Fousseny Kamissoko, here shadowing Gervinho,
has enhanced his reputation with strong performances
at the Africa Cup of Nations. (AP)

Last night’s second Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final in Malabo was arguably the most heavily unbalanced match the tournament is likely to witness. Playing for the right to join surprise package Zambia in the final four following their 3-0 dispatch of Sudan earlier in the day, co-hosts Equatorial Guinea eventually went down by the same scoreline to tournament favourites Ivory Coast – but the score failed to tell the full story of the game.

From the outset, the ‘home’ side (Malabo is the Equatoguinean capital) looked the more adventurous as the Ivorians continue to look weighed down by their favourite status. Equatorial Guinea (henceforth EQG) made the initial running and showed plenty of ambition, but their early forays were powered more by optimism than conviction and mostly relied on Ivorian mistakes to create opportunities.

Their opponents, by contrast, looked sluggish. Anchorman Didier Drogba has symbolised the lethargy of the Ivory Coast (henceforth CIV) squad at this tournament, filled with some of the continent’s biggest names (Drogba, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora, the Toure brothers) but seemingly lacking the self-confidence to seize their opportunity. Early on, CIV seemed almost intimidated by EQG’s two outstanding defenders, the equally impressive Fousseny Kamissoko and Rui, while the co-hosts’ right-back Kily was the first to get a shot off, even if it was some way from troubling Boubacar Barry.

Perhaps inevitably, as EQG gathered confidence and momentum, gaps began to appear in their defensive line. Rui and Kamissoko dealt impressively with the first few panics, but then a cross from CIV left-back Arthur Boka after 23 minutes caused havoc in the penalty area – Gervinho found himself blocking former Leeds winger Max Gradel’s path before both Yaya Toure and Gradel saw efforts deflected.

The warning sign had been fired, though, and EQG’s next search forward was somewhat more cagey. Under Brazilian coach Gilson Paulo, the Equatoguineans looked impressive on the ball in their group games but suddenly they were passing into defenders rather than finding teammates in space. Then, soon after the half-hour mark, another loss of possession gifted the ball to Drogba. Bearing down on goal, the Chelsea striker seemed to drag himself wide before doubling back, beating two defenders and slotting calmly underneath the tenacious Danilo, who had saved a Drogba penalty minutes earlier.

As soon as the ball crossed the line, Drogba was off, over the advertising boards and onto the running track, punching the air and releasing some long-trapped frustration and emotion before the Ivorian supporters. The weight was lifted; the boisterous Equatoguinean crowd chided into a temporary silence; the brilliance of Drogba restored.

From the restart, EQG looked a different team. The goal had reminded this hitherto optimistic group of their underdog status, and in the remaining minutes of the first half, they played to it, passing nervously across the pitch while sneaking cautious glances upfield looking for open teammates. Kily’s cross to find winger Randy at the back post, EQG’s best chance of the half, seemed already a long time ago.

Two goals in the quarter-final revitalised
Ivorian powerhouse Didier Drogba

The second half was a different game. The first twenty minutes were sluggish and relatively lifeless, as CIV calmly protected their lead and EQG pondered how to go about getting back into the tie. The momentum had gone, however, and was buried for good on 69 minutes by another superb finish from Drogba. Rising to meet a Yaya free-kick from the right flank, Drogba dispatched a bullet header beyond Danilo at a speed later measured as 70mph. It was the perfect header – unbelievely fast, completely flat, and straight into the top corner. No keeper in the world would have reached it.

Progression assured, the flair finally returned to CIV’s football. They began to press further forward, and the beleaguered and defeated Equatoguineans had little left to offer in opposition. Having lost Kily to injury, they struggled to find a new avenue of creativity – not a problem for CIV, who added a third goal with ten minutes left from a stupendous Yaya free kick.

CIV, still yet to concede in this tournament, were in all reality always likely to navigate this hurdle on their path to the final; the more experienced Mali will provide a sterner challenge on Wednesday. But for Equatorial Guinea, the country of 750,000 people ranked 151st in the world – and 43rd in Africa – before this tournament, their adventure to the knockout rounds was enough of a miracle, especially given they knocked giants Senegal out in Group A.

Gilson Paulo may regret his rotations for the final group game, where a defeat to Zambia cost EQG the top spot in the group and a much easier quarter-final draw, but he has worked miracles with a multi-national squad of native exports, EQG-league players and naturalised half-Equatoguineans born in Spain and Brazil. The minnows should be very pleased with their performance.

For the Ivorians, who would surely face arch-rivals Ghana if they reach the final, the real work starts now.

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