Cape Verde astounded as they held hosts South Africa to a draw on the opening day on 19 January. That was followed in Group C by 10 man Ethiopia ’s 1-1 draw against the defending champions Zambia and Burkina Faso ’s 1-1 stalemate with Nigeria.
The overachieving underdogs confront each other on day two of Group C in Nelspruit. Both will have different mindsets. In the first match it was about damage limitation especially for Ethiopia after goalkeeper Tasew Jemal was sent off in the first half for a crude challenge on Lungu Chisamba.
Now qualification for the quarter-finals is in sight. Ethiopia coach Sewnet Bishaw has no doubts that his team can edge closer at the expense of Burkina Faso .
“My players performed well to get a draw against the defending champions,” says Bishaw. “They’re all new to the Africa Cup of Nations and they’re young. Only one of them is over 30, most are around 23 or 24, so they’re very happy to be at such a tournament and they’re getting huge experience for the coming years.”
Indeed Ethiopia were last in the competition in 1982. But before that they were very much part of the tournament’s fabric. They played in the first Africa Cup of Nations in 1957 and won the competition in 1962.
But that was long ago. Bishaw says his side is capable of the maintaining their challenge and attributes their resilience to the flurry of games they’ve been playing in 2014 World Cup qualifiers and also to reach the last 16 in South Africa.
“We’re leading our World Cup qualifying group and we’ve played friendly matches against the likes of South Africa, Benin, Central African Republic, Tunisia, and Tanzania. These teams have professionals in them and our players faced them and took them on. We’ve learned from those games.”
Skipper Dege Debebe should be available for the fixture against Burkina Faso after missing the opener through suspension. That should see a return to the frontline of vice-captain Adane Girma who scored his side’s goal against Zambia .
“Because we were obviously worried about the Zambian team we put Girma in midfield. He normally plays up front but he’ll go where I put him but I knew he could be dangerous from midfield.”
How Burkina Faso counter the threat of Ethiopia should be intriguing. Coach Paul Put says he’s aware of their ability to play short passes through midfield and into attack.
“They’re strong and aggressive and all have good technique," says the Belgian. "You have to respect what they did against Zambia. To hold the defending champions to a draw with only 10 men shows what a good team they are.
“But on saying that we know their strengths and weaknesses.”
Burkina Faso go into the game with an injury concern over Alain Traoré who came on in the second half and scored the equaliser in the dying seconds against Nigeria.
“We’ll wait up until the last moment to see if he can play but we won’t take any risks with him," adds Put. "If he can do it, he’ll play, if not we have other options.”
Put said his side was likely to open up cautiously against Ethiopia.
“We want to read the game and see what we can do. We know about Ethiopia on the counter-attack. They are very strong so we’re not likely to go out all guns blazing. We’ll create chances, we made them against Nigeria .”
Put’s players see the game as an opportunity to steal the headlines.
“When you see the adverts on the TV, it’s Zambian or Nigerian players who are the stars,” says Charles Kaboré. “It’s up to us show that we have good players too. We’ve been working for that with the coaching and technical staff.”
“Of course it’s going to be difficult," skipper Moumouni Dagano adds. "Everyone’s talking about Ethiopia after what they did against Zambia and they’ve become the favourites for this match but if we’re on our game we can beat them.
“It won’t be easy because if they’re at the tournament, it’s because they deserve to be here. But we’re going out for the three points. And we’ll be going right until the end. You saw what happened against Nigeria . We scored in the 95th minute.”
Put underscores his skipper’s stance.
“If we don’t have ambition we should have stayed in Burkina Faso. We did a hard job to qualify and the players are keen to do something for themselves and the country. They’ve been to tournaments before where they haven’t won a single point so they’re playing for pride and their honour. They’re going to do everything possible when they play.
“If we can qualify from this group that would be a very big result.”