coming on to join Doumbia and Bony up front.
Still the Ivorians were unable to really trouble the Mali defence, even after goalkeeper Diakite was stretchered off and replaced for the final 18 minutes by Germain Berthe.
The substitute had nothing to do until he had to pick the ball out of his net four minutes from the end.
Gradel slotted home low after Serge Aurier latched on to a defence-splitting Salomon Kalou pass and cut the ball back for the little winger.