Egypt and Senegal well-positioned as African Nations Cup quarters begin
The last eight are set for the African Nations Cup, and ESPN FC's Nick Ames breaks down the four knockout-round matches to assess which teams have the best chance to advance and perhaps win the biennial continental tournament.
Burkina Faso vs. Tunisia
On paper, this is the quarterfinal tie that stands out the least; on the pitch in Libreville, things might be quite different. Tunisia, often known for being niggly and attritional, have played attractive attacking football at this tournament under Henri Kasperczak, while Burkina Faso are arguably the most technical and free-flowing of the west African sides. Paulo Duarte's Stallions, surprise runners-up in 2013, did the required job in winning Group A, and the form of Chelsea forward Bertrand Traore -- currently on loan at Ajax -- has given cause for encouragement, particularly with captain Charles Kabore pulling the midfield strings behind him.
Tunisia, though, have already disposed of highly fancied Algeria and, ever since half-time in their opening defeat to Senegal, have looked a force to be reckoned with. Sunderland's Wahbi Khazri has been influential between the lines of midfield and attack, while Youssef Msakni's form has been similarly excellent. This year, Tunisia have the guile to cause anyone problems; after their 4-2 win over Zimbabwe, Kasperczak said, "I do not think we have to change the strategy in order to go further in the competition." So perhaps another high-scoring tie can be expected.
Even if not, it might still be worth hanging on until the end. When these sides last contested a quarterfinal, in Burkina Faso's home tournament 19 years ago, the Burkinabe won 8-7 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
Senegal vs. Cameroon
These two traditional powers meet in what is undoubtedly the tie of the quarterfinal round -- and one that Senegal manager Aliou Cisse regards as "unfinished business." Cisse's penalty shootout miss in the 2002 Cup of Nations final meant Senegal lost to Cameroon, and they have never come as close, before or since, to winning the competition.
"If there has to be a favourite, it must be Cameroon," says Cisse of the match in Franceville, but while the Indomitable Lions have four titles to their name, a look at the modern-day squads tells another story. Senegal, with a core of Premier League talent, cruised through their group; Cameroon did not always convince on their way to qualification from a mundane Group A, although coach Hugo Broos deserves credit for creating a sharp and cohesive unit from a squad that, for a variety of reasons, lacks the experienced names of old.
It is a clash of big hitters that could go the distance, although Senegal, who were able to rest the likes of Sadio Mane and Cheikhou Kouyate from their final group game against Algeria, should have the edge when a touch of extra quality or composure is required. If they make it through, the case for them finally breaking that AFCON duck will look increasingly compelling.
DR Congo vs. Ghana
As long as the pitch in Oyem has dried out -- it was partly underwater when Mali and Uganda used it Wednesday night -- this could be the last eight's closest-run affair. Ghana, under manager Avram Grant, are yet to put in a 90-minute performance, although there have been signs in all three of their games -- 1-0 wins versus Uganda and Mali, and a single-goal reverse to Egypt -- that their attacking players are forming some genuine understanding. That might be stopped in its tracks by the groin injury captain Asamoah Gyan suffered against the Egyptians. He appears to be a serious doubt for the game and has been undergoing treatment at Ghana's training base after a scan showed the problem was not as bad as first feared.
Any Gyan absence would be a boost to DR Congo, but the Leopards have their own reasons to feel confident. Manager Florent Ibenge's side, which finished third in Equatorial Guinea two years ago, have cast aside the absence of injured Everton winger Yannick Bolasie to look a confident, compact unit with a potent attacking thrust. Junior Kabananga, the Astana forward, is the tournament's top goal scorer so far, with three, while the likes of Neeskens Kebano and Firmin Mubele have also made big contributions. The Congolese do not have Ghana's big names, but they are exceptionally coached by the locally born Ibenge and might just pull off a minor surprise to reach the last four again.
Egypt vs. Morocco
The bobbly, rough pitch in Port-Gentil was seen by many as the short straw for quarterfinalists, but Egypt were happy enough to keep their base in Gabon's second city. They may have been happy, too, to be pitted against a Morocco side short of household names, but this north African derby between in-form teams is not a straightforward one to call. The Moroccans, coached by double AFCON winner Herve Renard, started with a limp defeat to DR Congo, but victories over Togo and -- superbly -- Ivory Coast suggested that the manager's ideas are getting through quickly. "There are better teams than us in this cup, but we have a chance to prove ourselves when we are confronted with them," Renard said ahead of the tie. It is the kind of humility that served him well in 2012 with Zambia and may be brought to bear again.
Morocco will need to test an Egypt defence that has yet to be breached and has been marshalled by a rock-solid centre-back pair of Ahmed Hegazy and Ali Gabr. They gave little away in the group stage and, in front of them, Mohamed Elneny looked brighter in Egypt's win against Ghana after a slow start to the tournament. In attack, Mohamed Salah's late assist in Egypt's win versus Uganda and thumping free kick against the Ghanaians were the pieces of class that have brought Egypt this far. Manager Hector Cuper's side appear to be slowly coming into their own, and should be backed to win this tie -- although nobody can ever rule out a side coached by Renard.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.