It’s semi-final time in this thrilling and intriguing Africa Cup of Nations. The first tie pits 2013 finalists, Burkina Faso, against seven-times champions, Egypt. Since this is only the third time in their history that the Burkinabe have made it past the group stage, history suggests this tie should be a non-contest. However, neither of these nations are comparable to previous generations.
Burkina Faso are enjoying the greatest footballing times in their history. Before 2013, their only achievement of note was a fourth place finish at AFCON 1998, which they hosted. That was until their golden generation came along. In 2013, they put on a magnificent run to the final, thanks mainly to the exploits of Jonathon Pitroipa, and were narrowly edged out 1-0 by Sunday Mba’s goal for Nigeria in the final. Later that year, they were dealt another cruel blow as Algeria denied them a place at the World cup on away goals after the tie finished 3-3 on aggregate. This year, things are again looking bright for the Stallions, they sit top of their World Cup qualification group and are into the semi-finals of AFCON. They will be desperate to shake off their recent near misses and lift the continental title for the first time ever.
They reached this stage thanks to their 2-0 win over Tunisia in the quarter-finals. A much-changed side did well to hold the North-African side for most of the game but the late introduction of Aristide Bance made the difference as he put his side into an 81st-minute lead which was consolidated five minutes later by Prejuce Nakoulma, his second of the tournament.
As for Egypt, the current generation has a long way to go to live up to the success of the last. The likes of Mohamed Aboutrika and Ahmed Hassan have left the scene and so far, the new generation has failed to hit the same heights. Admittedly, they have had to contend with problems relating to terrorism and the resulting suspension of the country’s football league for two years between 2011 and 2013. This is the country’s first appearance at these finals since 2010, a finals which they won to make it three in a row. Having ended this three tournament exile, the continent’s most successful nation will be seeking to add an eighth crown.
The current crop, mostly made up of Egyptian-based players, definitely lack the attacking flair and tempo that we were used to seeing with their predecessors. Yet, they make up for this with their dogged determination and defensive organisation. They are still yet to concede in the tournament after beating Morocco 1-0 in the Quater-Final. As with many of their games, the opposition had most of the ball, however, they were unable to take a single one of their plethora of chances and Mahmoud Kahraba made them pay late into the game.
Paulo Duarte decided to mix things up last time out, Cyrille Bayala and Blati Toure were given their first starts of the tournament, while Abdou Traoré was deployed in the unfamiliar CAM role with Alain Traoré dropping to the bench. Considering the result and the tournament Traoré is having, don’t expect a recall to be a certainty. The only absentees for the Stallions are the tournament ending injuries suffered by Jonathon Zongo and Jonathon Pitroipa against Gabon. Zongo with a cruciate ligament injury and Pitroipa with a muscle tear.
Egypt, on the other hand, come into the match with an injury-ravaged squad. The goalkeeping crisis has become less of an issue since 44-year-old Essam El Hadary is still working wonders in goal for the Pharoahs. Just who could go in between the sticks if he were to be forced off remains a mystery but that is just a situation the Egyptians will have to pray doesn’t present itself. Elsewhere, Mohamed Shafy remains an injury doubt, Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny doesn’t appear to have recovered from a calf problem in time and Marwan Mohsen, who limped off with a knee injury against Morocco, looks set to miss out as well. With attacking options thin on the ground, Ahmed Hassan will most likely take Mohsen’s place.
Burkina Faso- Prejuce Nakoulma
It’s no secret that Burkina Faso were pinning their hopes of success on star man Jonathon Pitroipa. When he was ruled out of the tournament, it was a blow but also an opportunity. An opportunity for someone to step up and propel the side to success. That man has been Prejuce Nakoulma. Before the tournament, he was perhaps the most unheralded of the forward line, people instead chose to talk about Pitroipa, Alain and Bertrand Traore and Aristide Bance. Yet, they’re all talking about Nakoulma now, the man who plays his football for Kayserispor in Turkey has had a wonderful tournament. He has scored crucial goals against Gabon and Tunisia and possibly against Guinea-Bissau, make up your own mind if it’s his or not, and chipped in one assist.
Egypt- Essam El Hadary
Undoubtedly, Mohamed Salah makes this side tick but Egypt’s run to this stage has been built on defence rather than attack. At 44 years of age, El Hadary’s status as a legend was already assured thanks to the four titles he has already won for his country and he was probably just happy to be around the team to offer his experience this time around, however, first choice Ahmed El-Shenawy was forced off after just 25 minutes into the opener and his tournament was over. El Hadary stepped in and has shown all his class in producing some fine saves and keeping four consecutive clean sheets.
Paulo Duarte was very pleased with the way his side dealt with the physical threat provided by Tunisia last time out.
“It was a difficult match, decided on the small details. We were afraid of that aspect (Tunisia’s physicality), especially at corners and free-kicks because we knew they had athletic and tall players. In my team, I don’t have players that are tall, but I’m very happy with that victory because we are through to the semi-finals and can dedicate the win to the people of Burkina Faso. Both teams were very impressive, it wasn’t easy.” (Four Four Two)
That win put Burkina Faso through to this stage and the size of their achievement has been put in perspective by the fact that they are in the semi-finals alongside the three most successful nations in the competition’s history. For this reason, Duarte insists that his side shouldn’t feel the pressure and just need to take the rest of the tournament one game at a time.
“Of course we want to go as far as possible like we did in 2013 but we have to take it step by step, each match as it comes. As l told you last time, the players are improving with each match and increasing their level of humility. We need to remain with the same humility no matter which opponent we play. We want to bring something positive for the people of Burkina Faso.” (Kickoff.com)
While Burkina Faso are just trying to continue their fairytale, Egypt boss Héctor Cúper is thinking much more pragmatically and is concerned about the fast and furious nature of the tournament. Burkina Faso will certainly have a slight edge as they have the advantage of an extra day and a half rest ahead of the match.
“We have a game in just 48 hours but I have to adapt with that. I will try to give the players time for rehabilitation and hopefully, they will be ready for next game,” (IOL)
With his squad getting smaller and smaller with the injuries, Cúper will definitely be concerned about the toll the tournament is taking on his side and the freshness of the two sides is definitely an area in which Burkina Faso could exploit. Burkina Faso have been much more able and willing to make changes, so this could be the game where tiredness catches up with the Egyptian squad which has seen very few unenforced changes made throughout the tournament.
As with all games involving Egypt, I am predicting a tight affair and the game will be won and lost on the basis of how clinical each side are. Egypt haven’t conceded but you could certainly argue that poor finishing has had more than its fair share of involvement in that alongside good defending. If Bertrand Traoré and co. bring their shooting boots I believe they will have enough. I predict 2-1 Burkina Faso,