Ivory Coast coach Herve Renard believes his side are being spurred on by their past disappointments at the African Cup of Nations.
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Expectation is again growing around the Ivorians as they prepare to face DR Congo in the semi-finals in Bata on Wednesday night.
The Elephants have long been regarded as one of the strongest sides in Africa – and travelled to World Cups in hope of impressing – but they have not won their continental title since 1992.
They have twice come close in recent times but lost on penalties in the finals of both 2006 and 2012.
“I don’t want to talk about 2012,” said Renard, coach of the title-winning Zambia side that year. “History is different. Some of my players have a lot of experience, some of which is bad.
“In life, you can change your bad experience to good and can use bad memory to improve.”
Ivory Coast, who will face a DR Congo side they are familiar with having met twice in qualifying. The Ivorians won 2-1 in Kinshasa but were stunned 4-3 back in Abidjan.
DR Congo should also be in high spirits after their stunning quarter-final win over Congo, when they recovered from 2-0 down to win 4-2.
Leopards coach Florent Ibenge said: “We are not disrespectful. We know Ivory Coast have been to the World Cup and finished ahead of us in the qualifiers. They’re a great team, though under construction.”
Finally, whether by fair means or more dubious, this African Cup of Nations has come to life.
The group stage in Equatorial Guinea had at times been something of a slog. It brought just 45 goals in 24 games, only one team (Algeria, against South Africa) scoring three times in a single match, and a pattern of generally tentative, scrappy play that did not really bring any particular team’s talents to the fore.
We are whittled down to four now and the manner in which they have been decided has been compelling from first to last. It was a superb set of quarter-finals.
On Saturday afternoon, during what had become a double-header in Bata after the ties scheduled for remote Mongomo and Ebibeyin had been moved to the competition’s two larger stadia, it seemed as if we had enough entertainment for an entire afternoon.
Despite being under the cosh for long periods, Claude LeRoy’s Congo side took a 2-0 lead over fierce rivals DR Congo and it seemed as if the honours in this oldest of African derbies would go to Brazzaville.
No chance. In the tournament’s most devastating half-hour of attacking play so far, DRC tore into their opponents and scored four times without reply. Perhaps they were encouraged to up the tempo by a crowd that was beginning to fill the stadium ahead of the home nation’s match against Tunisia; maybe they were simply seized by the shame of losing to their smaller and less storied neighbour.
“We knew what it meant to the fans back home, so we couldn’t let ourselves get beaten against them,” said the centre-back and Peterborough defender Gabriel Zakuani after the game.
“I think the bells started ringing at two goals down to be honest,” said the Crystal Palace winger Yannick Bolasie, whose surge to the byline and cutback to Dieumerci Mbokani had started the comeback in earnest.
Either way, the pace and movement of Bolasie, Jeremy Bokila, Cedrick Mabwati and colleagues was exhilarating and gives reason to believe that they could give Ivory Coast – who beat Algeria 3-1 in what turned out to be a tense, thrilling match in Malabo on Sunday – a run for their money in Wednesday’s semi-final.
DRC did, after all, win 4-3 in Abidjan during qualifying.
Much as this would usually have been the headline story of quarter-final day, what followed will resonate throughout the next week and probably beyond. Nobody could have guessed thatSaturday evening would end with riot police guarding the entrance to the players’ tunnel, the match officials fleeing the pitch and the stadium pulsating to one of the most unlikely victories this or any other major tournament has witnessed in recent years.
Tunisia’s gameplan had squeezed the life out of an enthusiastic, technical but essentially limited Equatorial Guinea side – whose race appeared to have been run when Ahmed Akaichi gave the north Africans the lead 20 minutes from time. The match descended further into a morass of time wasting and petty fouling, and Mauritian referee Rajindaparsad Seechurn’s patience with George Leekens’ side appeared to be wavering.
It snapped when Ivan Bolado broke down the left in injury time and went down under the close attention of Hamza Mathlouthi. There seemed little in it and incredulity reigned when Seechurn pointed to the spot – with the Tunisian bench, which would remain a pulsating oblong of fury for the rest of the encounter, up in arms.
Javier Balboa showed a cool head to convert a vital kick for the second successive game and then, in extra time, bent in a brilliant free-kick to take Equatorial Guinea to the semi-finals for the first time. Amid a tumultuous post-match sequence that saw missiles hurled towards the Tunisian players and various claims and counter-claims of violence even after Seechurn had been rushed down the tunnel, you did not quite know what to think.
Was this a good news story – an undeniably plucky home team battling sizeable odds (there are nearly 100 places between the two in the FIFA world rankings) – or was it something more disturbing, a lingering stench of discontent that such an appalling decision could alter the trajectory of an entire event?
And what of the Tunisians’ reaction? Whatever this was, it did not feel like sport and it was hard to feel as delighted for the again-outstanding home crowd as it had been when the Equatoguineans defeated Gabon last weekend. There were too many questions, too many concerns, too much frustration that all was not quite well.
We shrug off such doubts now and hope that, however the two semi-finals pan out, they do so fairly. Both have the potential to thrill. Ghana were efficient in beating a poor Guinea side 3-0 here in Malabo and seem to be finding some rhythm under Avram Grant; they will perhaps be assisted by the fact that they play Equatorial Guinea in the capital city and not in Bata, whose stadium – with its superb acoustics – has become something of a citadel and remains a venue at which the hosts have not lost.
The Estadio de Malabo is half the size, holding around 17,000, and is nothing like as intimidating. You would back Esteban Becker’s team to fall short this time, but we have already seen in the quarter-finals that – whatever taste it leaves in the mouth – absolutely anything is possible now.
Reaction after Wilfried Bony scored with two headers to help give the Ivory Coast a 3-1 win over Algeria and a spot in the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations on Sunday.