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African Nations heading for Quarter-final stage

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(Part 2 of two-part series)

The preliminary rounds of the finals of the African Nations Cup, the most prestigious football competition on the African continent, comes to an end on Wednesday of this week.{{more}} Thus far, five teams have qualified from the four groups into which the 16 competing nations are divided – Zambia and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea from Group A, tournament favourite the Ivory Coast from Group B, and the other co-hosting country, Gabon and the experienced Tunisians from Group C.

The qualifiers from Group D will be the last to be known, since the four teams play their final qualifying matches on Wednesday. However, based on results so far, another highly-fancied nation, Ghana, seems likely to go through. The star-studded Ghanaians have won both of their group matches so far, though not with the ease expected. Ghana could only eke out a 1-0 victory over Botswana in its opening game, but was a little more comfortable in a 2-0 win over Mali. The big surprise in this group was Guinea’s 6-1 mauling of Botswana, after itself losing its opening encounter with Mali. Both these teams have 3 points each and a Guinean defeat of Ghana plus a Mali victory over Botswana could leave all teams tied on 6 points.

The other eyebrow-raisers have come in Group A. Here, Equatorial Guinea, disregarded except for home advantage, began with a 1-0 win over the plucky Libyans and then went one better, edging another top-ranked team, Senegal, 2-1. But just when it seemed to be plain sailing, the home team stumbled against Zambia, losing by a solitary goal to put the Zambians ahead in the group. Disappointment at losing would, for the players at least been tempered by the $1 million payout that each received from the President’s son for winning their opening match. Remember our comment about the country’s wealth and how it is abused?

The biggest shocker of the competition came from Senegal, overseas stars and all. Continuing a trend in African Nations football, where many favourites fail, the Senegalese lost all three of their matches, to make an ignominious exit. The only smiling faces are likely to be in the dressing rooms of the European clubs to which the Senegalese stars are contracted, because it means they will be returning early for league duty.

One favourite, which has held its own so far, is the Ivory Coast. With a line-up including six English Premier League top players, the Ivorians are strongly tipped to win the Cup and, though not at their best, have won their two matches so far. In this group (B), Angola needs only a draw against the Ivory Coast to qualify, but Sudan still has a chance, if it conquers Burkina Faso and the Angolans lose.

Finally, in Group C, both Gabon and Tunisia have won their opening matches and while they play each other on Tuesday, it is only first place at stake since neither of the disappointing Morocco and the newcomers from Niger can qualify.

The quarter-finals begin on Saturday. Follow the action with SEARCHLIGHT.

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