The surprises kept coming in the African Nations Cup Final as they had done in the previous rounds, including the semi-finals, which were but a healthy warning of what was to come. Zambia finished up winning the tournament and they did it in a protracted final, agonising, almost never-ending and full of emotion to the last second, to the last penalty kick.
From the first minute you could see that they had studied the opposition well and they had a clear game plan. They waited for set pieces. You could see they had planned their corners against Ivory Coast’s normal zonal marking. Their second weapon which was obvious throughout the game was to counter attack quickly from a dropped off position and taking advantage of their mobility and pace up front with Katongo and Mayuka.
After the injury to Musonda in the opening minutes they didn’t change their shape and Nyambe came on and strangely he was substituted later on by F Katongo (10) brother of C Katongo (11) who has had a great tournament. The introduction of the former allowed Zambia to maintain their pace and penetration up front.
As the game went on, the teams became stretched, and Zambia were threatening with their pace and mobility up front (Mayuka and C Katongo) and they penetrated, through pace and ability in the wide areas (Kalaba and F Katongo); they were up against stronger opponents who therefore had problems with mobility controlling the space around them (K Toure and Bamba). Sinkala and Chansa controlled midfield and Sunzu especially did well in defence against Drogba.
In the last few minutes there were possibly decisive chances for both teams, like the shot against the post by Katongo in the case of Zambia or the move and shot by Gradel for Ivory Coast. In the end Zambia won after an extended extra time and long penalty shoot out which reached 18 penalties, the decisive one by Sunzu, the centre back, which sealed a fine performance and good championship for him.
As for Ivory Coast, they started as favourites because of the quality and strength of their players. But their balanced system of 1-4-2-3-1 did not produce because of the excellent defensive work by Zambia. And maybe because of Drogba’s penalty miss. Their full backs, Gosso and Tiene, often took up attacking positions, Drogba was always the target man up front and they tried to penetrate wide with Kalou and Gervinho to create space for the arrival of Yaya Toure centrally. However, in the end they didn’t threaten Zambia often enough because they packed their own half and worked hard to close down space to give the opposition no options. Yaya Toure dropped deep to dictate play and the team lost something between lines to create more chances. This was evident in the 29th minute of the first half.
At the start of the second half, Ivory Coast changed their strategy and dropped off waiting for Zambia to attack and then attack with more space after regaining possession. As well they introduced Gradel for Kalou which gave them more penetration and depth wide left with Tiené who attacked more. Afterwards, another tactical change saw Wilfried (12) come on for Yaya Touré and this had an impact on the way the team played becoming more direct with high balls. The first challenge he won in the air was a threat. Using a more obvious 1-4-4-2, although Wilfried dropped between lines, Ivory Coast based their play on the ability of Gervinho and Gradel and the physical strength of the strikers Drogba and Wilfried, but it wasn’t enough to upset the organisation and dynamic of Zambia who were still a threat on the counter.
Focussing a bit more on the systems they used, Ivory Coast used a 1-4-2-3-1 with an attacking variation of 1-4-4-2 after the substitutions. They had a team with more individual quality than their opponents, although, as we have said, they never controlled the game at any point. They had not lost since November 2010 and in this final they had two different sides to their play. The first was a reasonable balance between their lines and acceptable organisation, in which they could create chances by good movement of the players in their second line, and thanks to good play and ability on both wings, especially on the right (Gervinho). They had more effectiveness wide than centrally as they had two centre midfielders, Tiote and Zokora.
In the second half and in extra time they used an attacking variation (1-4-4-2). Gradually they lost intensity, had more space between their lines, less organisation in the balance between defence and attack, used direct play too much, made mistakes in transitions and in passing accuracy and they did not know how to control the game. After extra time, they failed in the penalty shoot out after their ninth penalty which was taken by Gervinho.
As for Zambia, they used a 1-4-4-2, with a team that worked very hard, had discipline and good organisation. Their players relied on their physical attributes and good covering defensively (the two centre midfield players, Sinkala and Chansa). They imposed a good tempo on the game, maintained good distances and balance between their lines, dropped off quickly and orderly so they had numerical superiority in defence and got players behind the ball. Added to this they pressed well, sometimes in the opposition half, and they were able to react well in extra time. They were limited in attacking options, although at times they were effective with their pace, better in the wide areas and they showed good mobility approaching the final third.
What stood out was the mobility of Mayuka and their superiority, the movements behind defenders in the wide areas and their counter attacks, Katongo with his mobility, his ability to drop and receive between lines and his movement behind defenders on both wings, good ability on the ball wide especially by Kalaba and the very evident team work by the two centre midfield players.