Bata: Neighbours Ghana and Ivory Coast start as overwhelming favourites to set up a mouthwatering African Nations Cup final but must first get past semi-final opponents who have exceeded expectations.
Ivory Coast take on Democratic Republic of Congo in the first semi in Bata on Wednesday, followed a day later by Ghana’s meeting with hosts Equatorial Guinea in Malabo.
Ghana and the Ivorians boast heavyweight squads, in terms of experience, ability and profile, plus a pedigree that makes them hot favourites for Sunday’s final in Bata.
It is Ghana’s fifth successive appearance in the last four while the Ivorians have reached the semi-finals four times in the last six tournaments.
But both ties are likely to be anything but routine assignments. Equatorial Guinea have taken a fairytale route to the last four, albeit with the assistance of some soft penalties which has taken some of the shine off their performance.
But the wonder free kick from Javier Balboa that won them a controversial quarter-final in extra time over Tunisia on Saturday served as a reminder of their potential, particularly with the home crowd behind them.
It will be the first game for Equatorial Guinea in their capital after four successive matches in Bata where the stadium has a larger capacity and generates more of the intense atmosphere that has helped the home team ride a wave of home support.
Opponents Ghana were devastating in beating Guinea 3-0 in their quarter-final on Sunday with cleverly created goals but did see captain Asamoah Gyan hurt in a disgraceful tackle right at the end of the game.
He is now doubtful for Thursday’s match.
Two goals from Wilfred Bony helped Ivory Coast beat Algeria 3-1 on Sunday although they admitted they had been overshadowed by their opponents. "I think we have beaten the best team in the tournament," said Ivorian coach Herve Renard after victory in Malabo.
Democratic Republic of Congo got four goals in a stunning comeback against Congo in their quarter-final triumph on Saturday, marking their first win at the finals since 2006.
They have had years of mediocre returns. They squeezed through the group phase after drawing all three of their matches and only qualified for the tournament as the best third placed side.
But their recent resume does include a sensational 4-3 win in Abidjan in October over the Ivorians in the qualifiers which will serve as a reminder of their ability to produce shock results.