/ 26 January 2008

Elephants march on but Nigeria on brink of exit

Côte d’Ivoire became the first side to qualify for the African Nations Cup quarterfinals on Friday but fellow heavyweights Nigeria’s hopes were left hanging by a thread.

The Elephants from Côte d’Ivoire brushed aside Benin 4-1, with Didier Drogba getting his first goal of this year’s tournament, to go top of Group B and assured of a place in the last eight.

A goalless draw against Mali in the second match in Sekondi left Nigeria with just one point and facing an all-or-nothing date with Benin (0 points) on Monday while at the same time needing Côte d’Ivoire to beat Mali (4).

It was the first scoreless stalemate of the 2008 tournament and it left Nigeria precariously close to their first opening round exit since their disastrous title defence campaign in 1982.

”We’re still in the tournament, we’ll have to keep going and see what happens,” said Nigeria’s man-of-the-match, John Mikel Obi.

He added: ”I think we played very well but were just a bit unlucky, the goals weren’t coming, we’ve got to work on that.”

The run up to Friday’s double header at Essipong Stadium was overshadowed by match-fixing claims made by Benin coach Reinhard Fabisch.

The German-born Fabisch said he had been approached last weekend by a man representing an Asian betting syndicate interested in ”buying” Benin’s opening game against Mali last Monday.

”He wanted to find out from me if there was any possibility of manipulating the match,” the 57-year-old disclosed.

”I told him: ‘Look, you have two minutes to leave the hotel or I will call the police’.”

The Confederation of African Football has asked the former Kenya and Zimbabwe coach to provide them with the necessary details by Saturday before launching an inquiry.

Benin’s game against Côte d’Ivoire on Friday had been widely described as a mismatch given the firepower from the English Premiership and Spanish League at the Ivorians’ disposal.

And so it proved with Drogba, Yaya Toure, Abdelkader Keita and Aruna Dindane on target to crush the curiously named Squirrels and further press home the Elephants’ tag as one of the tournament favourites.

Sweden-based Razack Omotoyossi scored a stoppage-time consolation goal for Benin.

But success for the 1992 champions and 2006 finalists came at a price as Arsenal defender Kolo Toure was stretchered off just before half-time with a suspected groin injury.

Drogba, who had a knee operation last month leading to fears he might miss the biennial tournament, came off after 68 minutes to be replaced by Boubacar Sanogo.

The Chelsea star said: ”The game was tough but we made it easier by scoring the first goal.”

Fabisch reflected: ”The Ivory Coast were simply stronger. They have players who can pounce on the slightest mistake like Drogba.”

There have now been 37 goals at this year’s competition which compares favourably to the 26 goals at the same stage in 2006 backing up the feeling that this has the makings of a vintage edition of the biennial tournament.

Saturday sees the Cup caravan pitch up at Kumasi with titleholders Egypt out to follow up their impressive Cameroon victory against Sudan, with the Indomitable Lions facing a survival game against Zambia.

At Sudan’s team hotel a fight broke out when an Egyptian television crew attempted to interview Sudan players ahead of Saturday’s clash.

Fists flew and the police were called with the Egyptian media men saying they planned to file a complaint.

On a day of disputes Zambia’s players were reportedly prepared to boycott the game in a row over the $2 000 bonus for their win over Sudan. – AFP