MANGOMO, Equatorial Guinea, January 22 – Billed as the toughest group at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, Group C could be done and dusted with a game to spare on Friday.
Algeria, widely tipped as favourites coming into the competition, and dark horses Senegal won their opening games and so could qualify for the last eight if both record wins against Ghana and South Africa respectively.
Meanwhile, the Black Stars and Bafana Bafana, who threw away leads in their opening games, can ill afford a second straight defeat if they are to keep their dreams of the continental title alive.
The first game of a double-header in the eastern Equatoguinean town of Mongomo pits Algeria against Avram Grant’s Ghana, who have been waiting to see if talisman Asamoah Gyan will be able to return after he missed the 2-1 defeat to Senegal on Monday due to a mild bout of malaria.
Ghana led against Senegal courtesy of an Andre Ayew penalty but were pegged back in the second half before losing to a stoppage-time goal by Moussa Sow.
However, Israeli coach Grant, who was only recently appointed, remained upbeat as to his side’s prospects.
“As you saw the players showed good mentality and we hope it will be the same next game. But we knew that if we lost nothing would be decided,” insisted the former Chelsea manager.
Some Ghanaian fans might take it as an omen that the last time they beat Algeria at the Cup of Nations, in 1982 in Libya, is also the last time they won the trophy.
Algeria, meanwhile, come into the game after a dramatic win in their opening game.
Christian Gourcuff’s side trailed 1-0 against South Africa and only a missed penalty by Tokelo Rantie prevented them from falling further behind before they stormed back to win 3-1 with three goals in the final quarter.
“Algeria had not won their opening game at the competition since 1990, so that augurs well for what is to come,” Yacine Brahimi, one of the potential stars of these finals, told Algerian media.
“(The next match) will be like a final. It will be a super match. Ghana will undoubtedly react, while we need to build on our good start to close in on qualifying for the next phase.”
Senegal face South Africa in the second game of the day as the Bafana Bafana look to bounce back from their collapse in their opening match.
“We have a mountain to climb but we are still confident that we will do well in our next match,” coach ‘Shakes’ Mashaba told South African media.
“We still have two games to go. We need to motivate the boys and get them back on their feet because understandably they are dejected.”
Eric Mathoho and Reneilwe Letsholonyane, who missed the first game through suspension, return to contention for South Africa.
However, youngster Rivaldo Coetzee will miss the game with the knee problem that forced him off against Algeria, although he is hoping to return for the final match against Ghana.
Sow is hoping that his goalscoring heroics off the bench against Ghana will be enough for him to be included in Senegal coach Alain Giresse’s starting line-up.
If only one of Senegal or Algeria win, they would still qualify if the day’s other match ends in a draw.