The quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) begin on an explosive note today when three-time champions, Nigeria, come up against another former champion, South Africa, each aiming to move a step closer to lifting the trophy.
The Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana come into this game aware that the stakes are very high: a victory will ensure their progress in the tournament, while a loss will be the end of their campaign.
Although the two sides have met in either the FIFA World Cup or AFCON qualifiers in the past, this will be the third time they will play against each other with the Super Eagles being winners of the previous clashes in 2000 and 2004.
Their most recent clash came during the qualifiers for this competition, with the South Africans winning 2-0 in Johannesburg and then holding the Nigerians 1-1 at their backyard. However, by now, the two sides are aware also that records have meant very little at this competition, which has been spiced up with upsets.
The Bafana Bafana, African champions in 1996, qualified for the knockout stages as one of the third-best sides but stunned overwhelming favourites and record seven-time winners, Egypt, in their Round of 16 tie, with Thembinkosi Lorch’s brilliant strike in the 85th minute knocking out the hosts.
Since their 1996 triumph, Bafana Bafana have struggled to impress at subsequent AFCONs, but the victory over the Pharaohs not only put the spotlight on Stuart Baxter’s side but also rekindled their self-belief and are unlikely to suffer complexes against the Super Eagles.
Coach Baxter has managed to build a compact team solid at the rear and also in midfield, but they have not been very clinical in attack as they have managed just two goals in the four matches played so far.
Such a performance may be worrying but Baxter will be happy, if they are able to score and protect such slim margins to progress into the penultimate round.
“Ideally, we should be scoring more goals, but the other side may also have their own plans, so if we get just a goal and are able to protect it to the end, that will be good to see us through. At this point, it’s more about the win and not the number of goals scored,” Baxter said at a pre-match press conference.
Having survived against Cameroun, succumbing to a 1-0 lead before recovering to win 3-2, and with some potential winners suffering surprise elimination, the Nigerians could be feeling like champions in waiting with South Africa a threat to their ambitions.
If the Super Eagles are to survive, they will have to be alert from the start to the end and avoid momentarily loss of concentration and sometimes complacency which saw them suffer a shock 0-2 loss to Madagascar in their final group game, which pushed them to second place in Group B.
Nigeria and South Africa are two of the three sides to have won their Round of 16 matches within regulation time, so they have not been overstretched and will go into today’s game fresh and battle ready.
The first quarter-finals match will see Senegal and Benin clash in an all-West Africa encounter, as the Teranga Lions seek to progress to the semi-finals for the first time since 2006, while the Squirrels of Benin eye their first semi-finals berth ever.
Although the Lions had shown so much promise in the past, they have hardly impressed at the AFCON since playing in the final which they lost 2-3 on penalties to Nigeria in 2002.
The past two years have seen the rekindling of their fighting spirit as their coach, Aliou Cisse, has succeeded in building a team around their Liverpool forward Sadio Mane who is good enough to challenge for the AFCON title. But often, the Lions have looked promising but disappointed when it mattered most.
The Squirrels have never gone past the group stage in their four previous AFCON appearances. In Egypt, they qualified as one of the best third-placed sides but the manner in which they prevailed against Morocco, their 10-man team holding on to a 1-1 draw in 120 minutes before winning 4-1 on penalties speaks volumes of what Coach Michel Dussuyer and his team are determined to achieve in Egypt.