Article: Andrew Hush (ESPN)
THE dream final is still on in the Africa Cup of Nations after Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire successfully negotiated quarter-finals with performances at the opposite ends of the comfort extreme.
However, in winning their own last eight encounters, Egypt and Cameroun showed that they would have a major say in what happens next.
Though Ghana had been challenged in each of their three group matches, falling behind to Nigeria represented the most major threat to their Cup of Nations dreams to date. Against the run of play it may have been but Yakubu's penalty offered the Super Eagles further momentum to add to that which was generated by their improbable qualification for the knockout stages.
However, Ghana were able to fight back with an impressive team effort that featured impressive displays not only from Claude Le Roy’s stalwarts but also from a less-likely hero. Unsurprisingly, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari were the main inspirations but the tireless running and instinctive finishing of Junior Agogo was a further vital aspect of the Black Stars’ comeback.
A journeyman he may be, but Agogo’s latest stop on the footballing map is by far his most spectacular. The Nottingham Forest front man is limited in terms of technical ability when compared to the top strikers in the tournament but his willingness to work, as well as his impressive physical strengths, have made him an increasingly essential part of the Ghana effort.
However, as diligent as Agogo has been, Ghana remain hugely indebted to their majestic midfield duo. Having scored his first goal of the tournament against Morocco, Essien struck again against Nigeria with a header that owed much to his determination to join an attack from a deep-lying position. Often restricted by Chelsea's formation from forging forward, Essien's strikes in his home country have been timely reminders of the complete game he possesses.
Essien can defend too, as he showed late in the game when dropping deep to cover in defence following John Mensah's sending off. As he did, Muntari took on the attacking mantle in the dying moments of the match, showing commendable stamina and no little skill to burst beyond the Nigerian backline and lay the winning goal on a plate for Agogo.
The Black Stars' reserves of energy have been a consistent feature of their campaign. In each of their four games, Le Roy's side has scored in the closing minutes of a half. Against Nigeria, both Ghanaian goals came as time was set to expire, an impressive feat given the heat and humidity in Accra. The second was even more remarkable, given that Ghana were, by then, playing with 10 men.
For Nigeria, the quarter-final was an adequate reflection of a thoroughly disappointing tournament that may spell the end of Berti Vogt's reign as coach.
True, they showed some degree of character to make the quarterfinals at all after a near-disastrous start that gleaned them one point from their first two matches but the win over Benin proved to be another false dawn.
Yakubu's penalty gave Nigeria something to play for but the Super Eagles were unable to effectively defend what they had. Essien's header, though well-directed, was watched into the net by goalkeeper, Austin Ejide, while Agogo's winner was conceded despite Nigeria's numerical advantage. How the Ghanaian striker was able to stand unmarked at the far post awaiting Muntari's centre is a mystery.
As full-time approached and Ghana settled into a deep defensive alignment, Nigeria enjoyed the balance of possession but were unable to forge the chances from which the leveller would come. The closing moments were a bitter exposure of a team in some turmoil. While their African rivals can dream of Cup of Nations glory, Nigeria face an uncertain future that must begin with a wide-ranging evaluation of what went wrong in Ghana.
Next for Ghana is a Cameroun side that survived a wobble against Tunisia to pull through after extra time. Whether the resurgence of the Indomitable Lions will continue beyond the last four is questionable the extra 30 minutes will have taken a toll, plus Ghana have had an extra day of rest but there is no doubt that Cameroun have shown enough to suggest that this is a side that still has plenty to offer.
In addition to stalwarts such as Rigobert Song and Geremi using their veteran heads and Samuel Eto'o serving as a lynchpin up front, Otto Pfister has seen a number of less experienced Lions emerge in the games since Cameroun were humbled 4-2 by Egypt.
Stephane Mbia has played in a number of positions in defence and midfield for his club side, Rennes, but it was in an attacking role that the 21-year-old made an international breakthrough against Tunisia. Entering the tournament with just a handful of international caps, Mbia has seized his opportunity and his instinctive strikes in the quarterfinal have made him irreplaceable.
In midfield, Alexandre Song has been a consistent performer, adding an extra layer of security to a defence that, though improving, remains capable of implosion. Never was that more emphasised than against Tunisia, when a two-goal advantage was squandered. The equaliser, in particular, will have concerned Pfister, who watched as Yassine Chikhaoui was able to score despite being outnumbered in the penalty area by green shirts.
One area in which Cameroun certainly held an edge over Tunisia was in goal. Indeed, in Carlos Kameni, the Indomitable Lions have one of the best keepers in the tournament. Confident dealing with the high ball, the Espanyol number one is also an excellent shot-stopper, whose best save of the quarter-final came in the first half when a fantastic reflex save denied Chouki Ben Saada, who had halved Cameroun's deficit moments earlier.
In Hamdi Kasraoui, meanwhile, Tunisia had a goalkeeper who was badly at fault for Mbia's first goal, after he missed a Song cross. Geremi's free-kick would have beaten many a goalkeeper but Kasraoui was at fault again for Cameroun's winner when neither he nor the defence in front of him dealt adequately with a throw-in that led to Joel Epalle's flick-on, allowing Mbia to pounce again.
Tunisia leave Ghana with mixed memories. On the plus side, Roger Lemerre's side displayed character to fight back in games in which they trailed. However, with the exception of a dominant display against a weak South African side, this was not an impressive performance from the 2004 champions, who will hope that their current phase of transition is complete by the time of qualifying for the 2010 Cup of Nations and World Cup begins.
As their quarter-final against Guinea entered its 70th minute, Cote d’Ivoire held a slender 1-0 lead over a gutsy Guinea side that was battling hard to keep the encounter tight. Over the final 20 minutes of the match in Sekondi, however, they tagged on four goals in almost effortless fashion. Gerard Gili's side are favourites for the Cup of Nations and, for the fourth straight game, they proved why.
One set of Elephants stampeded another in a display that was based on excellent team cohesion, as well as individual flair that made Cote d’Ivoire a contender to score a goal at any time and from any part of the field. The team's 11 goals have been shared among eight players, meaning that even if talisman Didier Drogba has an off day, the slack will more than likely be picked up by his teammates.
As pleased as he will no doubt be with his side's offensive output, Gili will likely be even more content with the way his backline is performing. Concerns that the absence of Kolo Toure and the reshuffling that was required as a result of the Arsenal man's groin injury would expose a weak point have so far been unjustified.
However, before Cote d’Ivoire are crowned, it must be said that in Guinea they faced an opponent under equipped to challenge at this stage of the tournament. A 3-2 win over Morocco was essentially the reason for Guinea's advancement beyond the group stage. Though they pushed Ghana hard for a time, this was a side that was playing with house money in the quarter-finals.
The team selection of Guinea coach, Robert Nouzaret, was restricted by the absence of two key men. Pascal Feinduno was serving the second game suspension incurred for his sending off against Morocco, while Celtic defender, Bobo Balde, was sorely missed in central defence.
His hand forced, Nouzaret handed starts to two 19-year-olds, Mohamed Sakho and Mamadou Bah. The coach, who has twice been in charge of Cote d’Ivoire, admitted after the game that the responsibility for the 'thrashing' lay solely with him. He had hoped to catch lightning in a bottle but from the moment goalkeeper Kemoko Camara allowed Kader Keita's shot inside his near post, the shock was never on.
Facing Cote d’Ivoire in the last four will be Egypt, the defending champions. The match-up is a repeat of the 2006 final which the Pharaohs took on home soil, 4-2 on penalties. The Elephants will start as favourites this time, but must take nothing for granted against an Egyptian side that has depth and solidity and which has shown a happy knack for maintaining leads.
Other than their semi-final opponent, only Egypt have yet to trail in the 2008 Cup of Nations. Though their margins of victory have not been as great as those of Cote d’Ivoire, Hassan Shetaha's side has shown an ability to keep opponents at bay based on a tried and trusted method that incorporates defensive depth and precise counter-attacking.
In all four of their games, Egypt have scored first, three times from the penalty spot through the nerveless Hosny Abd Rabo. Against Angola, they were pegged back almost immediately but then retook the lead that, with one or two exceptions, they rarely looked like ceding.
Further indications of Egypt's strength of squad came against Angola. It seems like a long time since Mohamed Zidan announced himself to the tournament by firing two goals against Cameroon. The Hamburg striker has not found the net since and missed the quarterfinal through injury.
In his place, however, and without their Cup of Nations veteran, Ahmed Hassan, Egypt have managed to cope. Two years ago, Amr Zaki came off the bench in the semi-final against Senegal to score the winner before converting a penalty in the shootout that settled the final. In 2008, Zaki is showing signs of being a lucky charm once again. Having scored against Namibia, the 24-year-old doubled his tally with the winner in the quarter-final.
Egypt's win was deserved, though Angola will feel a little aggrieved to be homeward bound. Palancas Negras were one of the revelations of the tournament, with Manchester United-bound striker, Manucho, proving to be a star in the making. Premier League fans will have to wait until next season to see him - he will play at Panathinaikos on loan, while awaiting a work permit - but their appetite has been whetted by a variety of goals, the best of which was an outstanding left-footed strike against Egypt.
With Flavio and Ze Kalanga alongside him, Manucho led an Angola forward line that was a constant threat to opponents. Alas, the defence that played behind them provided no such challenge. A soft penalty whilst defending a free-kick gave Egypt the start they needed while, following their leveller, slack Angolan marking left Zaky open to divert the ball home for what would prove to be the winner. In goal, Lama was impressive but was tested, in truth, too often.
And so the Cup of Nations field is down to four teams, each of which has the capability to win two games and secure the trophy. Ghana versus Cote d’Ivoire remains the most likely final but Egypt and Cameroun have done enough to suggest they could be playing in Accra on Sunday. No matter who arrives there, the journey is sure to be exciting.