With the Afcon Group Stages fading into the distant memory and squads rested following at least two days of inactivity, attention can once again turn to Africa’s premier competition and the eight remaining sides.
Entering the quarterfinal stage, players now know that there are no second chances, no scope for slipups or complacency. However, by that same token, pressure and nerves are dulled by the uplifting reality that the final is only two wins away and continental supremacy only 90 minutes beyond that.
In this piece, Bleacher Report’s African Expert Ed Dove ranks the competition’s eight remaining teams and gives a tantalising glimpse toward the action that awaits.
Had they just beaten Cameroon once, it would have been astonishing. To qualify ahead of them was unbelievable, and to escape the group stage in their maiden Cup of Nations is surely a feat that will rank up there with the continent’s finest. Cape Verde’s progress has been a result of organisation and resiliency but also a sprinkle of creativity and zest up front.
The former gave them the platform to remain unbeaten against South Africa and Morocco, while the latter allowed them to come from behind to beat Angola in the decisive group game in Port Elizabeth. The final game saw the islanders score two goals in the last 10 minutes—this is clearly not a side lacking in desire and belief.
However, in the Cup of Nations context, challenges rarely come much bigger than the Black Stars of Ghana, and while defeat is by no means a foregone conclusion, it would take a mammoth effort for the Sharks to seal another stunning victory.
Few would have foreseen Burkina Faso topping a group containing holders Zambia and West African heavyweights Nigeria, yet the Stallions did just that, eliminating Chipolopolo in the process.
In truth, their table-topping antics weren’t quite as spectacular when examined more closely. They were lucky in their opening game against Nigeria when an unjust red card for Super Eagles defender Efe Ambrose and a late, late equaliser from Alain Traoré prevented them beginning the campaign with defeat.
How differently things could have panned out had either of those crucial moments not gone the Stallions’ way.
Still, many in the West African nation will be quietly confident of overcoming their diminutive West African neighbours, although the loss of Traoré may leave them seeking a new saviour…
Qualifying for the quarterfinals in the first time in their Afcon history is a terrific achievement, particularly considering what the squad experienced in 2010 when their team bus suffered a fatal assault on their way to the 2010 Cup of Nations.
However, a favourable draw against Burkina Faso may well give the Togolese hope that this fairy tale can continue for a little longer yet.
Having overcome two tricky North African nations in Tunisia and Algeria and after giving favourites Ivory Coast a good run for their money in their opening match, Togo can enter their next contest buoyed with confidence.
In Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor and with a supporting cast that has improved greatly since their foray to the World Cup in 2006, the Sparrow Hawks may be surprise contenders to claim a place in the final.
Fairly unconvincing in the group stage, Mali escaped after avoiding defeat to the Democratic Republic of Congo in their final match. Despite struggling to find top gear, the side, who finished in third place last time around, still have the talent to trouble the tournament’s latter stages.
The major obstacle awaiting the Eagles may not actually be the 11 South Africans they face, but rather, the partisan home crowd that will doubtlessly be cheering every one of Bafana Bafana’s touches, while giving the visitors a very different reception.
Seydou Keita, the Malians’ outstanding player, thus far, will need to be at his absolute best to protect his side’s defence, control the midfield and also provide for the side’s front men Mamadou Samassa and Cheick Diabaté, who has, thus far, been one of the tournament’s disappointments.
Dire, abysmal, desperate: three words that I heard used to describe South Africa’s opening performance against Cape Verde. It was a dismal draw that saw the limited good-feeling that surrounds the team nearly dissipate for good.
In hindsight, with the islanders qualifying for the knock-out stages, it might be time to retroject some commendation upon the homeside that laboured so grossly that day.
Still, coach Gordon Igesund rang the changes after that match—the likes of Siphiwe Tshabalala and Kagisho Dikagacoi were dropped, and fresh blood like Dean Furman and Katlego Mphela were afforded the chance to prove themselves.
The changes worked, and the new players injected a much-needed impetus into the side, who proceeded to beat Angola, and then, come back from behind twice to seal a draw against Morocco.
An absence of quality is still an issue, but with added confidence and belief, as well as free-scoring defender Siyabonga Sangweni playing in the form of his life, anything is possible.
Don’t bet against emotional scenes on the February 10, if South Africa, riding on a wave of euphoric home support, secure an unlikely victory in the final.
Having guided the Super Eagles through a difficult group, many in Nigeria are claiming that Stephen Keshi has already succeeded in rejuvenating the ailing West African heavyweights.
At this point in time, it can only really be considered as a job half done—the team did escape the group, but their performances were profoundly uninspiring, and with Cote d’Ivoire lying in wait, the misery may not be far away.
Two young strikers will carry the hopes of the nation on their shoulders, and while Emmanuel Emenike impressed in the opening fixtures, it was young Chelsea frontman Victor Moses who stole the show and sealed the glory in the last group game against Ethiopia.
Few in Nigeria will forget those final minutes, as twice, Moses’s electric speed and direct running prompted the panicked Ethiopian defence to concede penalties.
Moses, along with his club-mate, John Obi Mikel, will need to be on their absolute finest form to secure passage to the semifinals.
The pre-tournament favourites, the Cote d’Ivoire, were the first nation to qualify from the group stages, preserving a 100 percent record after battles with Togo and Tunisia.
In truth, however, the team haven’t really been firing on all cylinders, and even casual observers will have noticed that there has been something dishearteningly formulaic and routine about their dismantling of other nations en route to the knock-out stages.
Perhaps, this is merely a symptom of confidence within the camp, after years of dominance, group-stage opponents have rarely posed problems, and progression was always going to be the outcome of Group D’s games.
A quarterfinal against a re-emergent Nigeria may be just the tonic to procure the "best" from the Elephants; there is little else capable of stirring the blood quite like a knock-out game, a West African derby, against the so-called "Kings of the Continent."
Long before the tournament began, I earmarked the Black Stars as my favourites for the win. At times, my faith has been shaken, particularly during the second half against the Democratic Republic of Congo—when a 2-0 lead was ceded to the Leopards and also during a particularly stodgy—if dogged—1-0 win over Mali.
Still, there were reasons why I had such confidence in Ghana before the tournament, and those reasons remain.
Despite the new faces, the spine of the side has been tried and tested at this level, the midfield—featuring talented performers such as Kwadwo Asamoah and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu—has produced goals, while the rejuvenated Asamoah Gyan up front has also weighed in—his opener against Niger providing the springboard for a convincing win.
When they fell to Zambia in the semifinal in 2012, I commented that the Black Stars lacked an effective means of cutting through a resilient defence or a particularly negative opposition. The inclusion of wonderkid Christian Atsu may be the added spark to carry the West Africans further than last time around.