Lessons learned in African Nations Cup quarterfinals
MALABO, Equatorial Guinea -- With Ghana and Ivory Coast securing their trips to the African Nations Cup semifinals, here are five things we learned from the tournament's quarters.
1. Guinea replicating their defending from qualifying
Having seemingly put their defensive woes behind them in the group stage, Guinea's operations at the back were about as calm as a Tunisian subs bench. Despite being terrible at the back throughout qualifying, with the bigger teams getting much joy against them going forward, Michael Dussuyer's side seem to have turned a corner, exhibiting remarkable security at the back during their three 1-1 draws in the group stage.
However, they were more reminiscent of their 2014 selves against Ghana in the quarterfinals. The total panic that occurred every time they got the ball made life for the Black Stars easy, as some mild pressure kicked off a game of hot potato among the back four.
The rest of Guinea's play wasn't much better, as the visible pressure they've put themselves under has created a fussy, rushed style of play. Mentally, they seemed quite unstable, manifesting in little spats of handbags and moments of madness from their players; goalkeeper Naby Yattara deserved to see red for pushing over Christian Atsu. As a team, they froze, and they were punished.
2. Atsu shows a rare glimpse of his full potential
While Ghana trundled through another match without really reaching their maximum, one player did show well for himself. Christian Atsu, the on-loan Everton winger, put in a performance that illustrated why Chelsea parted with 3.5 million pounds for him as a 21-year-old in the summer of 2013. It was this sort of performance that has become increasingly rare during his loan spells away from his parent club.
Maligned for his poor end product during his time with the national team, which he has been a fixture in since 2012, Atsu showed impressive calmness when it came to delivery in the final third and attempts on goal. Scoring the opening goal after three minutes, a second-half wonder striker really got his fans rubbing their hands together, as a delightful curling cross from the left into the far corner stunned the crowd.
In general, Atsu played a much more dynamic role in his team's fortunes, as he adapts to the more centralised role he plays under manager Avram Grant.
Atsu remained modest in the post-match news conference when asked if it was his best performance in a Ghana shirt, saying, "I play a lot of games for Ghana, I cannot say which is my best performance. My fans judge my games."
But all the aspects that he so often struggles with came off for him Sunday, from the little flicks and tricks in possession to the end product. Ghana will be hoping for more of the same as they progress into the semifinals.
3. Renard continues to show his penchant for organisation
Taking over one of the more desperately poor defences on the continent, Herve Renard has stripped Ivory Coast of their weaknesses through a regimented process of defensive organisation. In doing so, the manager has transformed this previously ramshackle group of players into a cohesive unit, just when it matters the most.
Performances in qualifying suggested that Renard failed to resolve the country's defensive issues, conceding the highest number of goals out of anyone who qualified for the tournament.
However, their arrival in Equatorial Guinea has seen them at last come of age. Aiming to frustrate, Renard has created banks of defence to stop their opposition getting anywhere near the goal -- reminiscent of Zambia in 2012.
And if there's a team that can succumb to frustration, it's Algeria. Maintaining a possession-based, patient game, the Fennec Foxes struggled to break through the blockades put up by Renard's men. Once Wilfried Bony lost Madjid Bougherra to give Ivory Coast a 1-0 lead, they were able to sit back and continue to irritate the North Africans.
A slip-up from young defender Eric Bailly allowed El Arbi Hillel Soudani to equalise for Algeria. Bony's effectiveness in the air regained the lead for Les Elephants, and they managed to hang on during a testing closing 20 minutes.
A glimpse of the old Ivorians shown through as Algeria continued to press. Holes popped up all over the defence, but they somehow withstood the waves of Algerian attacks.
4. Algeria's Plan B almost unlocks to door to the semifinal
Despite his reputation as one of the most rigid coaches in African football, Christian Gourcuff showed an impressive awareness of his team's limitations. Looking lost in the style of football he tries to encourage, Algeria then employed some-less conventional tactics to some positive effect against Ivory Coast.
Algeria's need for a Plan B became obvious in their final game of qualification, against a staunchly defensive Mali, who impressively out-muscled Gourcuff's side. Unwilling to go against his philosophy prior to Sunday, the second 45 minutes of the quarterfinal saw him take an unwanted decision.
Coming out in the second half, you could see the difference straight from the off. Their defensive line dropped deeper and invited Ivory Coast to control possession. Then Algeria struck with the sort of goal that would make Gourcuff cringe: a long ball.
It was not enough, however, as Algeria's defensive failings from crosses and set pieces became evident in a game they probably didn't deserve to lose.
5. Ghana and Ivory Coast will fancy their chances
With the semifinals now decided, continental giants Ivory Coast and Ghana both have a genuine chance of rectifying their troubles of recent years.
Ghana will face Equatorial Guinea in the semifinals, as they look to end the fairytale run of the hosts. Although the Black Stars have thus far been uninspiring, their clear advantage gulf in quality should shine through eventually.
The same goes for Ivory Coast. They come up against DR Congo, who really struggled to make it through the group and coming back from 2-0 down against neighbouring Congo. The in-form Ivorians have proved more than competent at both ends of the pitch should be able to overwhelm the Congolese with little trouble.
A Ghana vs. Ivory Coast final would be an excellent but unexpected end to the tournament. The pair's serial underachievements could finally give way, resulting in a battle of Africa's giants.
While the unpredictability of the tournament would suggest that it might be an opportunity for a new country to emerge on the African scene, it would perhaps be even more unpredictable to see two less-fancied heavyweights fight for the continental belt.
Sam Crocker has been interested in African football since completing his undergraduate dissertation on the African Nations Cup. After becoming an editorial assistant at Sandals for Goalposts, he has since done writing for The Telegraph and Four Four Two, as well as more general football writing for Squawka. You can follow him on Twitter @Sam_Crock.