(Reuters) – Powerhouses Cameroon and Ivory Coast both battled back from a goal down to avoid shock defeats as they drew 1-1 with Mali and Guinea respectively in the African Nations Cup on Tuesday.
Mali were six minutes away from their first ever win over Cameroon in a raw, bruising encounter when Ambroise Oyongo struck an equaliser for the Indomitable Lions, cancelling out Sambou Yatabare’s opener.
Mali, third in the last two Nations Cups, thought they had grabbed a last-minute win when Yatabare headed in a rebound following Seydou Keita’s free kick, but it was ruled offside.
Ivory Coast were down to 10 men and trailing to Mohamed Yattara’s goal against Guinea before Seydou Doumbia saved their blushes in another full-bloodied encounter which saw Gervinho dismissed just before the hour.
The AS Roma winger, Ivory Coast’s top player, was given his marching orders for lashing out at an opponent off the ball.
Tuesday’s Group D double bill in Malabo completed the opening round of matches which produced five draws in eight games and no goaless stalemates.
The two games were played before a full house in Malabo with all fans screened for the Ebola virus and ordered to wash their hands before they were allowed into the stadium.
Cameroon coach Volker Finke promised before the game that there would be no repeat of his side’s World Cup fiasco, where they lost all three games after their preparations were interrupted by a pay row.
“I really think the spirit, the mentality has changed. The last two or three months there has been a closed dressing room,” he said.
The teams were meeting for the sixth time and the first since Cameroon beat Mali 3-0 in the 2002 Nations Cup semi-finals, ending Mali’s hopes of winning the title on home soil.
In an intense contest with 41 fouls, Yatabare put the Eagles ahead in the 71st minute, lashing the ball home after Keita’s curling free kick found him unmarked at the far post.
But Mali lost concentration near the end, allowing Oyongo to latch on to a long ball into the area and slot past Soumbeyla Diakite after some neat ball control.
Guinea, having overcome the ravages of the Ebola virus in their country which forced them to play all their home qualifiers at a neutral venue, stunned the Ivorians when Yattara fired them ahead with a superb first-half strike.
Ibrahima Traore hit the crossbar shortly after Gervinho’s dismissal and the Elephants took advantage of their let-off when Wilfried Bony laid the ball into the path of Doumbia, who side-footed the equaliser with 17 minutes left.