Egypt relish hard route to Africa hat-trick

Stung by World Cup failure, the holders are fired up as the Cup of Nations knock-out stages begin tomorrow. In Lubango, Jonathan Wilson reports
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The Independent Football

For the Angolan government of Jose Manuel dos Santos, the Africa Cup of Nations could hardly have gone better. To judge by the television pictures, every city has united in celebrating the nation side's progress. The media is heavily state-controlled, but it does seem that the country, rich and poor, north and south, is united behind the Black Antelopes. Even on the southern plateau that used to be solid Unita territory during the civil war, patriotic feeling runs deep. "The war is in the past," said Remido, my driver in Lubango, the principal city there. "We're all Angolans now."

For visitors the impression of the country has been broadly positive. That may sound absurd – even insensitive – after the terrorist attacks on the Togo team bus two weeks ago, but the truth is that on the ground that atrocity has barely made an impact. Crowds have been generally impressive, with the stadium in Luanda packed for Angola matches, and every ground at least 80 per cent full, which compares well by the standards of past Cups of Nations – particularly given the security checks that at times have left fans queuing for almost two hours.

How have the World Cup sides fared so far?

It is a Cups of Nation's tradition that the sides going to the World Cup underwhelm, and that has certainly been the case in Angola. Algeria, after a shock defeat to Malawi, found renewed defensive resolve to make it through to the quarter-finals, but scored just once in the group phase, while Nigeria were similarly lacking in fluency, placing both their coaches under threat. Paul le Guen is fresh enough in the Cameroon job still to be secure, but he will know major improvements are needed to a leaky defence if they are to make an impression in South Africa. Ghana have been undermined by injuries to half a dozen of their senior players, meaning that only Ivory Coast looked vaguely impressive. With Didier Drogba subdued, though, even they failed to break down Burkina Faso.

Which are the best of the rest?

Zambia, who always seem to get tough draws, have played with an attacking zest and probably just about deserved the luck that saw them through on goals scored ahead of Gabon. The best side of the group phase by far, though, has been Egypt, who are motivated by the possibility of an unprecedented third straight title, which might go some way to easing the pain of missing out on the World Cup finals again.

Who has the best draw in the knock-out stages?

No Nigerian player will admit it openly, but if before the tournament you had offered them Zambia and then either Angola or a depleted Ghana as a route to the final, they would have eagerly taken that.

And who has the toughest?

Topping their group has done Egypt few favours. They face a reprise of the final of two years ago against Cameroon in the quarter-final, and then either their opponents in the final before that, Ivory Coast, or Algeria, the team who put them out of the World Cup finals in the semis.

Where's the smart money going?

Ivory Coast have the best squad and are perhaps growing into the tournament, Nigeria may feel luck is going their way, home support has inspired Angola, and there is the sense there is far more to come from Cameroon, but it is hard to look beyond Egypt. They give the sense of almost relishing having to beat perhaps as many as four World Cup qualifiers to win a third straight title.

All eyes on the goalkeepers...

Malawi's Swadick Sanudi dealt with crosses as a nervous cat treats a hedgehog, Zambia's Kennedy Mweene dragged an aimless Geremi ball into his own net, Mozambique's Rafael damaged his neck attempting a needless somersault and Algeria's Faouzi Chaouchi cost his side two goals with a hapless display against Malawi. Against that Cameroon's Carlos Kameni and Egypt's Essam El Hadary have emerged with their reputations more or less in tact

Players to watch

At the centre of Egypt's progress has been their 34-year-old captain, Ahmed Hassan, a neat midfield prompter. Angola's 30-year-old forward Flavio scored three fine headed goals in his first two group games before succumbing to a knee injury, while the Lokomotiv Moscow winger Peter Odemwingie has been the one positive feature of Nigeria's otherwise misfiring forward line.

If Cameroon are to see off Egypt, they need Alex Song to perform as he did in the second half against Tunisia, while Ivory Coast, if they are to avoid the predictability that has undone them in the past two tournaments, need Gervinho, the Lille striker, to dazzle rather more consistently than he did in their two group games.

Is it possible to host a tournament on a dream?

Whenever the question is asked just why the Confederation of African Football decided to grant the 2010 Cup of Nations to Angola, the answer always comes back that it is a burgeoning country that deserves a chance to rehabilitate itself after 27 years of civil war. Maybe it does, but at what cost to the tournament?

Africa Cup of Nations: Quarter-finals


Angola v Ghana (4pm, Luanda)

Ivory Coast v Algeria (7.30pm, Cabinda)


Egypt v Cameroon (4pm, Benguela)

Zambia v Nigeria (7.30pm, Lubango)

All matches live on Eurosport