Malawi’s Flames, against all odds, ensured the door to the promised Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) knockout stage is not shut completely after giving Senegal a scare in a goalless draw on Tuesday evening in Cameroon.
But after the final whistle and VAR false hopes, the Group B narrative shifted instantly from the Flames' stoic defending to mathematical permutations of what Malawi’s third place finish on four points mean in the context of other five groups’ members.
The rules of the competition say top two teams from each group—Senegal (five points) and Guinea (four points and better head-to-head than Malawi) for pool B— shall seal automatic qualification to the round of 16, alongside four teams that finish as third best in their pools.
The AFCON Regulations Article 14 says in the case of a tie on points—as was the case between Malawi and Guinea in Group B, “the teams will be ranked according to the following criteria in the order listed below:
“The greatest number of points obtained in the matches between the teams concerned; the best goal difference in the matches between the teams concerned; the greatest number of goals scored in the matches between the teams concerned; the greatest number of away goals scored in the matches between the concerned teams,” reads articles 14.2.1,2,3,5 and 5.
Therefore, while Tuesday’s result was enough to grant the Lions of Teranga safe passage to the next stage, for Malawi all is subject to permutations.
Cape Verde are direct competitors for Malawi after also finishing their Group A assignments on four points, in pool C, Ghana and Comoros have two and three points, so they can not compete with Malawi.
Comoros stunned Ghana 3-2 on Tuesday evening.
In Group D, either Guinea Bissau or Sudan can join the third place race as they have one point each ahead of their respective assignments, then Sierra Leone (two points) or Algeria (one point) in pool E followed by Tunisia in group F.
Therefore, the Flames face an anxious wait in the next hours for the outcomes of Guinea-Bissau v Nigeria (on Wednesday), Gambia v Tunisia (Thursday), Sierra Leone v Equatorial Guinea, Sudan v Egypt (Wednesday) and Algeria v Ivory (Thursday).
On Tuesday, the Lions of Teranga must have been grateful walking off the pitch in one piece.
This time around, it was not Gabadinho Mhango providing the scare, but a watertight human wall, which debutant goalkeeper Charles Thom and raw defender Lawrence Chaziya guarded jealously, frustrating the African giants.
Senegal caged Mhango, body checking and elbowing him into submission in the opening 15 minutes, but the Lions of Teranga could simply not break the Flames defensive discipline which man-of-the-match goalkeeper Charles Thom epitomised.
Yet all seemed the stuff of a big gamble before the game. Coach Mario Marinica, returning to the dugout for Malawi after missing games against Guinea and Zimbabwe due to Covid, opted to throw the Silver Strikers keeper to the deep end instead of featuring experienced William Thole in the absence of bedridden Ernest Kakhobwe.
Furthermore, striker Richard Mbulu made way for Micium Mhone, Stanley Sanudi moved from right-wing to right-back, Gomezgani Chirwa shifted to left-back role.
However, there was no transition from defence, midfield to front line with balls pumped forward aimlessly leaving Mhango and Khuda Mayaba to run endlessly in search for the ball.
With such tinkering, the Romanian coach had rejigged the formation from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2.
His Senegal counterpart Aliou Cisse maintained 4-3-3.
Senegal recalled goalkeeper Eduardo Mendy and defender Kalidou Koulibaly from Covid induced isolation.
By starting with four defenders, Marinica got it right as that meant the Flames had the numbers to deal with Senegal’s fluid front-three which Sadio Mane led while left-winger Fransisco Madinga and Sanudi neutralised the pace of Senegal right winger Bruno Sarr.
However, keeping Sarr quiet was not an easy task he nearly fashioned Senegal’s goal in the seventh minute.
Sarr rolled the ball into the 18-yard box where Mane skipped Sanudi’s tackle to flick the ball past sprawling goalkeeper Thom and over the post.
In reply, Mhango, after controlling a long ball from the left wing, turned and tried to shoot but Senegal defenders found their footing and shut the door to the Mendy’s goal posts.
Minutes later, Mhango went down injured after Koulibaly’s challenge.
Afterwards, Senegal lost possession to Muyaba whose long range effort, hit with rage and hunger, flew into the blue sky.
Senegal targeted Mhango again with Cheikh Kouyate elbowing the Orlando Pirates man in a heading duel and this time around, the Crystal Palace midfielder received a yellow card.
Afterwards, Malawi won a freekick in the 31st minute but Mhango’s effort was deflected out for a corner-kick.
Thereafter, Muyaba picked Mhango with a delightful pass in the 37th minute but Senegal defenders closed Gabadinho’s way forcing him to retreat and lose possession.
The Flames came knocking again. Chirwa overlapped on the left before dispatching a shot from a tight angle where Mendy tipped over for a corner-kick.
Then Senegal reminded the Malawians that the Lions were still around when Diallo opened fire but the Flames’ defence deflected the effort away.
The second-half clicked into top gear with Diallo nearly scoring via a flick from a free-kick but Thom leapt to keep the effort over the bar.
A few minutes later, Gaye scorched the palms of Thom with a swerving free-kick but the debutant tipped it over.
Malawi survived again minutes later as Chembezi Dennis made a last ditch clearance to deny Senegal in the 59th minute.
Sensing trouble, Marinica pulled out weary Muyaba and Micium Mhone for Yamikani Chester and Mbulu who eventually had his penalty appeals ignored after he thought he was fouled in the box.
Senegal coach Cisse also responded by withdrawing Dia for Pape Gueye who came close to scoring with a flying header which went into the terraces.
Malawi thought they had won a penalty when Chirwa was floored just as he was inching into the penalty box by Gueye but the referee, after VAR check, ruled there was no sufficient contact.
Eventually, Marinica dragged out Chimwemwe Idana for Robin Ngalande while Madinga paved the way for Gerald Phiri Junior.
Eventual man-of-match Thom came to the rescue of Malawi again with a point blank save to deny Camara.
That proved to be Senegal’s real last chance of the game. Malawi held on for a point in a game that saw the Flames fashion just one shot on target from 10 attempts against three for Senegal who also made 10 attempts.
It was the fourth meeting between the two teams in all competitions with Senegal winning twice, losing once and the last ending in a draw.
Malawi are ranked on a distant 129th place on Fifa rankings compared to 20th position for Senegal who are also Africa’s top rated side.
Senegal: Eduardo Mendy, Cisse (Toure), Mbaye, Mendy, Sarr, Dia (Pape Gueye), Kalidou Koulibaly, Balde, Cheikh Kouyate, Idrissa Gaye, Sadio Mane
Malawi: Charles Thom, Stanley Sanudi, Chembezi Dennis, Lawrence Chaziya, Gomezgani Chirwa, John Banda, Fransisco Madinga, Chimwemwe Idana, Micium Mhone, Gabadinho Mhango, Khuda Muyaba.