By Brian Homewood
SUEZ, Egypt (Reuters) – Ivory Coast forward Wilfried Zaha secured a 1-0 win over Mali with a late goal in their Africa Cup of Nations last 16 clash on Monday after their opponents had dominated most of the game and missed a flurry of chances.
Zaha, who had barely featured until then, took advantage as the Mali defence got into a terrible mess from a free kick deep in the Ivorian half in the 76th minute to earn his side a barely deserved win and quarter-final tie against Algeria.
Mali, unbeaten in the group stage, had not beaten their southern neighbours in a competitive match since 1977 but for most of the contest seemed to believe they could end that run.
They played with verve and skill and bossed the first hour with Moussa Djenepo and Abdoulaye Diaby causing endless trouble down the flanks and Moussa Marega a constant threat in attack while Ivory Coast keeper Sylvain Gbohouo lived a charmed life.
He allowed a corner to slip through his fingers but Diaby could not react quickly enough at the far post and turned the ball wide. Moments later, Gbohouo was nearly caught out by a long-range Diaby free kick but managed to turn the ball over.
Hamari Traore surged into the Ivorian penalty area only to blast his shot towards the Suez Canal before Djenepo created Mali’s best first half chance with another run down the left but Marega missed from six metres.
“We let the storm pass during the first half before we reorganised in the second,” said relieved Ivory Coast coach Ibrahima Kamara.
Another opportunity went begging at the start of the second period as Marega slipped the ball to Djenepo who had a free run on goal but lost his footing when he seemed poised to score.
Mali began to run out of gas as the Ivory Coast, whose current side is a shadow of the so-called golden generation which won the tournament in 2015, came back into the game.
Jonathan Kodjia should have put the Ivorians ahead when he was sent clear but sent his shot straight at goalkeeper Djigui Diarra who was already on the ground fearing the worst.
But there was no let off shortly afterwards. Gbohouo took a free kick deep inside the Ivorian half, the Malian defence missed the ball and it bounced into the path of Crystal Palace forward Zaha who scored his second goal at the finals.
Adama Traore had a shot blocked by Gbohouo in stoppage time but by then Mali’s confidence had been replaced by desperation.
“I am disappointed like all my team mates because we deserved more,” said man-of-the-match Marega. “We were the better side in the game. We could have gone to the break with a good lead but that’s a pity for us. We feel disappointed.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Alison Williams and Ken Ferris)