LIBREVILLE -- Three thoughts from Cameroon's 2-1 win over Egypt, which sees them crowned African Nations Cup champions.
1. Aboubakar's stunning goal gives Cameroon the title
Cameroon are African Nations Cup champions for the fifth time, and they could not have won a more unlikely title than this. Nobody gave Hugo Broos' remoulded side, missing a number of key players, a chance of coming home from Gabon with the trophy, but a brilliant 88th-minute volley from substitute Vincent Aboubakar turned this final on its head and brought wild, emotional celebrations minutes later. It was a goal fit to win any final, anywhere, and a victory to soften the steeliest of hearts.
The odds had been on a tentative final between teams whose 10 matches in Gabon had brought just 12 goals. Egypt almost blew such thoughts out of the water within 90 seconds; Abdallah Said was found in space by Mohamed Salah inside the area, but keeper Fabrice Ondoa saved sharply to his right.
With their next genuine chance, they went one better. Again Salah, located on the right of the box after a slick spell build-up, was the architect, but this time it was Mohamed Elneny making the run from deep. At a tight angle and with Ondoa perhaps expecting a cross, he found the roof of the net with a vicious strike inside the near post.
Egypt looked comfortable at this stage. A few Cameroon efforts led by Christian Bassogog were dealt with, and when the in-form right-winger was given a shooting opportunity by a sloppy punch from Essam El-Hadary, the resulting shot flew out towards the corner flag.
That was as much as Cameroon offered in the first half. Egypt could pick their moments to break and looked slicker in all areas of the pitch. Aboubakar, the Besiktas striker, was introduced for the quiet Robert Ndip Tambe at the interval, and there was an extra thrust to their efforts once the game resumed.
It was still something of a surprise when they equalised just before the hour. Nicolas N'Koulou had replaced the injured Adolphe Teikeu during the opening period, and the centre-back's contribution was emphatic, rising to thump a brave header past El Hadary from Benjamin Moukandjo's left-sided cross.
Now the complexion was entirely different. N'Koulou put another header over as Cameroon, buoyant now and backed by a febrile crowd, found another gear. Jacques Zoua, with options ahead of him to both sides, then shot harmlessly wide after a rapid break. Moukandjo, found unmarked by a Bassogog centre in the 78th minute, spooned the best chance high over the top as Egypt tottered.
But then, as extra-time seemed all but certain, came Aboubakar's stunning contribution. Latching on to a long pass from Sebastien Siani, he controlled the ball before knocking it over the head of Aly Gabr and cracking a low volley past a rooted El Hadary. Stade de L'Amitie, full of Cameroon supporters who had travelled or lived in Libreville, went berserk; a remarkable final had been turned completely on its head and Cameroon had their trophy.
2. Experience helps Cameroon achieve the impossible
What an achievement this is by Cameroon and Broos. Their build-up to the tournament was blighted by the withdrawals of eight players named in the coach's provisional squad, Liverpool centre-back Joel Matip among them. A penny for their thoughts now, as a team virtually bereft of household names celebrated wildly in front of a fiercely partisan support.
Broos' reliance on young players like Ondoa and Bassogog has been well documented, but it was two senior players who made the difference here. It had seemed like a match too far for this side, but N'Koulou and Aboubakar, relative veterans at 26 and 25 but with considerable top-level experience behind them, tipped the scales and achieved the impossible.
Nkoulou, the Lyon defender, has had to kick his heels on the bench for most of the tournament but put his head in where it counted to equalise despite taking a knock for his troubles. Aboubakar had only played 88 minutes in this tournament before his half-time introduction for the struggling Tambe and provided the flourish by which this final will always be remembered. It is hard to remember a game of this standing at any level that has been won by such a piece of individual brilliance; this was the finish of a player who can be brilliant on his day and it showed the value of keeping a close-knit squad happy.
That can have been no easy task for Broos, who has made brave decisions in devising this success and risked alienating the public early in his tenure. Nobody is questioning him now.
3. Cuper, Egypt wilt at the last
For Egypt, this was an agonising defeat after looking in control for an hour. For their coach Hector Cuper, this was a new near-miss in a career that has unfairly been dogged by a "nearly man" tag that has followed him for a decade and a half.
This was the sixth final Cuper has lost, and it may be the most painful. Nobody could have seen what was coming when Elneny opened the scoring so emphatically, and up until the seconds before N'Koulou's equaliser, it would have taken a brave onlooker to see anything but serene progress to an eighth African Nations Cup title.
How differently things turned out, although perhaps the warning signs had been there already. Egypt rode their luck at times in their knockout ties with Morocco and Burkina Faso and despite founding much of their work on a solid defensive block, gave up a number of chances. Once Cameroon felt emboldened enough to test them here they never looked secure, and as this game went on, they visibly wilted among the relentlessness of their opponents' attacks. A midfield that the returning Elneny had controlled before the break became stretched, and Egypt simply could not cope with Cameroon's speed and physicality.
Not that this should go down as a failure. Egypt showed in Gabon that after three successive absences from this tournament, they are back in business -- and they will surely improve from here. But there will be plenty of regret that they failed to see this one out, and nobody will be feeling that anguish more keenly than their manager.