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Equatorial Guinea face favourite Ivory Coast in African Cup of Nations quarters = posted by – Februrary 4th, 2012

posted by – Februrary 4th, 2012

MALABO: Equatorial Guinea is gearing up for the biggest match in the nation’s footballing history against tournament favourite Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations quarterfinal on Saturday.

Ivory Coast, Africa’s top-ranked national side, boasts some of the world’s top players in Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Gervinho.

In contrast, Equatorial Guinea has a squad of journeymen drawn from the lower leagues in Spain, the Brazilian regional league, Turkey and Oman.

Known as Nzalang Nacional, or “National Lightning”, Equatorial Guinea is the lowest ranked team in the tournament, has never played in a major tournament before and only qualified this time round by virtue of hosting the cup with neighbour Gabon.

Considering the mismatch on paper, a win for the tiny co-host would rate among the biggest shocks in African football history.

Nonetheless, the team has taken full advantage of playing in front of packed home crowds so far to earn its berth in the quarterfinals at the expense of heavily fancied Senegal and Libya from Group A.

The team sealed its place in the last eight with a stoppage-time winner against Senegal from fullback David Alvarez — a stunning strike from long distance that flew into the top corner to snatch a 2-1 win.

That goal led fans to think anything was possible, though the players themselves are still pinching themselves.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Alvarez said. “When the ball came to me I was just thinking about controlling it well and getting a shot in. I didn’t even see the ball hit the net, I just turned round to celebrate because I knew it was going in. You’re just filled with all this rage and joy.”

Equatorial Guinea’s build-up to the quarterfinals has focused on an organized defensive unit forming the springboard for quick counterattacks.

The co-host has had nothing to lose so far, but the tension finally broke to the surface as the team trained Wednesday when captain Juvenal Edjogo-Owono and midfielder Ben Konate had to be pulled apart by teammates after a heated argument about a mislaid pass.

On Friday, a handful of young fans climbed on an abandoned car to catch a glimpse of the team’s closed-door training session at a small stadium in the center of Malabo. Some of the youngsters climbed over a wall to help retrieve wayward shots. Nobody seemed to mind the security breach and players posed for photographs after training finished, apparently delighted by the uncustomary attention.

Tellingly, Equatorial Guinea spent much the session practicing set pieces and penalties.

The atmosphere changed when Ivory Coast arrived at the same venue for its final practice just as the Equatorial Guinea players were leaving.

Drogba took a few minutes to shake hands and pose for pictures, but the home fans were soon ushered out of the ground as the Ivory Coast players started training by forming a ring round the center circle and joining hands in prayer.

Equatorial Guinea defender Rui Da Gracia, who plays in the Spanish third tier, said the difference in expectations and the desire of the home players to make the most of the limelight could work in the team’s favour.

“It’s the biggest match we’ve ever played. Appearing in the African Cup of Nations is spectacular and we’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “We might be the host, but Ivory Coast are the favourites and everybody expects them to win.”

“They’re a very famous team, but we can just enjoy ourselves,” said Iban Iyanga, who plays his football in the Canary Islands with Las Palmas, a club in the Spanish second tier. “We have already beaten some big names in this tournament,” he added.

Ominously, Ivory Coast has failed to find top form so far, despite claiming three straight wins without conceding a goal in the group stage.

Equatorial Guinea coach Gilson Paulo is hoping his detailed preparation will help bridge the gap.

“We are up against a team with a lot of quality but we will be trying to win,” he said. “Otherwise what is the point of being here?”

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