LIBREVILLE, Gabon -- Three points from a superb African Nations Cup semifinal as Egypt defeated Burkina Faso on penalties.
1. Egypt spot-on to take place in the final
Egypt will contest the final of the African Nations Cup on Sunday, overcoming Burkina Faso in an extraordinary penalty shoot-out as their semifinal finished 1-1 after extra time.
Mohamed Salah and Aristide Bance scored excellent second-half goals in a match dominated by the Burkinabe before the Pharoahs progressed in the most dramatic fashion possible. They seemed to be heading out when Burkina Faso goalkeeper, Herve Koffi, saved superbly from Abdallah Said with the first action of the shoot-out. But after six flawless kicks from either side, Koffi brought it upon himself to take Burkina Faso's fourth. His opposite number, Essam El Hadary, saved and repeated the trick when, with Chelsea's Bertrand Traore needing to score to keep the Stallions in the game, he dove to his left and sent Egypt through.
Egypt had yet to concede a goal in this competition prior to Wednesday but looked unconvincing in the early stages. It was El Hadary who, under minimal pressure from Prejuce Nakoulma, flapped a sixth-minute cross straight out towards the Burkina Faso midfielder Blati Toure just inside the area. Toure's lofted shot was goal-bound until El Hadari redeemed himself, clawing the ball away to his right.
It meant that, moments later, El Hadary passed 10 hours without conceding at a Cup of Nations finals. At the other end, Egypt first showed their class after 17 minutes when Mahmoud "Trezeguet" Hassan cut inside and curled a fine effort just wide.
The first half continued along a similar pattern, with Egypt content to allow Burkina Faso possession and spring forward when the occasion presented itself. Trezeguet worried Koffi with a bouncing shot before half-time and the Stallions, dominant but showing signs of frustration, were too often restricted to efforts from distance.
They came closer within minutes of the interval when Traore struck a left-footed free-kick that El Hadary batted wide. In the 57th minute El Hadary was tested again, diverting Nakoulma's low centre away from Bance after the winger had reached the byline.
Burkina Faso were on top but suffered with 25 minutes left when, following a rare spell of attacking possession from Egypt, Salah curled a delicious left-footed finish into the top left corner after a precise lay-off by Kahraba.
The smart money was on Egypt seeing it out from there; instead Bance, chesting down a cross from captain Charles Kabore before volleying home, provided his bolt from the blue. Burkina Faso looked the more likely winners before extra-time, too, with El Hadary making a late save from substitute Banou Diawara. Nakoulma spurned two half-chances during the extra 30 minutes but the pressure was not enough to create a winner in open play and Burkina Faso were punished in the cruellest possible fashion.
2. Remarkable El Hadary does it for Egypt
When Egypt needed a helping hand, it came from the remarkable El Hadary. The 44-year-old had already brought up a milestone during the first half here, passing the 10-hour mark without conceding a goal in a Cup of Nations finals. He is now one win away from a remarkable fifth continental title and in some ways, it feels written in the stars.
Egypt were firmly second-best throughout Wednesday's semifinal, with El Hadary making a number of useful saves before the shoot-out despite looking uncertain with crosses into the box. Their critics state that their approach is not positive enough, although those inside the camp point out that Hector Cuper's setup is well-suited to tournament football and brings results.
It certainly has done the job thus far, though Egypt have yet to face opponents with genuine potency in the final third and on the evidence of this and their quarterfinal with Morocco, they ought to be punished by more clinical opponents.
Egypt deploy a deep, compact defensive block, ceding possession and relying on Salah in particular to deliver in the attacking third. He did just that here, also converting his penalty in the shoot-out, but Egypt barely created a chance elsewhere in the game. Surely a more proactive approach will be needed if Ghana are their opponents in the final.
The result may not have been fair but equally, it showed the value of having big-game experience and calm nerves in such situations. El Hadary has both qualities in abundance and is on the brink of leading Egypt to their eighth Cup of Nations win.
3. Inspirational Bance deserved better
There is something about Bance and AFCON semifinals and he hardly deserved to be on the losing team here after another poignant display. The 32-year-old striker has had a curious career, taking in 19 clubs across 12 different countries, but his taste for the big occasion could hardly be more refined.
It was Bance who scored a goal and decisive penalty in the Stallions' historic semifinal victory over Ghana in 2013; it was Bance who emerged from the bench on Saturday to fire in the late free-kick that set them on course for a 2-0 last-eight win over Tunisia. Could he rise to the occasion again?
Bance's performance was little short of heroic against Egypt even if it had raised an eyebrow when he was named in Paolo Duarte's starting lineup here. Bance's main appeal and impact tend to come as an all-action substitute; this time he was expected to trouble a hitherto impregnable Egypt defence from the start and hope those around him could make use of his 6-foot-4 presence.
Much of Burkina Faso's best first-half work came from Bance, who held the ball up effectively and had his own sights of goal too. One ultimately harmless effort in the 16th minute owed everything to his tracking back to catch Ibrahim Salah napping before the move started; an overhead kick, lashed over the bar, nine minutes later was more eye-catching and that sense of theatre would not desert him later.
Bance's goal was as spectacular as it was unlikely at the time. He drilled a free-kick into the midriff of an uncertain El Hadary later and then, early in extra-time, shot narrowly wide of the near post. His replacement by Alain Traore in the 103rd minute was greeted by a standing ovation from the 19,000-strong crowd. It had been one of this tournament's most memorable individual performances and spoke of the attitude and application behind everything Burkina Faso did.
Ultimately, their attacking approach and fresh, incisive work on the ball deserved far more than it received. Bance may not have many more days like this before retirement but he has been instrumental in helping Burkina Faso become one of Africa's most exciting new powers.