Africa Cup of Nations: More surprises in store?
By Piers Edwards
Predicting that Ivory Coast and Ghana would make the final four of the Africa Cup of Nations might have elicited a groan of boredom among African football fans prior to the competition's start, given the lack of originality.
But, conversely, anyone venturing that the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea would join the African heavyweights in the semi-finals may well have had their sanity questioned – particularly in the case of the hosts.
Everything about the Equatoguineans' progress defies footballing convention.
As most people know, after their elimination from qualifying in July for fielding an ineligible player, they are only in the competition because they agreed to host the finals at short notice in mid-November.
The Tunisians swiftly vented their understandable frustration at the referee and their opponents, with plenty of pushing and shoving that went unpunished.
As Equatorial Guinea took advantage of the North Africans' total lack of focus, the final whistle created pure chaos. At least five players – hell-bent on vengeance – chased Mauritian referee Seechurn Rajindraparsad towards the tunnel before being stopped by security forces.
The victory sparked one of the biggest all-night parties ever seen in Equatorial Guinea.
But even if the hosts receive similar largesse in the semi-final against Ghana, it's hard to see them pushing out one of African football's heavyweights.
Ghana's Black Stars are improving with every game, no surprise given they are also under a new coach, Avram Grant, who'll be buoyed by Christian Atsu's fine goalscoring display in Sunday's 3-0 win over Guinea.
But Grant will be highly concerned by the injury suffered by key man Asamoah Gyan, badly kicked by Guinea's goalkeeper late on, who had to be helped on to the team bus.
This will be the Black Stars' fifth straight Nations Cup semi-final but only once have they gone on to the final itself, when they lost to Egypt in 2010.
Ivory Coast can boast a better record in recent times, having made the final in both 2006 and 2012 – albeit losing both on penalties.
There's been so much talk of this golden generation winning something but if they finally clinch their first title since 1992, and only their second overall, they will do so without some mainstays of recent years – such as Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora and Emmanuel Eboue.
They still have the Toure brothers and Gervinho, while new Manchester City signing Wilfried Bony – a handy ready-made replacement for Drogba – came alive in the 3-1 defeat of Algeria by burying the two chances that came his way.
Seven weeks later, they played their first match in six months – just hours after the appointment of a new coach, Argentina's Esteban Becker, who swiftly changed a third of the squad.
A new side needs time to bed down, we're always told, but not the tournament's rank outsiders (Equatorial Guinea were rated 118th by Fifa).
Continue reading the main story
The victory sparked one of the biggest all-night parties ever seen in Equatorial Guinea ”
On Saturday night, Becker led the small central African nation to its greatest sporting success, although the 2-1 extra-time victory over Tunisia was drenched in controversy.
The North Africans were 1-0 up in stoppage time and cruising, their goalkeeper having only been forced into one meaningful save, until the referee awarded the softest of penalties.
It made a mockery of the hosts' earlier claims about a plot to eliminate them from the competition.
It also sparked lift-off among the Estadio de Bata's 35,000 spectators, a tally that equates to just under 5% of Equatorial Guinea's entire population.
But there were some unwanted scenes as well.
I watched Sunday night's game with DR Congo fans and all were hoping Algeria would make it through so that they didn't have to face the might of the Ivory Coast's Elephants in Wednesday's semi-final in Bata.
One thing is certain though.
Should they find themselves two goals down in the semi-finals after an hour, they will believe they can come back. They staged one of the best comebacks in recent times against Congo, scoring four unanswered goals to register a famous 4-2 win in Saturday's first quarter-final.
Despite such a display and the relentless optimism of the host nation, where many genuinely believe they can reach the final, most football fans will be expecting a repeat of the 1992 final, when Ivory Coast met Ghana in Dakar, as this competition comes to a head on Sunday.
Is that a groan I hear?