Last eight spots up for grabs in Ghana

January 28, 2008
By Andrew Hush

With only the Ivory Coast certain of a place in the African Cup of Nations knockout stages as the final round of group matches begins, an increasingly captivating tournament continues to offer myriad possibilities and storylines. In addition to the Elephants, a total of twelve other countries retain hopes of making the last eight, with only Namibia, Benin and Sudan having already packed their bags.

Group A

APThe Ivory Coast were the first side to progress from the group stages.

With wins in their opening two games, Ghana require only a point against Morocco to secure top spot in the group. Despite their solid position, however, the hosts have flattered to deceive thus far and resemble a shell of the side that wowed at the World Cup in 2006.

Nerves and long grass may have been legitimate reasons for the Black Stars' struggles in the tournament opener against Guinea, but there were no excuses for Claude LeRoy's side against Namibia four days later. A scruffy goal from Junior Agogo was the difference in the end but home fans will have been concerned by the chances the group minnows created.

The game was won, but such profligacy will not be as forthcoming in the knockout rounds. A release of the pressure that led to the brothers Gyan - Asamoah and Baffour - threaten to leave the team following criticism of the former's displays, is much-needed.

Second place looks to be between Morocco and Guinea, with the Syli Nationale in the ascendancy having beaten Morocco. However, Guinea, who delivered the 'technical, physical and mental' performance demanded of them by their coach, Robert Nouzaret, have no easy task if Namibia's upturn in form continues.

The weakest of the group's participants Namibia may be but, following their opening-day debacle against Ghana, Arie Schans' side have a new goalkeeper and a new spirit. If the promising Brian Brendell sorts out his radar in front of goal, they may emerge from the tournament with more than just pride. Meanwhile, Guinea's task is made harder with Morocco playing Ghana in their final group game, which is a good match-up for the Lions of the Atlas, given the host nation's comfortable position.

Guinea will miss their talisman, Pascal Feidouno, who undid his two-goal effort against Morocco with one stupid flick of the foot, meaning Ismael Bangoura, of Dynamo Kiev, will carry the weight of expectation. Meanwhile, Morocco will still be without Soufiane Alloudi, their hat-trick hero from game one. Expect Porto's Tarik Sektioui to step up against Namibia as well.

Group B

After an opening round of matches in which none of the pre-tournament favourties shone, Ivory Coast were the first to make a statement. Against Benin, who had lost narrowly to Mali, the Elephants showed their attacking class, sweeping to a victory that could have been greater than the final 4-1 scoreline suggested.

The most impressive aspect of Ivory Coast's form is that five different players have found the net, indicating the depth in attack that new coach Gerard Gili has at his disposal. Such variety could become increasingly important as the tests get harder, especially if Kolo Toure's groin injury impairs his level of play and Boubacar Barry's occasional eccentricity in goal appears at a more inopportune moment.

Ivory Coast face Mali in their final group game. Though the match may look appealing, it could be a damp squib. Already assured of a quarter-final spot, Gili may rest some of his players while Mali, whose own form has been spasmodic (scoring just one goal so far), require just a point to progress and have to contend with the loss of the suspended Mahamadou Diarra.

Although Nigeria have failed to score a goal, much less win a game, the most disappointing team in this year's Cup of Nations still retain a chance of qualifying. Berti Vogts shook up his side for the match against Mali - omitting Kanu and John Utaka - but little improvement resulted.

It is hard to think that Benin will pose much of a threat but, to have any hope, Nigeria must end their goal drought, as they need to combine a win with a Mali defeat to make the last eight. What is certain is that, whichever side it is that accompanies Ivory Coast into the knockout rounds, they will need to have picked up some momentum if further progress is to be made.

Group C

Their record shows played two, won two, with seven goals scored and two conceded and yet, it appears, Egypt are still under the radar. Much as they did two years ago, Hassan Shehata's side are going about their business in an orderly fashion with little fanfare.

Though there was none of the eye-popping firepower displayed by Mohamed Zidan and company against Cameroon, a workmanlike display against Sudan was a further sign that the defending champions are a legitimate threat.

What was most impressive about the win was the depth in evidence in the Pharoahs' squad. 1-0 ahead as the game approached the hour mark, Egypt were revitalised by the entrance of Ahmed Hassan, playing in his seventh Cup of Nations, and Mohamed Aboutrika, who lived up to his nickname 'The Magician' by netting twice to put the result out of reach. More squad members could get a chance against Zambia, with a draw all that is required to win the group.

After slumping to defeat against Egypt in their opening match, Cameroon delivered a dominant display against Zambia, thanks in no small part to an accommodating opposing backline.

Otto Pfister's fury at his side's Egyptian nightmare was evident in his team selection for the game, as the German coach made five alterations to his starting line-up and his changes were vindicated immediately. By half-time, Joseph Desire-Job had tapped in the first of his brace, while Achille Emana also marked his first start of the campaign with a goal.

Geremi's excellent free-kick and Samuel Eto'o's record-equalling fourteenth Cup of Nations goal padded out the final score, which gives Cameroon the edge over Zambia in the goal difference column, as well as reaffirming their credentials as a force to be reckoned with. However, there is still work to be done in the final group game against Sudan.

Although their results show no points or goals, Sudan have shown some capability in their first appearance at Africa's top tournament since 1976. In each of their matches so far, the Desert Hawks have been somewhat unfortunate to head into half-time a goal down before fading badly after the interval.

Should they stumble and Zambia shock Egypt, Cameroon may yet regret their slow start to the tournament.

Group D

APAngola caused an upset with a 3-1 win over Senegal.

A group that began with all four teams level on points and goal difference saw decisive moves made by two of its participants in the second round of matches, meaning Angola and Tunisia are hot favourites to advance to the knockout rounds.

Having been denied victory against South Africa in their opening match, Angola put on a stirring second-half fight back against Senegal, based on an overpowering physical presence in their opponent's penalty area. The charge of the Black Antelopes was led by Manucho, who has emerged as one of the stars of the tournament.

As he relaxed with a glass of red on Sunday evening following Manchester United's FA Cup win over Tottenham, the smile on Sir Alex Ferguson's face must have broadened still further as he watched his new signing score twice to turn the match against Senegal on its head.

Tunisia had escaped from their game against Senegal with a point thanks to Medji Traoui's magnificent strike, but had no such problems against Bafana Bafana. A rousing start saw a succession of corners culminate in a goal for Francileudo Santos and when the time the Brazilian-born striker notched his second in the 34th minute, the game was effectively over.

Angola will meet Tunisia in a battle for first place in the group, with both sides knowing that a point will be sufficient for them to advance. In addition to being level on points, the sides also have identical numbers in the goals scored and conceded columns. South Africa's late consolation goal could yet count against the Tunisians.

Senegal have a mountain to climb after once again failing to see out a game in which they built themselves into a winning position. As the side did against Tunisia, Senegal took the lead against Angola and had chances to extend their advantage, only to collapse defensively - resulting in coach Henryk Kasperczak's resignation.

From an attacking viewpoint, two of Senegal's three goals in the competition have originated from crosses. It is therefore odd that the Lions of Teranga's strength at one end is proving to be their weakness at the other. Against Angola, goalkeeper Tony Sylva too often flapped wildly at aerial deliveries, from which all three of Senegal's opponents' goals came.

Entering the Cup of Nations, South Africa coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira insisted that this was a fact-finding mission as he built towards leading the host nation at the 2010 World Cup. It's just as well the Brazilian got his excuses in early, for Bafana Bafana have been wholly unimpressive in their first two games.

Saved by a wonder goal against Angola, South Africa had no such fortune against Tunisia. A porous defense, not helped by the absence of regular goalkeeper, Rowen Fernandez, was breached too easily, while an attack minus Blackburn's Bennie McCarthy offered little potency. Mathematically, South Africa retain a chance of qualification and, in reality, the odds are long.


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