NELSPRUIT, South Africa: The Africa Cup of Nations produced fireworks on Friday, with a Burkina Faso rout of Ethiopia, a hotly contested penalty, a sending off, and a spot kick converted by a goalkeeper.
The Group C double-header in Nelspruit, watched by one of the biggest crowds seen in the first week of battle, was kicked off by champions Zambia against Nigeria.
Nigeria’s Emmanuel Emenike put the African superpower in control after John Obi Mikel failed to convert a first-half penalty.
But the game’s talking point came when a dubious spot-kick was awarded to Zambia.
Goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene marched the length of the pitch to coolly convert it, salvaging a potentially priceless point for the title-holders and enhancing his reputation as the master of both saving penalties and scoring from them.
Mweene regularly takes penalties for his South African club Free State Stars, and scored in Zambia’s shoot-out win over Ivory Coast in the 2012 final.
He is also a dab hand at saving them, as he proved when denying Gervinho in last year’s climax, and again on Monday, stopping Ethiopia’s Salahdin Said from the spot.
His heroics on Friday earned him the man of the match award.
“It’s all to do with practice,” he said modestly.
“Today, I had to walk all the way from one goal to another knowing I had to convert it to equalise. It was difficult, but I kept my cool.”
Whether it should have been a penalty at all is highly debatable after Ogenyi Onazi tangled with Emmanuel Mayuka in the box.
Nigeria captain and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama castigated Egyptian referee Grisha Ghead for awarding it.
“It was one of the worst calls I’ve seen in the history of football.
“It doesn’t belong in football – you don’t see such decisions in a game of this magnitude.
“I’m really mad. Kennedy took a great penalty, but it was one of the worst calls ever.”
After this stalemate, Burkina Faso faced Ethiopia on a threadbare, sandy pitch that Zambia captain Christopher Katongo described as “the worst in South Africa”.
The Ethiopians started brightly, but once Burkina Faso got into their stride there was no stopping them, with Alain Traore producing two of the goals of the competition in a 4-0 rout.
The win was all the more impressive considering Burkina were reduced to 10 men on the hour when ‘keeper Abdoulaye Soulama was red carded for handling outside his box.
The demolition not only lifted the Burkinabe to the top of Group C on four points, but also ended their winless run in the competition stretching to 18 games.
It put Burkina Faso in a strong position to qualify for the quarter-finals.
On four points, they now face Zambia (two points) with Nigeria (two) meeting Ethiopia (one). The matches kick off simultaneously on Tuesday.
Belgian coach Paul Put beamed: “This is great for our confidence. Once we scored it acted as a release for the players.
“We’re on the right track. We’ll keep our feet on the ground and take on Zambia with the chance to qualify for the quarter-finals.
“What we showed when it was 10 versus 11 proves that mentally we are very strong and that’s a good sign.”
The action switches to Rustenburg on Saturday and a win for either pre-competition favourites Ivory Coast or Tunisia will be enough to secure them the first last-eight ticket if the other Group D game between Algeria and Togo ends in a draw. – AFP
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