Angola and Algeria staggered rather than swaggered into the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations after playing out a drab goalless draw last night. The result, which did little to raise the interest and excitement levels in a tournament rocked by the disqualification of Togo, saw Angola emerge as group winners.
Algeria finished level on four points with Mali but qualify with a better head-to-head record, having beaten the West Africans 1-0 last week. Anyone who had seen Algeria thrashed 3-0 in their opening game by Malawi will struggle to believe they have ended up in the last eight. With potential ties against Ivory Coast and Ghana in the next round, Angola and Algeria will have to raise their games considerably from the lacklustre levels of last night. Angola, the hosts, will at least have the comfort of remaining in Luanda, the capital, their reward for finishing top of Group A.
A draw suited both sides and neither manager apologised for their conservative approach, which was illustrated by the sight of the two teams running down the clock by passing the ball around casually in the closing stages. "We knew a draw would be enough, so we managed to get our result," said the Angola coach, Manuel Jose. "In the next round, we are ready to play any team." The Algeria coach, Rabah Saadane, concurred. "The most important thing is we have qualified," he said.
"Although it was a difficult game, we also missed a lot of chances." Mali, meanwhile, scorers of seven goals in the competition, ended their tournament on a high with a 3-1 win over Malawi, who finished bottom of the group. Frederic Kanoute, Seydou Keita - with a stunning 25-yard free-kick, and Mamadou Bagayoko all scored for Mali in an entertaining game, but the victory was not enough to earn the Eagles a place in the knockout phase. Russell Mwafulirwa pulled one back for Malawi.
The inquest into how Mali, a team boasting players from Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, failed to qualify will surely begin with the laboured start they made in their opening game against Angola, which saw them fall four goals behind before rescuing a thrilling draw. Bagayoko, the French-born Mali striker, struggled to hide his disappointment at his side's early exit. "This is really disappointing. They changed the rules this year and we are out despite finishing ahead of Algeria on goal difference. It's a pity because we have a really talented bunch of players. We had the weapons to do something during this African Cup."
Added Kanoute: "We will draw conclusions later. We just wanted to go as far as possible but God had other plans for us. We have to be content with this result, the most important thing is that we gave everything." Kinnah Phiri, the Malawi coach, was left to bemoan the two goals his side conceded in the first three minutes last night. "They scored early and you are always punished when you make mistakes," he said. "But we also managed to come back in the second half and created some good chances." * With agencies