An impeccable penalty shoot-out put Egypt through to the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday, Mohamed Salah converting the fifth successful spot-kick in Douala to confirm a meeting with Morocco. After a tight two goalless hours against Ivory Coast, a single save in the penalty roulette by Egypt’s substitute goalkeeper Mohamed Abou ‘Gabaski’ Gabal, from Eric Bailly, ultimately made the difference.
Poor Bailly. He had been outstanding. Such high stakes can make the very best players tentative, and there was palpable nervousness, especially in the opening 45 minutes — even in Salah. Partly, it was the pressure of the occasion. Clearly, a mistrust of the playing surface preyed on minds. The Japoma Stadium has developed a notoriety for its uneven bounce and unstable turf through the tournament, Ivory Coast suffering particularly badly during their group-phase draw with Sierra Leone.
Salah was confounded by a couple of erratic diversions of the ball early on. For a footballer so accustomed to exploiting his featherlight touch and close control, there’s an evident frustration when the grass becomes an opponent almost as challenging as the excellent Bailly, a towering presence in the Ivorian defence up until the penalty shoot-out.
But Salah is nothing if not inventive. Hence the high, dipping lob he launched from distance, and which surprised Ivorian goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare who needed to tip over the bar. It was one of several Sangare saves to keep out long-range efforts, including a speculative one arrowed in from distance by Omar Marmoush and a crisp volley from Salah.
Come the second half, there would, at last, be a classic Salah dribble to savour. It lifted the Pharaohs. Moments later, another Salah surge and cross invited Amr El Solia to shoot but he wasted the opportunity.
Egypt were gaining momentum. Their goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy had kept out an acrobatic Ibrahim Sangare volley, a snapshot from Sebastien Haller, and would react with agility to push a Haller header over the crossbar. But Ivory Coast had suffered a significant setback, Franck Kessie, the governor of their powerful midfield, withdrew, clutching his rib during the first half.
Their wingers, another forte, had been engaged only intermittently. When they replaced one Max Gradel, who had started at outside left, with another, Wilfried Zaha, they swapped Gradel’s low impact for Zaha’s hot temper. The Crystal Palace man was booked at the end of his abrasive 50 minutes on the field.
Egypt brought on Trezeguet, who immediately zipped an effort across the Ivory Coast goal. But close to the end of the 90 minutes, they were required to make a substitution manager Carlos Queiroz would never have chosen.
El Shenawy had just pulled off a fine double save, blocking a Zaha drive and scooping the ricochet clear of Haller when he indicated a muscle strain. He had been named the best keeper of the tournament’s group phase; Egypt would depend on a back-up gloveman, Gabaski, for the rest of their tense tussle for a place in the last eight.
Gabaski was called on to make a fine, athletic leap to deny Ibrahim Sangare, after Trezeguet, Mohamed Sherif and Zizo had gone close for Egypt and Trezeguet skied an angled attempt having been deftly set up by Salah. When Badra Sangare safely clutched another Trezeguet shot after 120 minutes of attrition, penalties beckoned.