The Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals kick off this weekend – we take a closer look at these four captivating contests.
The Giants vs The Giant-killers
Cape Verde – a country making its first appearance in the Africa Cup of Nations – will face the second most successful team in the tournament’s history: Ghana, who have won the trophy four times and played in eight finals.
Heldon scored a last-minute goal to hand Cape Verde a 2-1 win over their Lusophone rivals Angola, and a second place finish – on goal difference – in Group A.
Cape Verde entered the tournament as obscure outsiders, but their mythology has seized the imagination: a meteroic rise from a ranking of 155th out of 204 nations a decade ago to 70th in 2013, a coach taking time off from his job as an air traffic controller at a tiny island airport to lead the team – with tips from Jose Mourinho, knocking out four-time African champions Cameroon to make it to the tournament, and then drawing against hosts South Africa and Morocco before coming from behind for their first ever Nations Cup victory.
Ghana, on the other hand, had a slow start to the tournament, with a draw against DR Congo and an unconvincing 1-0 win over Mali, but the Black Stars showed their class in their last Group B match, trouncing Niger 3-0 as Asamoah Gyan took up his rightful place at centre stage. ‘Baby Jet’ scored the opening goal and providing two assists to set up the most dramatic of quarter-final fixtures.
Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah has already indicated that he is wary of the Islanders, admitting: "I would have preferred a game against Ivory Coast than against Cape Verde because Cape Verde have nothing to lose."
Once-were-giants vs Sleeping Giants
Mali emerged from Group B with a win, a loss, and a draw – not the most convincing of performances from Africa’s perennial under-acheivers.
The Eagles are making their eighth appearance at the Nations Cup, but they have never won it. They were runners-up in 1972, losing 3-2 in the Final to Congo-Brazzaville, and made it to the semis in 1994, 2002, and 2004. In 2008 and 2010 they did not made it out of the group stages, and this time last year they finished third.
Mali will occasionally show flashes of brilliance, and few will forget their stunning comeback against Angola at the 2010 Afcon, when they scored four goals in the last 11 minutes to go from a 4-0 thrashing to a 4-4 draw – although they still went on to finish third in their group for an early flight home.
Bafana Bafana, who look to be coming into their stride at the right time this year, will be hoping Mali do not choose to flash their brilliance in Durban on Saturday.
Giants vs Giants
The third quarter-final pits the number-one ranked African team against arguably Africa’s most successful football team, and should be the most exciting quarter-final match-up this year – that is, if Ivory Coast and Nigeria live up to their reputations.
The Elephants were the first team to qualify for the quarter-finals this year, after comfortable wins over Togo and Tunisia. They were then forced to work a bit for a draw in their final group game against Algeria, scoring twice in four minutes to fight back from 2-0 down.
Gervinho and Yaya Toure are both among the top scorers in the tournament so far – albeit with two goals each – and have looked confident and stylish, while the strength and depth of the Ivorian side was made clear when coach Sabri Lamouchi felt confident enough to leave Didier Drogba on the bench in their second group game – and when he made nine changes to the starting XI for the final match.
Nigeria, on the other hand, have not looked settled yet – and their demanding fans are taking strain.
The Super Eagles drew their first two group matches, against Burkina Faso and Zambia, with former South African First Division player Emmanuel Emenike outshining big-name stars John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, and supporters started calling for coach Stephen Keshi’s head.
Keshi failed to get past the first round twice as coach, with Togo in 2006 and Mali three years ago, and it was looking likely to happen again, but luckily for him his Chelsea stars turned on the charm, helping Nigeria turn their fortunes around with a 2-0 win over Ethiopia.
However, as classy as Moses’ two penalties were, the team’s overall performance was still unconvincing, and they will have to take a step up to overcome last year’s losing finalists.
The winner of this match will take on either Bafana Bafana or Mali in the semi-finals at Mbombela Stadium.
Underdogs vs Underdogs
Burkina Faso and Togo both made it through tough groups to set up their quarter-final – but neither team made it through unscathed.
Togo had never graduated past the group stage in six previous Nations Cups, and after a chaotic build-up to the tournament this year many pundits wrote them off again.
However, after an opening loss to the Ivory Coast, the Sparrow Hawks earned a solid victory over Algeria, with Emmanuel Adebayor and Free State Stars man Dove Wome scoring confident goals. But they were lucky to draw their final group match against Tunisia, who missed a late penalty in a match marred by dubious refereeing decisions.
The Togo defence will not be facing Alain Traore, who is the tournament’s top scorer so far with three goals. The FC Lorient striker stabbed home with the last kick of the game to earn his team a 1-1 draw with Nigeria, and netted the first two as a 10-man Burkina Faso demolished Ethiopia 4-0, but he suffered a thigh strain against Zambia and is likely out for the tournament.
The Stallions’ group stage run ended with a lacklustre goalless stalemate with defending champions Chipolopolo, who took an early flight home after three draws.
Traore was stretchered off on 11 minutes, and with the Burkinabe missing their talisman, and Adebayor coming into his stride, this looks to be Togo’s game.
Which quarter-final are you most looking forward to? Let us know in the comment section below!