Runners-up in 2015, Ghana started their latest Africa Cup of Nations bid with victory over Uganda thanks to Andre Ayew’s penalty on Tuesday, while Egypt drew 0-0 with Mali on their long-awaited return to the tournament.
A terrible playing surface in Port-Gentil contributed to making it a disappointing day of football, without a goal from open play, that completed the first round of fixtures in the group stage of this year’s competition in Gabon.
Ghana are now in control of Group D and are one of only three teams to have won a match so far along with Senegal and DR Congo.
West Ham United star Ayew converted from the spot just after the half-hour mark in the day’s first game after Isaac Isinde had fouled Asamoah Gyan inside the area.
Ghana then withstood Ugandan pressure in the second half to win 1-0 and end their poor recent record against the Cranes that had seen them fail to win in three encounters in qualifying for the 2015 Cup of Nations and 2018 World Cup.
“We can play better. In the first half we dominated the game but in the second half we knew the result was the most important thing and we played to win,” said Ghana’s Israeli coach Avram Grant.
The Black Stars, who lost on penalties to the Ivory Coast in the 2015 final, are looking to win the trophy for the first since 1982.
Their hopes will not be helped if they lose left-back Abdul Rahman Baba of Schalke, who was stretchered off in the first half with an apparent hamstring injury. Grant later described the player’s prospects of recovering as “50-50”.
Uganda were making their first appearance at the Cup of Nations since 1978, when they lost to Ghana in the final, and they will have to wait a little longer for their first goal and win at the competition in almost four decades.
“In 39 years we have not been there and in the first half we had an element of stage fright,” admitted the Cranes’ Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevic.
Uganda will next take on Egypt, who made their own comeback at the Cup of Nations after a seven-year absence in a 0-0 stalemate with Mali.
EL HADARY RECORD
The state of the playing surface and the humidity in the equatorial conditions were factors in making it a poor game, most notable for a substitute appearance by Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary that allowed him to become the oldest player ever to appear at the Cup of Nations.
The 44-year-old came off the bench in the first half to replace the injured Ahmed El Shennawy and beat the old mark set by compatriot Hossam Hassan, who was 39 when he played at the 2006 Cup of Nations.
Egypt’s star man Mohamed Salah failed to fire and Marwan Mohsen had the best chance with a header that was turned over.
“We would be much happier of course if we had won but this will not really change too much what we need to do in our coming games,” said Egypt’s Argentine coach Hector Cuper, who admitted concern as to the fitness of El Shennawy ahead of medical tests on Wednesday.
It will feel like an opportunity missed for Mali, who had initially been the better team in what may as well have been a home game for them.
Crowds have so far been sparse at this Cup of Nations, but the large Malian community in Port-Gentil – an oil-rich seaport perched on Gabon’s western tip – turned out to give their side colourful and vociferous backing and made up most of the attendance of 12 600.
The action swings back to the capital Libreville on Wednesday as hosts Gabon entertain Burkina Faso and Cameroon meet minnows Guinea-Bissau in Group A.