The Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals will begin on Saturday. Just like last year, the Ivory Coast and Ghana enter the final eight as favorites to reach the final. Both of the continental powerhouses won their respective groups.
Zambia ended up stealing the spotlight and the trophy in 2012, though. Can another underdog make a miracle run to the championship in 2013? Or will one of the two most talented countries restore order at the marquee event?
The first step toward discovering the answer comes on Saturday. Ghana takes on the Cape Verde Islands in the day's first match and it will be followed by the host nation of South Africa facing Mali. Here are previews and predictions for both games.
Ghana vs. Cape Verde Islands
It took some time for Ghana to find its footing in South Africa. The Black Stars opened with a draw against Congo and then escaped with a 1-0 victory over Mali. However, they finally seemed to settle in during a 3-0 win over Niger in the group finale.
Captain Asamoah Gyan spearheads an attack that has received some unexpected contributions from young players like Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Christian Atsu, which added some more depth to an already strong lineup.
The Black Stars can't afford to overlook an upstart Cape Verde side, however. The small nation's squad didn't get much attention prior to the tournament, but turned a lot of heads during the group stage. The lack of star power was overcome by solid play across the board.
Since the Blue Sharks should be riding a wave of momentum after scoring two late goals in their last match to secure advancement, it's vital that Ghana get off to a quick start. If the Black Stars can control the pace within the first 15 minutes, they will advance.
Prediction: 2-0 Ghana
South Africa vs. Mali
This should be the more competitive of the first two quarterfinals, at least on paper. South Africa has the advantage of getting to play on home turf, but Mali reached the semifinals last year and features another talented veteran squad.
One reason fans of Bafana Bafana should feel confident is the team's success even though Katlego Mphela and Bernard Parker have yet to get heavily involved. The strike partnership is on the verge of a breakthrough, and don't be surprised if it comes on Saturday.
Mali will counter with a starting XI that features a terrific midfield led by former Barcelona star Seydou Keita. The key for the Eagles is making sure they remain steady at the back against the dangerous South Africa attack. The onus will fall on Adama Tamboura and Adama Coulibaly for this.
All told, there's not much to separate these two sides. It should be a tightly-played match in which scoring chances will be rare, and must be capitalized on. Look for Bafana Bafana to deliver an extra-time strike to send the fans home happy.
Prediction: 2-1 South Africa (after extra time)
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