from ALEXIS DOUMBIA in Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Ivory Coast Bureau
ABIDJAN, (CAJ News) – THE knockout phase of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) offers the so-called minnows a platform to further close the gulf between them and the continental giants.
For the beleaguered traditional heavyweights, it is a stage to redeem their pride after a spate of embarrassing outings in the first round.
Some perennial favourites have survived elimination by a whisker, to sneak into the last 16.
Had it not been for a format introduced in 2019 when the tournament was expanded, embattled hosts Ivory Coast would have endured the embarrassment of being thrown out of their own party.
The expansion from 16 to 24 teams enables four of the best third-place finishers to progress alongside the six group winners and runner-ups. Previously, the top two nations from each group qualified.
Thus, Ivory Coast are among these teams that have progressed via “the back door.”
The hosts have been a shambles on and off the pitch. They are therefore underdogs against defending champions Senegal, the only team not to drop points in the first round.
The West African duo will contest the fixture at the Charles Konan Banny Stadium on Monday.
Preceding the match, the Ivorians have the ignominy of suffering the heaviest defeat ever by a host country, losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea.
The defeat has cost coach Jean-Louis Gasset his job. Interim coach, Emerse Fae, will have his work cut out motivating the Elephants against the Teranga Lions.
Nigeria and Cameroon have also been far from convincing in the group stages.
They will relive the final of the 2000 tournament when they play at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium on Saturday.
After a first round of shocks in Ivory Coast, some fixtures pit underdogs against each other.
These include the Cape Verde v Mauritania duel at the Felix Houphouet Boigny on Monday.
Carpe Verde finished top of a group featuring tournament doyen Egypt and Ghana.
Mauritania’s campaign has exceeded expectations by reaching this stage of the tournament, for the first time, and will be under no pressure.
A Southern African derby between Angola and Namibia at Stade de la paix is to keep an eye on.
Namibia have made history by qualifying to the knockout stage while Angola, prior to topping a group that saw Algeria crash out, are two times quarter finalists.
Another derby features West Africans Burkina Faso and Mali on Monday at the Amadou Gon Coulibaly.
A battle of the Guineas adds another twist to what has been an inimitable tournament.
Equatorial Guinea and Republic of Guinea are to contest the last 16 fixture at the Alassane Ouattara on Sunday.
Equatorial Guinea have sprung the biggest surprise after topping a group involving Ivory Coast and Nigeria.
The Ecuatoguineana are the tournament’s highest scorers with nine goals.
It seems a fluke that record holders, Egypt, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are through to this stage as they both drew all three group matches.
Their knockout game is scheduled for the Laurent Pokou on Sunday.
Morocco are the highest ranked side in the continent but have a somewhat unconvincing record against South Africa.
The two teams will contest their knockout fixture at the Laurent Pokou on Tuesday.
– CAJ News