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Sports

Battle is on for a berth in the final four

media Côte d'Ivoire's Didier Drogba (R) fights for the ball with Sudan's Abdullah … Reuters/Luc Gnago

After nearly two weeks of skirmishes, we’re down to the final eight.

Zambia and Sudan get the knockout stages underway with their clash in Bata. Zambia, who topped Group A, are into the quarter finals for the second successive tournament.

They’re a glowing tribute to patient construction. Four years ago in Ghana after their first round elimination, FA chief Kalusha Bwalya said the side would improve so long as they grew together.

Built around fiery skipper Christopher Katonga, the Chipolopolo – as the Zambia squad is nicknamed – have become a compact, hard-working team.

Hervé Renard led them to the last eight in Angola two years ago where they lost in a penalty shootout against the Nigerians.

“My players have done well,” said Renard after the 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea which confirmed their spot in the last eight. “We finished first in the group like in 2010. Maybe it’s a surprise for some people but we came to finish first. It was a difficult target but the players have followed the game plans perfectly.

“We have to stay concentrated because we would like to go to the semi-finals.”

Zambia have not been in the last four since 1996 and will start as favourites against a Sudan team who have not been anywhere near the knockout stages since they won the cup in 1970.

Appearances in 1972, 1976 and 2008 all ended without a win.

Whatever happens against Zambia , the squad can return to Khartoum with the pride of having secured their first victory at the tournament since conquering all-comers 42 years ago.

Sudan coach Mazda Abdallah praised his players’ achievements. “Sixteen players are at this tournament for the first time. They’re young players but they’ve done well and they’ve proved they can play at this high level of football and that we can be among the eight best teams in the competition.”

Dossier: Africa Cup of Nations 2012

But success at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations cannot mask the underlying problem of Sudanese football. Eighteen of the players are from the clubs Al-Hilal Omdurman and Al-Merreikh. None of the squad plays overseas, much to the disappointment of Abdallah who wants as many of his team as possible to be exposed to foreign methods.

There is no such problem for the Cote D’Ivoire coach François Zahoui. None of his squad turn out in Africa. Abdel Kader Keita may ply his trade for Al-Sadd in Qatar but the big guns such as Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are at Chelsea and the Touré brothers, Yaya and Kolo, are at Premier League leaders Manchester City. Gervinho is enjoying his first season at Arsenal.

But while the Ivorians ooze buckets of Euro nous, it has not brought them the Africa Cup of Nations title. Perhaps the continental genie is laughing at their expense.

Egyptian teams - comprising of mainly home based players - beat them to take the 2006 crown and turned them over in the semi-finals in 2008. Algeria – again with mostly local players - upset the odds to eliminate them in the quarter finals two years ago in Angola .

This tournament has been packaged as the last chance for the putative golden generation to fulfil their potential and take the cup back home for the first time since 1992.

Perhaps they just need to meet a team whose players who, like them, have departed for other leagues.

Spiritual deconstruction of squads aside, if the Elephants fail to get past Equatorial Guinea in Malabo , it would be considered as one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history.

Cote d’Ivoire sit at 18th, the highest rated African team in the FIFA world rankings. The co-hosts are rattling around at 150, the lowest rated side in the competition.

Territorial advantage notwithstanding it would be an immense shock. Equatorial Guinea ’s stylish midfielder, Iban Iyanga Travieso, has impressed with his silky movement and eye for goal so too has right back David Alvarez Aguirre whose 25 metre thunderbolt in stoppage time sealed Senegal ’s fate on day two of the group stages. But whether coach Gilson Paulo can elicit a bravura performance from these and other players is the question.

Equatorial Guinea were not meant to beat Libya and they certainly were not touted to see off Senegal. Zambia ’s victory over the co-hosts in the last Group A game restored the tautness of the world order. Cote D’Ivoire should progress without being stretched.

The hot favourites Ghana have advanced as expected but they have pressing concerns.

Two years ago in Angola their youthful antics charmed on and off the field. By contrast the 2010 beaten finalists now seem sulky.

Whatever happened to the likely lads? Where has their mojo gone? Is it a compliment to describe Ghana as the Italy of Africa?

For years in tournament after tournament the Italians played ponderous, cagey football grinding out results. Then just as they seemed accustomed to the dull and lugubrious, their game exploded with brio and brilliance.

We’re still waiting for the panache from Ghana. Assistant coach Kwesi Appiah admitted the side was not functioning:“Our midfield and attack hasn’t been performing as we expect of them but we’ve identified a few little problems and we’ll try to correct them before the game against Tunisia.”

Despite players asserting that they are comfortable with the pressure of being favourites, there has been a studied drudge about their play. With a 1-0 win over Botswana in the opening game followed up by a 2-0 triumph over Mali, the Black Stars have been efficient rather than effervescent.

“The important thing has been making sure we psyche the boys up for each game to be able to rise to the occasion of each game,” added Appiah. “Tunisia is not going to be easy. We just need to work a bit more than we’ve been doing so far.”

That surely must mean more from Asamoah Gyan. The 26-year-old Al-Ain striker came into the tournament with injury issues. He has been his usual willing target man for the team but he has not been imposing himself on games.

The Marseille midfielder André Ayew said: “Lots of people put question marks around Ghana after we beat Botswana 1-0 and Guinea beat them 6-1.

“But we have proved that we are a big team in Africa and we need to continue to prove that. We need to stay focused and keep fighting for each other.”

Those battling qualities will be fully tested in the match in Franceville. Tunisia can play the possession game in midfield and are able to break with speed down the flanks. There is also the knowledge of how to win a tournament.

Coach Sami Trabelsi led the team to the African Nations Championship in Sudan last February. Even if it was a tournament only open to squads with members playing in their country’s domestic leagues, it still sported three pool matches before going into the knockout stages.

Tunisia defender Karim Haggui said the team was well aware of the different mindset needed for the sudden death part of a competition.

“We’re happy to go the next round,” said the 28-year-old who plays his club football at Hannover in the German Bundesliga. “Ghana is a big team. We have to be fit and at 100 per cent and then we’ll have the possibility to win but we have to run more and score more than them. Ultimately the level of the teams here in Africa is more or less the same.”

With nearly 90 caps over eight years, the veteran is pitch perfect on that score. Guinea inflicted the only thrashing of the tournament. That 6-1 was against a Botswana side reduced to 10 men for the entire second half. Other than that, only four of the 24 games up until the quarter finals have been won by a two goal margin.

It’s unlikely that there will be annihilations in the quarter finals. They’re usually intense, stolid affairs.

But at least off the field in the Gabon versus Mali game there’ll be a wall of noise. More than 40,000 fans are expected to cram into the Stade de L’Amitié Sino-Gabonaise for a game that could see the co-hosts obtain a semi-final berth for the first time. Mali are also seeking a place in the last four for the first time since 2004.

Under the former France international Alain Giresse, Mali are building gradually. There’s youth allied to guile of the Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita.

It was his winner 16 minutes from time against Botswana that sent the Malians through.

“It’s up to me to show a good example. That’s important for the group,” said the 32-year-old.

“If the youngsters see me fighting for every ball and dropping back and defending, it is easier for them to follow that lead. It’s an important role for me. That wasn’t the case in Ghana or Angola because there were other players as well as me that the team looked to.

“There’s more of an onus on me now and it is true I’m here to add a bit of extra know-how but above all it is about the group. Individuality brings nothing. Collectivity is the key.”

Those words may yet return to haunt Keita. Along with the 11 on the pitch, Gabon will have the fervent support of more than 40,000 in the stands at the Stade de L’Amitié Sino- Gabonaise.

Gabon coach Gernot Rohr says that could be the difference.

“I’m so happy that we topped the group and that we’ll play in Libreville .

The 58-year-old German added: “You saw the stadium and atmosphere in the games against Morocco and Niger. There were more than 40,000 people who were there to support the team. It was really a 12th man.”

All hail that extra man who is not wearing black. So far the officials have been notable by their sensible management of the games.

Guinea coach Michel Dussouyer criticised the South African referee Daniel Bennett for his conduct during the final Group D game between Guinea and Ghana .

While Guinea had a fair shout for a penalty rejected, the team can consider themselves fortunate that one was not awarded against them when skipper Kamil Zayatte pushed Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan to the ground.

Ultimately it was the lack of an accomplished striker that hampered Guinea ’s progress. However that quandary is for another Cup of Nations campaign.

As the clock ticks down to the quarters, it’s time for the nearly men, the Johnny-Come-Latelies, the new kids on the block, the golden boys and the rank outsiders to prepare for gloom or glory.

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