AFCON quarter-finals offer tasty mix as Ghana start today
The right ingredients seem to be in place to make the knockout rounds of the African Cup of Nations, which reaches the quarterfinals stage this weekend, a real football feast for fans a little short-changed by the group games.
Hosts South Africa have survived, so have the tournament favourites Ivory Coast, the fairytale underdogs from the Cape Verde Islands, the unexpected wildcards Togo and Burkina Faso along with traditional powerhouses Ghana, Nigeria and Mali.
All that is needed now after a stop-start group phase is more quality on the field, more goals and more fans.
The remaining teams look easily capable of raising the profile of the tournament with eight matches still to be played including the final in National Stadium on February 10.
This weekend’s four games begin in Port Elizabeth on Saturday where outsiders Cape Verde Islands take on a strong-looking Ghana team, seeking their fifth continental title, but their first since 1982.
The attention then switches to hosts South Africa who face the west Africans from Mali in front of what will be a capacity 56 000 crowd at the Moses Madhiba Stadium in Durban.
Not only will South Africa be looking for a place in the last four but also to gain some revenge for their defeat by Mali at the same stage in 2002.
Sunday’s action starts with the clash of the unbeaten heavyweights: Ivory Coast and hard-to-beat Nigeria, who have reached this stage despite their coach Stephen Keshi repeatedly saying his young team is in a period of transition.
Ivory Coast, chasing a second title since their only success 21 years ago, look too strong for Nigeria but their talisman and captain Didier Drogba, who has seen too many campaigns end in failure, is taking nothing for granted.
“We know what to expect, it is going to be very tough,” he said after scoring in their 2-2 draw with Algeria on Wednesday.
“It’s too early to talk of titles, but we can still dream.”
That game is at the magnificently-appointed Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg before the action switches to Nelspruit where the sand-covered pitch at the Mbombela Stadium looks more suited to beach volleyball than international football.
The surprisingly impressive Burkina Faso and unpredictable Togo, who qualified for the later stages for the first time in eight attempts, will have to deal with the pitch in their bid to reach the last four.
All four games have their obvious attractions, but there is no doubt which one will capture the imagination of football romantics watching on TV around the world – Ghana’s clash with Cape Verde on Saturday.
Cape Verde are the smallest nation ever to compete in the finals, and coach Lucio Antunes is a friend of Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho.
What might have been overlooked is that despite their obvious limitations in terms of international experience and the strength of their domestic league, Antunes has forged a Mourinho-like work ethic into his team and the sum is greater than the individual parts.
Antunes does not give much away when he speaks other than to say he has met his objectives in getting Cape Verde this far, but there is some talent in the side, most obviously from the self-styled Platini (Luis Soares) in attack, Ryan Mendes in midfield and captain Nando in defence.
Ghana, another side in development according to coach Kwesi Appiah, have talent and experience in almost every position and if skipper Asamoah Gyan is on form as he was in Monday’s 3-0 win over Niger, Cape Verde will find it hard to keep him quiet.
Once that match is over, the attention will switch to the hosts, who finished top of Group A after a win against Angola and draws against Cape Verde and Morocco.
While South Africa will fancy their chances of reaching the semifinals, Mali boast one of the stars of the tournament so far in former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita.