Mighty Ivorians test for Equatorial Guinea
Malabo: Equatorial Guinea`s lower-league footballers and little-known journeymen will try and upset a side containing household names like Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure at the African Nations Cup on Saturday.
The co-hosts`s unlikely collection of players, some born and raised in Spain with parents from the African country and others also foreign-born but naturalised, have already surpassed their wildest expectations by reaching the quarter-finals.
On Saturday they attempt to produce an even bigger shock by eliminating the powerful Ivory Coast who won all three of their group games without conceding a goal.
"I`ve never viewed us as underdogs," Equatorial Guinea`s Brazilian coach Gilson Paulo told a news agency. "Perhaps people in the media see us as underdogs but we aim to go as far as possible."
In other matches co-hosts Gabon, spearheaded by French-based striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his distinctive Mohican hairstyle, face Seydou Keita`s Mali and with home backing would appear to be favourites to go through.
Vibrant and attack-minded Zambia meet Sudan, another surprise package, while Ghana, joint favourites alongside the Ivorians, take on dangerous Tunisia in two ties difficult to predict.
The tournament, which could have turned into a damp squib after Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa and Egypt failed to qualify, has become one of the best in recent years, serving up plentiful helpings of drama and last-minute goals.
With most teams prepared to take risks and play attacking football, expectations are high for this weekend`s matches.
There have been outstanding goals, including several from long-range free kicks, and lots of dramatic finishes including Gabon scoring in the 95th minute to beat Morocco 3-2 to qualify for the last eight.
One downside is stadiums have been almost deserted when the host teams are not in action although the 15,000-capacity Estadio Nuevo de Malabo is likely to prove too small when Equatorial Guinea host 1992 winners Ivory Coast.
Beating the Ivorians may prove a bridge too far for the co-hosts who advanced after thrilling last-gasp wins over Libya and Senegal.
Ivory Coast, who have six players in their squad from the English Premier League including Chelsea striker Drogba and Manchester City midfielder Toure, five from Ligue 1 and two from the Bundesliga, showed their strength in depth on Monday.
Having already reached the last eight, they made nine changes and still beat Angola 2-0.
The Elephants seem to have been given a steely edge by coach Francois Zahoui who has repeatedly emphasised his mission is to take the trophy back to Abidjan, even if the country`s media do not appreciate a more cautious and pragmatic approach.
"Football is not just about technique," he told reporters. "It`s about physical condition, tactics and a strong mental attitude.
"It`s wrong to think Equatorial Guinea are a weak team. We have to keep our heads cool and face our opponents with great humility."
Gabon, who face Mali on Sunday, look a stronger bet for a place in the semi-finals than their fellow hosts.
Aubameyang, 22, has been one of the tournament`s outstanding players, inspiring his side`s attacking style as they won all three group games.
Their victory over Tunisia, in a game where both teams had already qualified, came after the North Africans made eight chances to their side.
That is a decision Tunisia may live to regret after second place in the group earned a match against Ghana in Franceville on Sunday.
The Black Stars, World Cup quarter-finalists in 2010, have only scored four goals but three have been among the most spectacular of the tournament including Emmanuel Agyemang Badu`s volley in the 1-1 draw with Guinea.
Sudan, who face Zambia on Saturday, reached the last eight after beating Burkina Faso, their first win in the finals since landing the title in 1970.
The Sudanese have spent a long time in the doldrums since then but have benefited from a relatively strong domestic league and, uniquely, have all their players based at home.