LIBREVILLE,Gabon February 3 – Zambia, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Ghana appear the likely winners of the 2012 Cup of Nations quarter-finals across central Africa this weekend.
The football feast begins Saturday with two fixtures in Equatorial Guinea — Zambia and Sudan in mainland port city Bata followed by the co-hosts and Ivory Coast in island capital Malabo.
Gabon stages both Sunday showdowns with the co-hosts playing Mali in coastal capital Libreville before Ghana tackle Tunisia in south-eastern city Franceville.
Ghana have won the biennial African football showpiece four times and Ivory Coast, Sudan and Tunisia once, Zambia and Mali were runners-up, Gabon reached the last eight once before and Equatorial Guinea never.
While title co-favourites Ivory Coast and Ghana are still on course for the February 12 final, Morocco and Senegal failed to match expectations that they would go far and were the biggest first-round casualties.
Equatorial Guinea provided the biggest surprise, defeating Libya and Senegal to secure a knockout place despite changing coaches less than three weeks before the tournament began, and lacking any big-name footballers.
Few pundits or bookmakers gave Sudan much chance either, but the Jediane Falcons have shown gradual improvement with a narrow loss to Ivory Coast followed by a draw with Angola and a victory over Burkina Faso.
Gabon, whose only previous last-eight appearance came 16 years ago, are revelling in the fanatical support of the central African nation, led by President Ali Bongo and the First Lady.
Host nations have won two of the last four Cup of Nations tournaments and another finished third so Gabon going all the way and lifting the trophy is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
However, Ivory Coast and Ghana have done nothing to suggest they cannot deliver a rematch of the 1992 final with the Elephants winning all three group games and the Black Stars two before drawing with Guinea.
Ivorian coach Francois Zahoui has proved the ultimate pragmatist as he seeks to banish memories of recent Cup of Nations failures — stressing that victory is all that matters and if it comes from a last-minute goal, so be it.
Zahoui does things his way, including playing two practice matches against the Equatoguinean club champions during the tournament and fielding a virtual ‘B’ side in a comfortable win over Angola.
Having scored just once against outclassed Botswana, Ghana were far too good for Mali only to concede a soft goal against Guinea and had to settle for a draw that still left them top of the table.
Zambia want to raise the trophy in honour of the 1993 national squad, most of which was killed in a plane crash off the Gabonese coast, and superstitious French coach Herve Renard wears the same white shirt on match-days.
After doing well to overcome Guinea, Mali were exposed by Ghana and needed a late goal from Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita to edge Botswana, leaving coach and former France star Alain Giresse a concerned man.
Tunisia began impressively by defeating Morocco in a Maghreb derby, snatched a last-minute victory over limited Niger and fell to Gabon, admittedly with a team lacking several rested first choices.
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, the son of a former Gabon captain, will hope to maintain the only goal-a-game record in the tournament and finish top scorer as fellow leaders Moroccan Houcine Kharja and Angolan Manucho are heading home.
The organisers must wish for larger crowds at games not involving the hosts, especially in Malabo and Franceville where even CAF Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure and BBC Footballer of the Year Andre Ayew have failed to woo many fans.