Just four games remain in the action-packed 28th Africa Cup of Nations. The tournament has provided a great platform for Africa’s national teams to display their skills, and proven that so-called minnows cannot be written off easily. The two host nations, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, have performed well, spurred on by their home fans.
The quality of the newly-built and renovated stadiums, such as the Stade de l'Amitié in Gabon, have brought praise, hosting eye-catching free-flowing football. The semi-final line up sees surprise package Zambia take on Ghana in the Equatorial Guinean city of Bata while Mali play the star-studded Ivory Coast in Libreville, Gabon.
Pre-tournament favourites, Ivory Coast have lived up to their billing and are yet to concede. Their likely opponents in the Final, Ghana, has shown the quality and depth in their squad. The co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon proved, alongside the likes of Zambia and Sudan, that team spirit and tactical organisation can surpass individual talent, to the detriment tournament flops, Senegal. The group stages registered 61 goals in total with an average of 2.5 per games with Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba and Christopher Katongo of Zambia going head-to-head for the title of top goal scorer.
Although major teams such as Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon failed to qualify, the championships have not been without star players. Morocco’s Houssine Kharja valiantly failed to drag his lethargic team past the group stages. The Guinean pair of Ibrahima Traoré and Abdoul Camara dazzled, marking themselves out as names for the future. Ghana’s midfield dynamo Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu has ensured that the absence of Michael Essien has gone unnoticed.
Despite the footballing positives, the tournament has come in for some criticism. The standard of refereeing, with dubious offside calls and questionable penalty awards, in particular has aggravated fans. Many games have suffered from poor attendances. Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa's failure to qualify, and bring their abundant fans with them, must take some of the blame, along with the cost of tickets pricing out many locals. Another controversy that threatened to cast dark clouds over the tournament was the $1m given to the Equatorial Guinean team by Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of Equatorial Guinea's president. The cash largesse was part of promise made by Obiang to pay the players a juicy bonus if the team were to win their opening game against Libya, which they did by a 1-0 score line. The US government has begun legal proceedings against Obiang to recover assets worth more than $70m and allegations of corruption by the president’s son are rife.
Group A saw the Zambian team exhibit its collective cohesion under the tutelage of energetic German coach Hervé Renard. The Chipolopolo finished top of the group with seven points and qualified for the quarter-finals alongside tournament co-hosts Equatorial Guinea who, after two wins and a loss, finished on six points. Surprise qualifiers Libya will also exit the tournament with their heads held high after placing a respectable third in the group and winning their first game at the continental showpiece in 30 years. One of the favourites to lift the trophy Senegal, with their array of firepower and household names, failed to lift their games and will be disappointed not to have registered a single point, finishing bottom of the group.
Group B saw the domination of the Ivory Coast continue with three assured and dominating performances. The Elephants last won the tournament in 1992 and superstitious fans point to the fact that a local coach was at the helm then, and former national team player and current coach Francis Zahoui seems to have instilled belief in his wards that this could be their year. The Ivory Coast finished top of their group on nine points. The Sudanese team has proved that football in their country is on the up after pipping Angola to second place on goal difference, with Burkina Faso ending a disappointing tournament in fourth place.
Group C co-hosts Gabon provided vast amounts of entertainment in their three group games with forward Pierre Emerick Aubemang proving not only to be a bundle of talent, but an eager crowd-pleaser who at times carried the hopes of the team on his young shoulders. Winning all their three games, they finished ahead of North African giants Tunisia, who qualified for the quarter-finals with six points. Morocco failed to live up to expectations with two loses in a row against Tunisia and Gabon, with their only points coming from a win against debutants Niger who finished in last place.
Group D saw Ghana top the group on seven points after defeating tournament debutants Botswana 1-0 in the opening game and grinding out a hard fought 2-0 win against Mali, who placed second. Group D witnessed the highest scoring match of the tournament so far as a youthful Guinean side dismantled what looked like a tired Botswana 6-1. Guinea and Botswana went on to occupy third and fourth respectively while Ghana and Mali made it through to the quarterfinals.
Mercurial winger Rainford Kalaba proved to be the difference between Zambia and Sudan after the southern African team defeated The Nile Crocodiles 3-0. In a match of attrition, Sudan’s blunt attack was shown up by the attacking flair of the Zambian team, and Sudanese defender Siefaldin Ali was dismissed as frustrations boiled over. Zambian captain Chris Katongo showed composure to convert the resulting penalty and cement a 3-0 lead. In Sudan’s first quarter-final appearance in 40 years, they were not outplayed and can take heart in their cup of nation performances that have shown how far Sudanese football has developed.
Mali were pitted against co-hosts Gabon in a hard-fought and absorbing quarter-final. The game ended in a 1-1 stalemate after 90 minutes, and neither team was able to use their chances in extra time. Mali triumphed 5-4 on penalties, with Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita netting the winning kick after Gabonese talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed the fifth penalty for the hosts. After a series a spectacular performances Aubameyang can look forward to a career at the highest level of world football. Mali coach Alain Giresse can view his team’s victory as a professional vindication, after he was sacked as Gabon coach following an early exit from the 2010 Cup of Nations in Angola. Mali will battle Ivory Coast for a place in the final.
Ivory Coast once again showed why they are considered the strongest team in Africa after an assured and confident performance against co-hosts Equatorial Guinea. Two goals from Chelsea hitman Didier Drogba and a spectacular free kick from Manchester City player and African footballer of the year Yaya Toure saw The Elephants brush aside the Guineans in their quest for the title. Ivory Coast are yet to concede a goal in the competition and remain strong favourites to secure a place in the final.
Ghana progressed to the semi-finals after Andre Ayew, son of legendary Ghanaian player Abedi Pele, scored the winner in the 101st minute against a determined Tunisian team. The highly-physical encounter saw the Ghanaians take the lead after only 10 minutes with a powerful header by captain John Mensah. But the Tunisians refused to capitulate against the world cup quarter finalists and equalised in the 42nd minute. This resolve eventually faded in extra time as Tunisian defender Aymen Abdennour was shown a straight red card and a goalkeeping error allowed Ayew to score the winner for Ghana. A semi-final encounter with Zambia stands in the way of them reaching the final.
On Wednesday, February 8, the battle will commence for a place in the final of Africa‘s biggest sporting event. The most excited final match up would be Ivory Coast versus Ghana, the two best teams on the continent. Mali and Zambia have not reached this stage without merit, and each enjoy passionate support from their travelling fans. The tournament has so far captured the imagination of football lovers the world round, and with the fixtures so finely poised the question remains, who will be crowned the champions of Africa?
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