As Ghana and Egypt managed the dying minutes of their respective quarterfinals with little fuss, there was a sense order was being restored in the African Nations Cup. This has been an unpredictable, see-sawing tournament of few certainties but on Sunday, when it all shook down, the big names did what was necessary and now look strong favourites to contest the final on Sunday.
So far, Gabon 2017 has been the most entertaining AFCON of this decade — in large part due to the willingness of most teams to attempt progressive, attacking football. Most of the 16 who started here gained some kind of reward, at least one memorable moment, stunning goal or shock outcome. Sunday, though, felt like a concession to predictability — even if neither Ghana, in defeating DR Congo 2-1, nor Egypt, in overcoming Morocco 1-0 through Kahraba’s late winner, had an easy ride.
Both rode their luck at times but one telling statistic suggests they are beating paths towards a showdown at Stade de L’Amitie. Between them, the Black Stars and the Pharoahs have conceded just two goals in seven games here. Those were the Mohamed Salah thunderbolt that settled matters when they met in Group D and another extraordinary long-range goal from the Congolese winger Paul-Jose M’Poku, which temporarily leveled the tie against Ghana in Oyem.
For all the thrills further forward, it is shaping up to be an event settled in favour of a stingy backline. Egypt, in particular, have been uncompromising throughout. Four games have brought as many clean sheets although they were exposed by Herve Renard’s lively, athletic Morocco during periods of the second half in Port-Gentil on Sunday — especially when Aziz Bouhaddouz failed to connect with the goal gaping two yards out. Avram Grant’s Ghana were fortunate that Dieumerci Mbokani was in profligate form of his own during the first half of their quarterfinal, but efficiency won out and as the tournament enters its latter stages that may become a running theme.
Ghana’s tie with Cameroon on Thursday will be their sixth consecutive Nations Cup semifinal. Egypt are now unbeaten in a remarkable 23 finals matches in this, a record stretching back to 2004, and know exactly what it takes to do the minimum required on this stage.
“We both had chances but we were lucky to get the goal from a dead ball,” observed the Egypt coach, Hector Cuper, of the Morocco game and that is eventually a winning formula for anyone at a major tournament — organisation at both ends and the ability to make the most of set-piece opportunities.
The lack of cutting edge in teams otherwise stocked with high-level players has been glaringly evident. Senegal, for example, would probably be Africa’s best side if they could call upon a centre-forward of comparable standard to the rest of their team and that problem was laid bare in their defeat to a generally inferior Cameroon. Their inefficiency had already been apparent during the group stage; once the knockouts began it proved fatal.
Not that no more space remains for the kind of chaotic, bolt-from-the-blue intervention that can turn a finals on its head. When Aristide Bance, the much-travelled Burkina Faso striker who has become a cult figure in recent years, lashed in the improbable late free kick that gave the Stallions a dramatic victory of their own against Tunisia it was a reminder that surprises do not need to be confined to the group stage.
Burkina Faso are an easy team for the neutral to get behind over the next few days. They’re a slick, free-flowing side at their best, whose players come from a range of backgrounds and form a whole that feels less predictable than their rivals. They will run Egypt close in Libreville on Wednesday and probably deserve equal billing. After all, they were runners-up in 2013 and have become one of African football’s freshest powers.
Whether they have the nous and game management to go one better than four years ago remains to be seen. Along with Hugo Broos’ impressive, quickly assembled young Cameroon side, Burkina Faso are the oxygen the last four of this competition needs — but the impression remains that this will eventually be an AFCON for the battle-hardened units assembled by Cuper and Grant.