Africa Cup of Nations 2013: Top Contenders Heading into Knockout Rounds

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 31, 2013

RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 26, Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast attacks on the wing during the 2013 African Cup of Nations match between Ivory Coast and Tunisia at Royal Bafokeng Stadium on January 26, 2013 in Rustenburg, South Africa. (Photo by Duif du Toit / Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Gallo Images/Getty Images

The Africa Cup of Nations group stage is over. Eight countries are left standing in pursuit of the championship and a spot in the Confederations Cup. The knockout stages will begin on Saturday with quarterfinal play.

Zambia, last year's surprise winner, was eliminated in the group stage. So there will definitely be a fresh champion, and there are a couple contenders that stand above the rest. That includes the Ivory Coast, which was favored entering the event.

Let's take a closer look at the Elephants and the two other countries with the best chance to win three more matches to claim the coveted trophy.


1. Ivory Coast

The Ivory Coast began the Africa Cup of Nations with top billing and nothing from their first three matches changed that status. The Elephants were able to win Group C with ease, racking up a tournament-leading seven goals in the process.

And that's exactly why they remain the favorite as they prepare to face Nigeria in the quarters. No country can match their attacking depth, which features a rejuvenated Gervinho, Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba, among others.

The only reason the Ivory Coast can't be considered a lock is the difficult road they face. In order to win the title, they would likely have to beat Nigeria, the host South Africa and Ghana. They definitely have enough talent to complete the run, but it won't be easy.


2. Ghana

Ghana is a clear second in terms of overall talent, but they are almost on par with the Ivory Coast in terms of their chances of winning the event. The Black Stars faces an easier road to the final, which evens the playing field with the Elephants.

Like the favorites, Ghana features several players capable of wreaking havoc in the attacking third. Asamoah Gyan is the biggest name, but Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Christian Atsu are both dangerous, as well.

In a tournament that's been highlighted by a lot of low-scoring matches, it's important to have scoring depth. That's why the Ivory Coast and Ghana are ahead of the pack and likely on a collision course that will see them battle for the title.


3. South Africa

Fans looking for a team capable of making a miracle run similar to Zambia's last year should look no further than the host country. South Africa won Group A and should have plenty of crowd support to help fuel a surprising run.

Aside from the fans, South Africa's defense is the main reason why they are a threat. Bafana Bafana started the tournament with two straight clean sheets. If they can bring that type of form to the quarterfinals and beyond, it will make them a tough out.

It's also a good sign that they were able to win the group despite a lack of production from their top two strikers, Katlego Mphela and Bernard Parker. South Africa will be in business if those two players, who have a combined 35 international goals, find their form.