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Africa Cup of Nations

Afcon 2021: Fear of failure will fuel semi-finalists’ thirst for success

14:55 GMT+3 02/02/2022
Afcon 2021 — Aboubakar, Salah, Bertrand Traore and Sadio Mane
Cameroon, Egypt, Senegal and Burkina Faso have a lot riding on these imminent games, and that promises two fascinating encounters in the last four

If any random observer had put forward Cameroon, Egypt, Senegal and Burkina Faso as possible semi-finalists before a ball was kicked at the Africa Cup of Nations, few would have objected.

Maybe the Stallions’ inclusion would have prompted some raised eyebrows, although the fact the West African nation had featured in two semis in their last three Afcon appearances preceding this year’s finals would have been a perfect riposte.

The major challenge for host nation Cameroon was handling the weight of expectation of teeming fans across the country.

Indeed, the nerves in that opening game against Burkina Faso were palpable and they might have had egg on their faces had the 2013 runners-up not conceded a pair of penalties in a crazy five minutes before half-time.

On hand to twice punish the Stallions from the spot was Vincent Aboubakar, who has had a storming tournament, leading the scoring charts with six goals. No player had netted more than five times at Afcon since 1998 where Egypt’s Hossam Hassan and South Africa’s Benni McCarthy racked up seven strikes, a tally Aboubakar could reach if he scores against Egypt.

Of course, he has experience in this area, having punished Africa’s greatest side in the 2017 decider in Equatorial Guinea, sealing a comeback 2-1 success.

Without a doubt, Toni Conceicao will look to the ex-Porto frontman to be decisive yet again against the seven-time winners.

Be that as it may, the Indomitable Lions boss ought to be safe in the knowledge that Karl Toko Ekambi will be on hand to step in if Aboubakar’s level drops, as it did in the last round against The Gambia.

The Olympique Lyon man netted a brace to seal a 2-0 success against the debutants to allay fears when it seemed the tournament’s top scorer left his scoring boots in the dressing room at Japoma Stadium.

Aboubakar fired blanks for the first time at Afcon 2021, preventing him from becoming the only player in the tournament’s history to score in each of his side’s first five games in the competition.

Toko Ekambi spared his teammate’s blushes and the pair — who have contributed to Cameroon’s 11 goals — are the dynamic duo leading the Indomitable Lions’ charge to a sixth title.

Older supporters will remember the 1972 failure, where the Lions could only end third as hosts. They strive to go one better this time, but they have Mohamed Salah’s Egypt standing in their way.

It would have been easy to predict the Pharaohs’ demise after that Nigeria defeat in the opening round. It would have been somewhat reasonable to foresee another disappointing Afcon showing for the North African giants to follow the 2019 edition where they were eliminated by South Africa in the Round of 16 despite hosting the competition.

Carlos Queiroz’s troops may have only two open-play goals at this finals, but the strength and resilience shown since the 1-0 loss to the Super Eagles mean they must be taken seriously.

In Salah, they possess the tournament’s best player, whose importance and game-changing quality will strike fear into any defence.

The Liverpool star has been directly involved in all but one of the Pharaohs’ four goals so far, brilliantly setting up Trezeguet in Sunday’s comeback win over Morocco for his third goal contribution.

The Indomitable Lions’ concession in every game but the last round suggests their backline is there for the taking, and Salah and co will strive to pounce as Egypt look to avenge that 2017 final failure.

While the participants in Thursday’s semi-final can boast 12 Africa Cup of Nations titles between them, Senegal and Burkina Faso are yet to taste success in Africa’s esteemed competition.

Aliou Cisse’s Lions of Teranga entered this year’s finals as the highest-ranked African nation and tournament favourites, a tag they have struggled to live up to.

Having said that, it would be remiss to dismiss a strong showing in their quarter-final win over Equatorial Guinea on Sunday, a performance that indicated the West African nation could be hitting top gear at the right time.

Their prospects are enhanced by Sadio Mane, who, despite not scoring in that 3-1 win last time out, was menacing for large periods, taking up interesting positions between the lines.

In a sense, Cisse will be pleased his troops won without their talisman scoring, as they tend to lean on him to be decisive in these tight games.

Be that as it may, the 2019 runners-up will look to the Liverpool forward — whose shot conversion rate of 26 percent since 2017 is bettered by only Odion Ighalo’s 42 percent — seeking another final and a chance to right wrongs of 2002 and 2019.

Burkina Faso may be the least fancied side of all the semi-finalists, but the Stallions have earned the right to be here, battling through the group stage and showing a certain doggedness and determination to progress through tough knockout games.

Since threatening to throw a spanner in the works of Cameroon’s big day, Kamou Malo’s troops have equally been undaunted by the political unrest at home to go within touching distance of only their second Afcon final and a first since 2013.

“These goings-on give us added motivation,” said Stallions coach Malo. “We dedicated that victory over Tunisia to the people back home who are going through a turbulent time politically and socially.”

Senegal must be wary of the Burkinabe’s menace in transition, particularly evident in well-worked strikes against Gabon and the Eagles of Carthage in the last round, the latter arguably the best team goal of the finals.

The upcoming semis are fraught with anxiety with success now within touching distance for one of these four teams remaining in the competition.

Whichever way the next couple of games play out, the four sides left deserve to be here and each will back themselves for a chance to compete for Africa’s finest honour in Sunday’s final.