Gabon became only the fourth Nations Cup host to fall at the first hurdle when they were held 0-0 by Cameroon at the Stade de Libreville on Sunday, ending their Afcon campaign after just three matches.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang endured a subdued evening, but could have settled the contest and sent the hosts through in stoppage time when he thumped an effort against the post, before Didier Ibrahim Ndong’s rebound was deflected over the bar.
A point was enough to take the conservative Indomitable Lions through to the quarter-finals with five points, although they qualify as group runners-up after Burkina Faso’s 2-0 victory over Guinea-Bissau in Port-Gentil.
The Stallions’ 2-0 triumph takes them through as group winners and resigns the Djurtus to bottom spot in Group A on their Nations Cup debut.
Buoyed up by the fervent home support and the potential cost of failure, Gabon started vibrantly, crafting several chances within the opening minutes of the match as the visitors struggled to settle.
Andre Poko’s early cross from the right was cut out before it reached Aubameyang, while the Borussia Dortmund hitman missed the kind of chance he typically buries in the third minute when he tapped wide from a handful of yards after being fed through by Denis Bouanga.
It was a miss that, for long swathes of the match, appeared as though it would prove costly for the Panthers, and Aubameyang in particular appeared shackled by regret after his horror miss, cutting a subdued figure for much of the first half.
Bouanga, meanwhile, was not to be discouraged, and continued his tournament trend of being Gabon’s brightest talent.
Only a minute after Aubameyang’s miss, he tore into the Cameroonian box, fashioned himself a chance only to fire over, and then ploughed another shot wide from the end of the box inside the first 10 minutes.
However, as Cameroon bedded in, Gabon’s intensity steadily wore off, with news of Burkina Faso’s goal in Franceville perhaps discouraging more adventurous play from two sides whose fates still hung in the balance.
Bouanga still remained the game’s outstanding individual, and maybe sensing the game needed something to liven it up, attempted to lob Joseph Ondoa with an audacious cross-cum-shot from the touchline in the 20th minute, forcing a leaping save from the Cameroon stopper.
The Indomitable Lions, without axed frontmen Vincent Aboubakar and Clinton N’Jie, offered little going forward, instead preferring to bed in and attempt to hit the hosts on the counter-attack.
While Christian Bassogog offered glimpses of the brilliance that saw him named Man of the Match against Guinea-Bissau, it was Robert Ndip Tambe who went closest for Cameroon, sending one shot into the arms of the nervy Didier Ovono and another high into the Libreville night.
In the second half, it was again Bouanga who went closest for the hosts when his curling free kick was beaten away by Ondoa, while at the other end, Ovono was called into action to make a very nervy clearance to deny Benjamin Moukandjo, taking out ball and man to the bemusement of the Cameroon fans.
With ten minutes still on the clock, and with yet another Gabon attack breaking down at the feet of a visiting defender, the crowd began to leave in droves.
The depleting terraces were reflected in the Panthers’ increasingly drained display, and while Aubameyang’s late chance set the remaining pulses racing, the hosts limped out of the tournament, plunging it into uncertainty.
By Ed Dove
@EddyDove on Twitter