The round of 16 at the ongoing African Cup of nations had almost everything. It was intriguing, nail biting, had all the excitement and above all full of upsets.
Most people have been so used to the 16 team tournament that they questioned the viability of expanding the tournament to 24 teams, lamenting that expanding the competition will reduce the excitement and also pave way for so many also runs.
But come to think of the teams in the round of 16 and many naysayers will be re-writing their notes about them.
If not for this 24 team idea how would this exciting Malagasy team qualify for the competition talk of reach the quarter finals against all odds?
We have seen Benin hold their own against Ghana, Cameroon and eliminating Herve Renad’s Morocco although their game plan has been very conservative with them yet to win a match but at the quarter finals stage.
Its only at this year’s Afcon that Benin and Tunisia have failed to win a single game in their four matches played so far but have managed to sneak into the quarter finals portraying the nation that the competition this year is weak which I disagree.
In tournament football survival or progression is key as attack win you games but defence wins you tournaments.
During the group stages of the tournament, there was that odd game which was ponderous and lacked quality but I believe teams have stepped up a notch higher in the knock out stages.
We take a look at the semifinals and how things may pun out.
SENEGAL VS BENIN
The semifinals begins today with Senegal playing against Benin with the former undoubtedly favourites for the tie.
Senegal with all their star studded names are yet to sparkle in the tournament struggling to beat Uganda with their defence standing tall in that game.
Aliou Cisse’s team can boast of Ismaila Sarr,Mbaye Niang, Khalidou Coulibably, Sadio Mane who has scored three goals so far but the supporting cast of Mbaye Niang especially has been disappointing to say the least.
Ismaila Sarr and Balde Keita Diao must do a lot to influence games and left the burden upfront on Star man Mane.
Michel Dussuyer’s side who are yet to lose or win a game so far in the tournament have built their team on defensive solidity with rapid counter breaks.
Both teams are yet to win the Afcon trophy and will like to take a giant step towards making history.
It’s their first time meeting in the nations cup but Senegal remain favourites but hope you remember what happened to most favourites in the last round?
NIGERIA VS SOUTH AFRICA
It’s among the two glamour ties most football purist will be salivating when three time champions Nigeria take on 1996 winners South Africa.
South Africa started their campaign at the speed of a hot plate managing to sneak into the round of 16 as one of the four best third placed teams.
The Bafana Bafana caused a major stir by eliminating host nation and favourites Egypt in their round of 16 encounter.
South Africa seem to be peaking at the right time with Stuart Baxter loosening the noose on the team.
These two teams were in the same group during the Afcon qualifies with South Africa beating Nigeria 2 nil in Uyo before drawing 1-1 back in Johannesburg.
Odion Ighalo is in the form of his life but Stuart Baxter claims he has no special plans for the the China based frontman. Captain Ahmed Musa has been in and out of the team but is expected to feature with the only constant factor been Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi who will start. Samuel Chwukueze and Moses Simon may have to watch on from the substitute’s bench. Premier Soccer League’s (PSL) Player’s player of the year Thembinkosi Lorch is expected to keep his place on the left flank with Percy Tau and Lebo Mothiba completing the trio. With Dean Furman,Bongani Zungu and Mokojto completing the midfield engine room.
The defence will have the usual suspects with Thulani Hlastwayo marshalling the backline.
Nigeria have played South Africa 13 times winning 6 drawing 5 and losing twice.
Though Nigeria boast a better head to head record, they are yet to win a game against South Africa in their last five meetings the latest in Johannesburg ending 1-1 but still remain favourites for this tie.
IVORY COAST VS ALGERIA
It’s the elite game of the of the quarter finals with two time champions Ivory Coast coming up against 1990 winners Algeria.
The Fennecs have been the most in form team in the tournament winning all matches sofar, scoring for fun and keeping a clean sheet in each of their four games played.
Captain Riyad Mahrez was in an inspiring form when they brushed aside Guinea 3 nil in the last round .
Meanwhile the Ivorians have not been too impressive but managed to beat Mali in the last round after a well taken Wilfred Zaha goal although the Malians dominated and had good chances to have won the day.
Coach Ibrahim Camara prefers to start upfront with Jonathan Kodjia in the middle with Nicholas Pepe and Max Allan Gradel either side of him but Zaha may have given him a rethink with his match winner against Mali.
Adam Ounas is yet to start a game but is among the top scorers, Youcef Belaili has been sublime with Baghdad Bounedjah leading the line. The Algerians with form are favourites. Ivory Coast have won once against the Algerians in their last three meetings.
A 3-1 victory in the 2015 Afcon quarter finals which they lifted the trophy with the remaining two matches ending in draws.
MADAGASCAR VS TUNISIA
Minnows Madagascar have confounded all pundits and African football enthusiast with their incredible performance so far in the tournament.
But perhaps this quarter final stage game against Tunisia may be a mountain too high to climb.
The Islanders defeated DR Congo 5-4 on penalties have lead both times throughout the game.
Nicholas Dupuis has crafted a well drilled side with a solid defensive base even with Jeremy Morel missing from their back line.
The Barea’s are not expected to make too many changes with Ibrahim Amada and Faneva Andriatsima expected to cause havoc.
Tunisia who eliminated perennial favourites Ghana are yet to win or lose a game so far in the competition.
But expect Yussif Msakni, Wabhi Kahzri and Taha Yassine Khenissi to end the fairytale Malagasy run.
VAR COMES INTO PLAY
Ghana coach Kwasi Appiah bemoaned the lack of the divisive Video Assistant Referee (VAR) as his side where denied what appeared to be a clean goal against Tunisia but VAR is set to debut at this stage of the tournament.
The Confederations of African Football (CAF) announced the much talked about VAR will be operational in the quarter finals stage.
The system, that has caused controversy in other football tournaments had originally been left out in the opening rounds as a “measure of prudence”.
“Those countries that use VAR did not rush into it from the start. It’s a technology that a lot of people don’t completely use yet,” CAF president Ahmad Ahmad told reporters before the tournament.
So expect some more drama as the tournaments goes on.