The Ivory Coast and pre-tournament favourites Algeria go head to head in Malabo on Sunday in what has the makings of a classic quarter-final at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Ghana and Guinea meet in the first of a double-header of last-eight ties in Equatorial Guinea’s capital earlier in the day before Herve Renard’s Elephants face the leading side in Africa according to the FIFA rankings.
Neutrals will be hoping for a repeat of the 2010 quarter-final encounter between the teams in Angola, when the Ivory Coast led 2-1 going into injury time only for Algeria to equalise before triumphing 3-2 after extra time.
However, Ivorian coach Herve Renard will settle for a solid defensive display from his side. For all the attention given to captain Yaya Toure and an attack led by Wilfried Bony, it was their defence which particularly impressed in Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat of Cameroon which took the Elephants through.
“There are not many teams in the world who are capable of attacking all the time. At international level Spain have been able to play that way and today maybe Germany too. But we are not Germany, we are Ivory Coast,” said a pragmatic Renard.
In the opposite dugout will be Renard’s fellow Frenchman Christian Gourcuff, an advocate of passing football.
He frequently complained that his team were unable to string passes together in their first two group games in Mongomo but saw an improvement in the 2-0 defeat of Senegal in Malabo on Tuesday that took his team through.
With five goals, Algeria were the most prolific team in the group stage and have enough depth in attack to cope without striker Islam Slimani, who has been struggling with a thigh problem. Winger Yacine Brahimi should be fine despite coming off hurt against Senegal.
Renard, meanwhile, has Gervinho and Cheick Tiote available again after suspension.
Guinea, Ghana renew hostilities
Earlier on Sunday, Guinea will be hoping that luck is still on their side as they take on Ghana in a game that was moved to the Estadio de Malabo because of concerns about the surface in Mongomo.
The Syli Nationale survived in the competition only after winning a drawing of lots on Thursday to emerge from Group D at the expense of Mali.
Guinea drew 1-1 in all three group games and are now setting their sights on going beyond the quarter-finals for the first time since the Cup of Nations was expanded to 16 teams in 1996.
“When we found out it was us, there was a great explosion of joy. But, of course, I had a thought for the Malians,” said Guinea coach Michel Dussuyer of the surreal manner in which his side went through.
“It is tough, because they also deserved to go through. They missed a penalty against us and then they go out on a drawing of lots. Luck was on our side. But if we have got to the quarter-finals it is because we deserved to somewhere.”
The sides met in qualifying, with the Black Stars having the edge thanks to a 1-1 draw and then a 3-1 victory.
And Avram Grant’s Ghana then finished top of a tough group ahead of Algeria, Senegal and South Africa.
Defender Daniel Amartey has declared himself fit to feature for the Black Stars after coming off early in the 2-1 defeat of South Africa on Tuesday.
Florentin Pogba has already left the Guinea squad because of a groin injury, while captain Kamil Zayatte has not yet featured at the finals due to a calf problem. Stand-in skipper Ibrahima Traore is expected to play despite coming off against Mali.
DR Congo coach Florent Ibenge says he doesn't want to return home without a win at the Africa Cup of Nations as they prepare to take on neighbours Congo in the quarter finals.
BATA, EQUATORIAL GUINEA: Whether it speaks well of this competition or not, we have stumbled upon a situation that many of us had been half-joking about for the last week or so.
This afternoon, in a Malabo hotel, Group D rivals Guinea and Mali will be separated by the drawing of lots. Whoever’s ball gets drawn can stay in Equatorial Guinea’s capital city and try their luck in a quarter-final against Ghana – not as fearsome a prospect as that may seem – on Sunday. The other will be sufficiently near to the airport to make a swift getaway and, quite legitimately, left cursing their luck.
The legitimacy of using this method to separate teams with identical records is open to question, and it seems reasonable to ask whether – if the intention was always to wait until a day after the final games before doing anything – a penalty shoot-out could not have been convened to split them. That would at least have given an iota of sporting merit to the conclusion and spared the victors any accusations of simply being lucky should they progress even further.
It is not the first difficult situation with which CAF and the local organising committee have been presented. Having come under heavy pressure to move the two quarter-finals scheduled for little Ebibeyin and Mongomo, they agreed on Tuesday to the switch and consequently the bigger stadia in Bata and Malabo will host all four games. This is certainly the best solution for fans and media – and, if it does not appear to do much for the tournament’s integrity, we should remember the pressures inherent in arranging this event at the very last moment.
While many media have been poring over the permutations in Malabo, others remain in Bata to absorb the preparations for Saturday’sgames. The first of what will be a double header here is an intriguing proposition: a derby between Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Republic of the Congo (Congo) – central-African neighbours whose capital cities are the closest together in the world and who have something else to unite them, too.
Claude LeRoy has spent two spells in charge of DRC, and managed them at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa. On that occasion, they finished their group stage with three draws – as they did this year – but did not make it to the last eight. This time it was enough to send them through and they will have to accustom themselves to LeRoy’s presence in the opposition dugout.
This is LeRoy’s eighth AFCON and he considers this year’s achievement – taking an unheralded and unfancied Congo team through the group stage with more points than any other team in the tournament – as one of his best yet.
Saturday’s will be a fascinating battle. Congo has a population of 4.6 million and DRC, a genuine sleeping giant, officially houses 77 million, but LeRoy considers the DRC team to be one that he built and is quietly confident that he can cook up a plan to defeat them.
It might not be one that involves penalties, but LeRoy certainly has something up his sleeve and much of it may involve preventing DRC from working the ball wide to wingers Yannick Bolasie and Firmin Ndombe. Their training has been centred around pressing the ball in tight spaces and, for the goalkeepers, managing high balls. DRC, by contrast, played very much their own game during their session – a full-scale game of 11 vs 11, contested in one half of the pitch, watched from the side by a frustrated Youssouf Mulumbu. The West Brom player and DRC captain is likely to miss Saturday’s derby but hopes to be back for the semi-finals if LeRoy’s masterplan can be thwarted.
Even if the Congos, who have won three AFCONs between them (the most recent was DRC’s second in 1974) are not the powerhouses of old there is something authentic-seeming about seeing them paired together. The winner will be a game away from the final and will have to face Ivory Coast or Algeria, but nobody has yet been impressive enough here to be feared inordinately.
Bata itself is quiet, for now. The bustling Hotel Federaciones, in the grounds of the stadium, had played host to the sizeable and extremely friendly travelling Burkina Faso support until Wednesday, but their departure allowed the brief sense of tranquility that descends between rounds at a major tournament.
That is about to be shattered: the Congo derby and Equatorial Guinea v Tunisia present a mouthwatering pair of fixtures in two days’ time and journalists will descend once more before hurrying back to Malabo to scrum for seats in the uncomfortably tight press area there. Sunday’s games, involving at least three of the competition’s biggest names, may well see an unseemly race to claim the best perch, or any perch at all – regardless of which team the lots draw out this afternoon.