Ghana and Ivory Coast into quarters
Group AA 100% record that features the concession of just one goal suggests that Ghana were a dominant force in Group A, yet there is a prevailing feeling that the host nation remains some way short of top form.
The numbers tell only part of the story of a Ghana side that struggled mightily in their first game before being pushed hard by the group's minnows. Only in game three - after a nervous start - did the Black Stars turn in a display to pacify not only their own fans, but also the many pundits that labelled Claude Le Roy's side as favourites to become the third straight home team to win the African Cup of Nations.
Clearly, this is a Ghana side whose greatest strength is their engine room and it is that midfield power that has brought the Black Stars much of their success so far. Never was the importance of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari better demonstrated than against Morocco.
Each man assisted on a goal for the other, as Ghana finally convinced after laboring versus Guinea and Namibia. Against the unpredictable Nigerians in the quarterfinal, continued offensive output from the duo might be the difference if Ghana are to get one step closer to becoming the third straight home team to go all the way.
Up front, Junior Agogo is a willing runner but there is a reason why he plays in League One in England. More talented is Asamoah Gyan, but his lack of a natural goalscoring spark makes him a peripheral figure at times. Furthermore, fierce criticism of his group stage performances has done little for his fragile confidence.
Joining Ghana in the last eight are Guinea, whose form in the group was spasmodic throughout. A creditable display against the hosts in the tournament's opening game went for nothing more than pride thanks to Muntari's late winner but the Syli Nationale bounced back to beat Morocco. However, the fallout from that game was a factor in a stuttering final match against the previously pointless Namibia, who held Guinea, 1-1, in Sekondi.
By scoring twice in the Morocco match, Pascal Feidouno provided inspiration worthy of his captain's armband, only to ruin much of his work by getting sent off within four minutes of his second goal. Though Guinea held on for a 3-2 victory, the reckless act resulted in their talismanic attacking midfielder being banned for two matches.
Against Namibia, Guinea missed the Saint-Etienne man and his absence will be felt even more greatly in the quarterfinal versus Ivory Coast. Without Feindouno, Guinea have to somehow find the firepower to outscore a side that will be licking its collective lips at the prospect of going up against a defence that was breached five times in group play.
Little did they know it at the time, but Morocco reached their high-water mark in this Cup of Nations in the first half of their opening game. Behind Soufiane Alloudi's hat-trick, the Lions of the Atlas looked to have set down an early marker that they, together with Egypt and Tunisia, would represent a serious candidate from North Africa.
However, Alloudi's participation in the tournament ended later in the same match due to a knee injury and with it went almost all of Morocco's cutting edge, which would become so desperately needed given the side's increasingly poor defensive record. One shot on target in the second half of what became a must-win game against Ghana effectively summed up the fall from their early peak.
Namibia, meanwhile, emerged from their second-ever Cup of Nations appearance with just one point, but much credit. Following their nightmarish start, the Brave Warriors were just that as they pushed Ghana hard before finally getting rewarded for their toils with a 1-1 draw with Guinea. Brian Brendell was the star for Arie Schans' men, scoring both of Namibia's goals in energetic displays.
Group BBy being the most impressive participant in the Cup of Nations group stage, Ivory Coast did nothing to deter those that tipped them as the side most likely to leave Ghana with the trophy. Three differing performances demonstrated the Elephants' ability to win matches in a variety of ways and showed new coach, Gerard Gili, that he has the deepest and most talented squad in the tournament.
After Salomon Kalou's individual brilliance won a tepid affair against Nigeria, Ivory Coast turned on the style against Benin. An impressive attacking display saw four different players find the net, including Didier Drogba, whose return to full fitness was visible as the group stage progressed.
Drogba found the net against Mali too as the Elephants cruised to win number three. Doubling the lead late in the game was Boubacar Sanogo, the Werder Bremen striker who possesses an impressive record in European football and yet cannot find a starting spot for his country. The goal was the eighth scored by Ivory Coast, with only Drogba having more than one strike to his name.
While their attacking prowess is unquestioned, Ivory Coast's defence does raise one or two queries. In goal, Boubacar Barry is something of an adventure, playing in front of a defence that loses some of its stability without Kolo Toure, who is battling a groin injury. Rarely tested in group play, Gili's back four will face more pressure in the knockout rounds.
Entering their third game, Nigeria had one point, no goals and, apparently, zero confidence. Indeed, the only thing that was in amply supply at the Super Eagles squad was dissenting voices. Berti Vogts was openly questioning his future as coach while Mikel John Obi was openly criticizing his teammates. Meanwhile, former stars such as Daniel Amokachi joined in the barrage of criticism of the current side.
So it was that Nigeria entered their final group game knowing that a win would only secure their qualification if Mali lost against Ivory Coast. However, even the early news that their main rivals were losing failed to inspire Vogts' lacklusture side, whose wealth of attacking talent once again failed to form any sort of cohesive partnerships.
Finally, after 233 minutes of fruitless frustration, came the breakthrough as Mikel took matters into his own hands to put Nigeria ahead. A late Yakubu goal secured the win to guarantee a stay of execution.
However, though they are through and despite their obvious talent, the fact is that Nigeria are a shadow of the side that has thrilled the world in the past. The task against Ghana in the last eight will be made even more difficult by the absence through suspension of one of their more consistent performers, Peter Odemwingie.
That Nigeria were able to qualify is perhaps more an indictment of Mali's disappointing campaign than it is of anything spectacular achieved by the Super Eagles. A combination of the struggles of their more illustrious group rivals and the fact that, though it wasn't pretty, Mali won their opening game, meant that The Eagles became favourites for second place, especially after holding Nigeria to a drab goalless draw.
However, Ivory Coast's ruthless exposure of Mali's shortcomings proved that Jean-Francois Jodar's side was some way short of having what it took to be a challenger in this tournament. The absence through suspension of Mahamadou Diarra and the puzzling withdrawal at half-time of Fredi Kanoute, not to mention the diversion of Momo Sissoko's attention from matters on the field to his impending move to Juventus, were obstacles that Mali simply could not overcome.
Simply by qualifying for the finals, Benin had arguably exceeded all expectations. However, particularly after being drawn in such a tough group, the Squirrels left Ghana with heads held high. The only team to score against Ivory Coast, Benin lost only to a penalty against Mali and gave Nigeria a real fright in the first half of their final game.