One of the fairytale stories of the Africa Cup of Nations – an Equatorial Guinea side made up of lower league footballers and little-known players have reached the quarter-finals to face pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast. Premier League stars Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Cheick Tiote await the Nzalang Nacional, who have already beaten a Senegal side filled with attacking talent.
Equatorial Guinea Coach Gilson Paulo inherited a squad of players two weeks before the tournament began after former boss Henri Michel quit. The Brazilian has worked wonders and believes that whilst the media viewed his team as underdogs, Paulo had the expectation that Equatorial Guinea would do well. President of the country, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, insisted his players could win the tournament, but they face a difficult challenge against Ivory Coast.
Paulo sees the return of Laurence Doe, Iban Iyanga and David Alvarez following their absence in the final group game loss to Zambia. The Nzalang Nacional picked up two wins in their first two fixtures thanks to late goals against Libya and Senegal. Alvarez scored the winner against Senegal and will be a good addition to the Equatorial Guinea defence. Ivory Coast have not conceded in the tournament and Paulo will be looking to former Real Madrid midfielder Javier Balboa for creativity.
A 15,000 sell-out crowd in the Equatoguinean capital of Malabo will await the two sides and the Nzalang Nacional will be looking to cause another upset over Francois Zahoui’s men. Equatorial Guinea will have to beat an Ivory Coast defence who have yet to concede, but if they can score such goals as Alvarez’s winner against Senegal, they could be in with a shout.
Alvarez said: “I
A massive 133 places separate the two sides in the current FIFA world rankings and Balboa is wary of the quality that Ivory Coast have. The 26-year-old will be hoping for victory, so his side do not disappoint the country and the president, but would have preferred Drogba and his cohorts in the final.
Balboa said: “I wish we could have met Ivory Coast in the final rather than now. It is not that we cannot beat them, but their status as a star-studded team is very formidable. There are very high expectations of us across the country. So it would be catastrophic if we were eliminated in the quarter-finals.”
Paulo has built his side on organisation in defence and they use that to springboard counter attacks where they have been lethal. Pressure may be getting to the players though, after captain Juvenal and midfielder Ben Konate had to be pulled apart after an argument in training, but the Nzalang Nacional are confident of causing further upset to reach the semi-finals in a heroic tournament.