Ghana put a series of penalty heartaches behind them, Mali seethed over a controversial decision, Niger collected their first point and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) disappointed on Thursday in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Mubarak Wakaso from Spanish outfit Espanyol converted a 38th-minute spot kick to give Ghana a 1-0 victory over Mali and DR Congo and Niger drew 0-0 in a Port Elizabeth double-header that offered little excitement.
As in Group A, there is all to play for in the final matches on Monday when leaders Ghana face bottom team Niger at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium while second-place Mali and DR Congo travel east to square off in Durban.
Niger and DR Congo must win to survive the first-round cull while draws will suffice for Ghana and Mali, the beaten semi-finalists at last year’s tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Ghana have known only heartbreak when it came to penalties in recent years as Asamoah Gyan rattled the crossbar with a last-minute spot kick that allowed Uruguay to go on and win a 2010 World Cup quarter-final in Johannesburg.
Gyan flopped again last year at a Cup of Nations semi-final in the Equatoguinean city of Bata when Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene blocked his kick and the Black Stars lost to a late goal.
A torrent of public and media criticism after the Africa Cup defeat led Gyan to temporarily quit international soccer and the United Arab Emirates-based striker was honored with the captaincy when he returned late last year.
Wakaso, who was not born when Ghana last conquered Africa 31 years ago in Libya, showed no nerves after Adama Tamboura felled Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and steered a powerful kick over goalkeeper Mamadou Samassa.
Agyemang-Badu came close to breaking the deadlock six minutes earlier by nodding a Wakaso free-kick wide of Samassa, but the ball rebounded to safety off the far post.
The result left Mali furious that the Ivorian referee did not red-card Ghana goalkeeper Fatau Dauda in the sixth minute for handling outside the box with Seydou Keita poised to score.
Dauda escaped with a caution, skipper Keita was just off target from the free-kick, and that was as close as the Eagles came to scoring with the Ghana defense comfortably containing a blunt strike force.
“We were much more tactically disciplined in this game than against DR Congo, but I know we can do a lot better than we did today,” Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah said.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron said: “The referee did not help us because he ought to have sent off the Ghana goalkeeper rather than just booking him for handling the ball outside his area.”
However, there was some relief for France-born Carteron when DR Congo, fancied to defeat Niger in the later match after coming from two goals behind last weekend to hold Ghana, failed to spark in a tedious stalemate.
It was the first point for the Nigeriens in the competition after losses to Gabon, Tunisia and Morocco in last year’s tournament and to Mali on Sunday in a Group B opener.
The Menas (Gazelles) squandered the best chance of the match after only four minutes when club-less Modibo Sidibe curled a shot against the post with only goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba to beat.
Niger goalkeeper Daouda Kassaly, whose aerial shakiness was partly to blame for the late Mali winner four days ago, performed much better and used his arm to foil Dieumerci Mbokani just before half-time.
Veteran DR Congo coach Claude Le Roy said: “We played badly tonight with many technical and tactical mistakes. It will be wonderful to play Mali although we must win to survive.”
Niger coach Gernot Rohr was happier: “We made history by collecting our first Cup of Nations point. We have made some progress after losing all three matches in Gabon last year.”