Only one day and two matches remain before the full knockout round is set in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
Tuesday’s matches saw Nigeria advance by the skin of their teeth, scoring two late goals to beat Ethiopia 2-0. Burkina Faso also toothed their way to a 0-0 tie against Zambia, eliminating the defending champion Chipolopolo in the process.
With the matches being streamed on ESPN3.com, Africa’s premier international tournament has received unprecedented exposure and acclaim. On one hand it is sad the tournament is almost finished, but on the other, the best is yet to come.
Let’s preview the rest of the tournament, with predictions on how all the matches will end up:
Match 23 (Group D): Algeria vs. Cote d’Ivoire
Who knows if the Elephants show up for this one? They’ve already clinched a first-place finish in Group D by virtue of wins over Togo and Tunisia.
Algeria isn’t playing for anything of import either—except pride, maybe. Their offense was a big question mark coming into the tournament, and their first two matches were more of the same (they have zero goals in the tournament).
Even if Cote d’Ivoire rest their stars, their second-tier players are probably good enough to break through once. Predicted Winner: Cote d’Ivoire
Match 24 (Group D): Togo vs. Tunisia
This matchup of 1-1-0 teams will determine the second team to advance from Group D.
Despite both sides having three points, Togo have shown much better form thus far. They took Cote d’Ivoire down to the wire (losing on an 88th minute goal from Gervinho), then beat Algeria 2-0 in their second match.
Tunisia, meanwhile, got spanked 3-0 by Cote d’Ivoire after needing a stoppage-time goal to beat Algeria in match one.
The Carthage Eagles are lucky to even be in this position, and on Wednesday, their inferior quality will rear its ugly head. Predicted Winner: Togo
Match 25 (Quarter-finals): Mali vs. South Africa
South Africa did enough to win Group A on their home turf, but didn’t dominate the weak quartet quite as much as expected. Still, they took care of business just as they were supposed to.
A quarterfinal date with Mali is obviously better than one with Ghana, but it is no walk in the park. The Eagles are no team to dally with and, even in Durban, stand a serious chance at pulling out the win.
The retirement of long-time midfield stalwart Steven Peinaar might come back to haunt South Africa in this one. Going up against the likes of Seydou Keita and Mohamed Sissoko, the Bafana Bafana could struggle in the midfield.
Expect that to be the ultimate difference. Predicted Winner: Mali
Match 26 (Quarter-finals): Ghana vs. Cape Verde
A furious rally at the end of Sunday’s match with Angola propelled the Blue Sharks into the knockout stage. Trailing 1-0 in the 81st minute, Fernando Varela and Heldon Ramos both netted late goals for the comeback victory.
Cape Verde proved themselves a giant-killer by eliminating Cameroon in qualifying, but they won’t be able to catch lightning in a bottle twice. The Black Stars are too big, too fast and too talented to be ousted this early. Predicted Winner: Ghana
Match 27 (Quarter-finals): Burkina Faso vs. Togo
Burkina Faso finished tied with Cote d’Ivoire for the second-most goals in group play (5), but those numbers are a little inflated. They beat a hapless Ethiopia side 4-0 in their lone victory and scored only once in their two other matches (both draws).
Togo is here on the strength of either a tie or draw against Tunisia. Unless both teams struggle mightily in Wednesday’s match, Togo will ostensibly have the stronger tournament body of work.
But still, Les Etalians are a fun, scrappy sleeper that—at their best—are a force to be reckoned with. This will be a fun match throughout, but I’ll take Burkina. Predicted Winner: Burkina Faso
Match 28 (Quarter-finals): Cote d’Ivoire vs. Nigeria
Nigeria has been just as capricious as we expected in South Africa, struggling to even advance from an underwhelming Group C. They needed two late goals from Victor Moses on Tuesday to even make the knockout round and now have to face a perennial favorite.
Even so, Cote d’Ivoire can’t be happy with how the draw turned out. At their worst, Nigeria has looked clumsy and unorganized. But at their best, we have inklings into how good they can be. The Super Eagles are loaded on all three lines and are one of the few teams in the draw that can compete talent-wise with the Elephants.
In the end, though, Cote d’Ivoire are too strong to be caught looking ahead. They’ll bring their A-game, which, even if Nigeria follow suit, might be too strong for anybody to overcome. Predicted Winner: Cote d’Ivoire
Match 29: (Semi-finals): Cote d’Ivoire vs. Mali
A rematch of last year’s semifinal in which Gervinho scored the sole goal in a 1-0 Cote d’Ivoire victory.
Mali has looked strong, and if they continue to cultivate talent, they’ll eventually find a way to break through. But Cote d’Ivoire is on a mission after last year’s disappointment, and in present form, Les Aigles aren’t strong enough to get in their way.
Look for a repeat of last year’s result. Predicted Winner: Cote d’Ivoire
Match 30 (Semi-finals): Burkina Faso vs. Ghana
In last year’s semifinal round, Ghana was upset by upstart squad (and eventual Champion) Zambia. Star striker Asamoah Gyan, much like he did against Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup, missed a penalty in regular time, potentially costing his team the match.
Think he’s ready to exorcise some demons?
The Black Stars, rather curiously, haven’t won the Cup of Nations in 30-plus years. But the draw worked out pretty well for them (despite Burkina Faso’s stellar play), and they aren’t likely to squander this title chance. Predicted Winner: Ghana
Match 31 (Final): Cote d’Ivoire vs. Ghana
The inevitable denouement of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
Rarely do the two most talented teams actually make the final—all too often upsets deprive us of such fortune. But just like Netherlands-Spain in the 2010 World Cup, we could be treated to a bravura championship match.
Both squads are perennial giants of African football, but they are also both nursing substantial droughts in this tournament. Cote d’Ivoire hasn’t won since 1992 in Senegal, while Ghana hasn’t won since a decade earlier in Libya.
Both teams have been in rare form during group play, and if they make it this far, they’ll both ostensibly be keeping up that trend. That makes picking a victor pretty difficult.
But at the end of the day, especially in matches this close, I always like to take the best player on the pitch.
And even at his advanced age, it is hard to bestow that title on anyone but Didier Drogba. Predicted Winner: Cote d’Ivoire
Brain Leigh Senior Analyst. Culled from the Bleacher Report