At the end of an archetypal game of two halves, the Ivorians got what they needed in this draw with Saudi Arabia. Daniel Roméo’s young hopefuls were once again left rueing the many chances spurned and a crossbar that seemed to have a will of its own. As for the Africans, they have achieved their pre-tournament aim of clinching a place among the last sixteen, but they will need to muster more defensive steel if they are to advance further in the competition.
The game’s early stages were curiously bereft of excitement, despite the unconditional support of the Al Aïn public for their Saudi neighbours. In what amounted to a radical change of tactics, the Ivorians seemed content to play a waiting game. As a draw would suffice, there was no need to take risks. Jean-Jacques Gosso and Adolph Tohoua, hitherto used in more attacking roles, bolstered the midfield alongside Almamy Doumbia and Mohamed Cissé. The Saudis were finding it a tough nut to crack.
As a result, the Saudi forwards were feeding off scraps. Naji Majrashgi did manage to spring the offside trap with a late run down the left, but his cross in front of goal just eluded the onrushing Eisa Al Mahyani (18’). The Africans, meanwhile, were gradually reverting to their normal game. Gosso weaved his way through the centre, but his powerful strike went wide (24’), and the same fate befell Antonin Koutouan’s close-range effort after he was put in by Dan Ouehi (25’).
So tight was the contest that a dead ball looked the best chance of a goal. A Saudi corner was well met by Al Mahyani, but the Arab prodigy’s header flew narrowly wide (34’). Nerves were becoming increasingly frayed on the respective benches, leading to Argentine agitation and Ivorian edginess in equal measure. “I was far from happy as I felt some of my players didn’t do themselves justice this evening,” conceded Mama Ouattara after the match. Indeed, they were lucky not to go into the break one down, after the excellent Al Mahyani won possession in the Ivorian penalty area and played an inviting square ball towards the penalty spot, only for an African leg to stretch out and avert disaster (45’ +1).
The three changes made at half time reflected the frustration felt by the coaches. André Saki and François Zoko took over from Adolph Tohoua and Antonin Koutouan for the Ivorians, while Mesfr Al Kahtani supplanted Abdullah Al Dosari in the Saudi side. “I made a few tactical adjustments at the interval to revitalise the attack,” explained Roméo at the post-match inquest. The impact of the substitutions was immediate, as Saki broke free down the left and centred for Zoko, who screwed his header wide (47’). Then Ahmed Ateef lofted a clever pass over the African defence, Majrashgi outstripped Drissa Toure, but his finish drifted wide (51’).
Now it was end-to-end stuff. Gosso battled through the heart of the Saudi defence and fed Arouna Kone, but the Roda Kerkrade forward lost his duel with Tariq Al Hargan (53’). Majrashgi then sent a volley pinging over (54’), before being played clean through by Saad Al Abouad. One on one against Touré, he missed the target by a hair’s breadth (58’). The Al Shabab forward had to stomach a further slice of bad luck, when he again found himself with only the keeper to beat after a visionary pass from Abdullatif Al Ghannam, only to see his strike thunder back off the crossbar (67’).
Under the cosh, the Junior Elephants fought back. After receiving a centre from Kone, Zoko missed the target again (72’). Then it was the turn of Kone, who for once eluded his minder Osamah Al Harbi to let fly from 18 yards, but his effort was saved by Al Hargan (84’). The end of the encounter was frenetic, as the Saudis threw everyone forward, but to no avail. By dint of this draw, the Ivorians secured their qualification, while the Sons of the Desert exit the event with their heads held high.
Truly delighted to have qualified, Ouattara denied taking a defensive approach and playing for the draw. “We played to win, but I feel the Ireland game took a lot out of the players. Also, it seemed as if it was going to be easy at the start of the match, so my players relaxed a little too much. It was a tricky game.”
Roméo’s disappointment was palpable. As he approached the waiting posse of journalists, he was heard to mutter ‘casi, casi’ (nearly, nearly!), but he recovered to heap praise on his players: “I am very proud of the team; my lads played to a very high standard in all three games. Tonight too, we had plenty of chances. If only we could finish them.”