Written By: Segun Odegbami
The African Cup of Nations, AFCON 2012, are just about to enter second gear. The championship that started rather tamely and tentatively has steadily built up to an exciting mid-competition tempo last Tuesday night when the last 2 teams to pass through the crucible of fire emerged to make up the last 8 teams still standing.
The final teams are hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, pre-tournament favourites Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana, trusted fighters, Zambia, last-minute qualifiers, Mali, North African representatives, Tunisia and surprise qualifiers, Sudan.
I admit that I got my estimation of Sudan and Senegal very wrong before the start of the championship. I dismissed Sudan by not even listing them amongst the teams in the championship, and chose Senegal as one of the three favourites to get to the finals. Otherwise, at the half-way mark, I give my self a humble pass mark for my other pre-tournament predictions.
Group round -up
Senegal were the most disappointing team of the championship. They let everyone including themselves down. The ‘superstars’ turned out to be anything but that in all the three matches they played. Sow, Ba and Cisse, were blown out like candles in the wind. They looked so ordinary that many could not recognise them from the three lads that had been painting the English Premiership red with goals just weeks before the African championship began. Many are forced to wonder if this is any indication of declining quality of the EPL, or if it is that African football is so markedly different that it requires a totally different kind of approach and mentality for players to cope and excel in it. The ‘smoke’ of Senegal was extinguished from the first match. They could not light up their fire after that.
Sudan have been the surprise team of the tournament even though with the composition of the team they make a strong statement that the rest of the continent must take note of. The entire team is made up of home-based players, all playing constantly in the domestic Sudanese league. That could be a great advantage were the contest for supremacy is that of team versus the individual players. Sudan are a team. They have played well and have been well organised, even without outstandingly brilliant players. They exemplify the advantage of a team and remind us that some of Africa’s past great heroes of the African Nations Cup were mostly home-grown and home-based.
Guinea also did very well as the matches progressed. They played their best match against Ghana. Many people felt they deserved to have won and qualified. But a draw against Ghana, and Mali winning their last match against the whipping boys of the championship, Botswana, ensured that they exited the championship where I had predicted they would.
Tunisia are technically a good team showing good build ups and good organisation until they come into the attacking third of the field where their creativity and their finishing in front of goal evaporate in a plume of naivety. They just do not know how to bury balls behind goalkeepers. That will be their undoing again as they play what I believe would be their last match when they meet Ghana.
The quarter-final matches are going to be intriguing. My challenge is that I am doing this preview on the eve (Thursday) of some of the matches, and by time people are reading this some of the matches would have taken place. I am therefore pitching my analysis against what fate holds in store.
Ghana versus Tunisia in Francisville.
Ghana have not been brilliant in the championship so far, but they have demonstrated great maturity and professionalism in dealing with opponents even when they are now ‘blending’ more and developing into a formidable team. With the return of the team’s captain, Mensah, after his suspension spell, Ghana would be a bridge too far for Tunisia with their timid and tame front line.
Gabon versus Mali in Libreville.
Mali have struggled through the championship so far. Until he scored a goal against Botswana Seidu Keita had not made a mark on the championship. Gabon on the other hand have been very hardworking and committed to winning. That spirit will see them out-run, overpower and out-score the Malians.
Cote D’Ivoire versus Equatorial Guinea in Malabo
This match has the prospect of a contest between artists and artisans. Equatorial Guinea will work very hard. They will have the home crowd, their President and sheer determination to drive them and lift them beyond their normal capacity. Anything is possible with a home team that reacts positively to the electricity of such a charged atmosphere. No one should rule out the possibility of their playing doggedly against the most solid team of the championship so far and winning, but the odds are still stacked against them. Cote D’Ivoire have too much talent, depth and experience to lose to any team before the final match.
Zambia versus Sudan in Bata
If the result of the matches played so far would determine the team that would win AFCOn 2012 Zambians would have been celebrating by now. The Zambians have played the best and most consistent football at AFCON 2012. That is no surprise. The Chipolopolo always play very well at these championships until the crucial matches. The team has been compact, the frontline has been lethal and consistent, the players have played intelligently and collectively as a team. In fact they have everything going for them to crown them champions except that ‘thing’ that they seems to depart them from championship to championship when they are expected to ‘finish’ and fail to do so. Thats the only reason one can be apprehensive even against Sudan that have shown a similar compactness as a team and will be a hard nut to crack. But Zambia will survive the scare of another match at least!