An exciting final day of group matches brought its own headaches as teams, administrators, journalists and fans all had to bring out their calculators on more than one occasion to compute which teams will be going into the quarter-finals and which would be taking their flights home early.
Group A ended somewhat controversially as Mali protested its ouster from the competition in favour of Algeria having scored seven goals compared to the lone strike of the Fennecs. It was Algeria who got the nod to continue in the tournament as their victory over the Eagles counted for more and the Malians, who had fought hard to win their last game 3-1 against Malawi, were edged out as they protested to CAF about match-fixing in the drab Angola-Algeria goalless draw.
Group D was to serve up more drama as three teams ended the day with four points, giving each an equal chance of progressing to the quarter-finals. Zambia edged out Gabon 2-1, while Cameroon picked a 2-2 draw with Tunisia to set up a most interesting scenario. The trio of Gabon, Cameroon and Zambia, all with four points, had lost a match to one another and so CAF’s head-to-head could not eventually separate them. What to do? CAF employed the goals scored rule, which meant that goal shy Gabon, with only two goals in the tournament, were edged out, leaving come-from-behind Zambia as leaders and Cameroon in second place. Talk about last minute drama.
It was more regular for Ghana in Group B, as they knew they had to beat Burkina Faso to qualify for the quarter-finals. Ivory Coast had already picked up the first ticket in the three-team group from which Togo were disqualified after they had decided to leave the tournament because of the terrorist attack on their team bus. A youthful Ghanaian side, having all to fight for, eventually beat the Burkinabe 1-0 to send a message to their next opponents that they are a still a force, even without injured skipper Michael Essien. The Burkinabe, who had started well by clinching a goalless draw against Ivory Coast, were made to pay for their poor finishing leaving them out and cold, the only team not to have scored a goal in the tournament.
The Egyptians continued their fine run of form when they dispatched Benin 2-0 to confirm their strength. It was nine out of nine for the Pharaohs, who have not lost a game in the Nations Cup since 2004, and they would gladly let anybody know that they are in Angola to win their third successive African title and seventh overall. Nigeria came back into reckoning with a confident 3-0 win over Mozambique to come second in Group C.
Having started on a poor note, Africa’s five World Cup representatives eventually made the quarter-finals. This means that the last eight is a gathering of the best of African football with the early pretenders Malawi, Gabon and Benin not able to maintain their promise.
It is anyone’s guess who will triumph at the end of the day from the pool of eight countries left in the tournament. They all have their different patterns of play and motivations. The pairings have already set up some truly interesting match-ups with Egypt against Cameroon the most interesting of all, a replay of the final at Ghana 2008. The Lions will have revenge on their minds, but will they be able to stand against a very tactically gifted side in Egypt with their defensive shortfall?
World Cup-bound Ivory Coast and Algeria will take on each other, while hosts Angola will entertain last time's hosts Ghana. Nigeria will play surprise Group D winners Zambia for the first time in the tournament since their 1994 final which Nigeria won 2-1.
Each of the teams has all to play for and the excitement has yet to hit its peak in the tournament as we edge towards the last team standing.