On the brink of a humiliating group-stage exit on home soil just a week ago, Ivory Coast are now in the quarter-finals of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, and have been installed as the 11/4 second-favourites (behind Nigeria - 15/8) to lift the trophy in Abidjan on February 11.
First, the Elephants must plot a route past Mali, and if they successfully overcome that assignment, a semi-final with either DR Congo or Guinea awaits.
DR Congo are favourites to win their quarter-final tie after going unbeaten in their first four games of the tournament, but the National Elephants look well-placed to stomp all over their dreams, and those of the hosts.
With Guinea yet to truly unleash their captain - ex-Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita, nor a man trailing only Harry Kane in the Bundesliga goalscoring charts, Serhou Guirassy - could the West Africans upset the odds and go one better than 1976 to pick up an elusive first AFCON title?
Guinea were 66/1 to win the 2023 AFCON at the start of the month, and it was an inauspicious beginning for them in Ivory Coast as they drew 1-1 with Cameroon in their opener, with a first-half red card to forward Francois Kamano ruining a fast start which saw Mohamed Bayo net a 10th-minute opener. They then assumed the tag of favourites heading into their second Group C game against Gambia, edging past their opponents 1-0 courtesy of a 69th-minute winner from Aguibou Camara.
Neither of those games featured Stuttgart striker Guirassy, who picked up an injury prior to the tournament’s kick-off. Meanwhile, Werder Bremen midfielder Keita, bought by Liverpool for £48m in 2018, was only deemed fit enough to grace the pitch for the latter stages of his nation’s second match.
Both players did start Guinea’s final group clash with Senegal - one of the pre-tournament favourites - but they were both taken off just after the hour mark in what ended as a routine 2-0 victory for the Lions of Teranga. That result, coupled with a late turnaround from Cameroon against Gambia, saw Keita and Co. pushed down the table and qualify for the Round of 16 only as one of the best third-placed teams.
The punishment for their fall from second was a match-up with the tournament’s surprise side, Equatorial Guinea, who drew with Nigeria (1-1) and beat Guinea-Bissau (4-2) en route to thrashing Ivory Coast (4-0) and claiming top spot in Group A. Fronted by the competition’s top scorer, Emilio Nsue, who struck a hat-trick against Guinea-Bissau and fired two past the hosts, there was potential for another banana skin at Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan last Sunday.
Guinea’s worst fears looked set to be realised when Nsue was handed the opportunity in the 68th minute to score from the penalty spot following an ill-timed challenge from Sekou Sylla. But the former Middlesbrough and Birmingham City player was inaccurate with his effort, hitting the post despite Jesus Owono having dived the other way.
Galvanised by Nsue’s miss, and against 10 men following a red card issued to Federico Bikoro early in the second half, Guinea went in search of a winner, which arrived in the 98th minute as Bayo headed past Ibrahim Kone with the final touch of the game. Cue pandemonium in the stands as fans of the National Elephants were able to celebrate a first quarter-final tie since the 2015 AFCON which, ironically, took place in Equatorial Guinea.
That this success was achieved with Keita and Guirassy only on the field for the last half-hour made their achievement all the more remarkable. The duo had been billed as Guinea’s leading lights heading to Ivory Coast, and the squad behind them is fairly unremarkable. Only eight others play in a ‘top five’ European league, and just two of them - Bayo and Abdoulaye Toure (both Le Havre) - have been regular starters for their clubs this term.
It remains to be seen whether Guinea stick with the starting XI that lined up against Equatorial Guinea, as they managed just three shots - none of them on target - in the first half of that contest. Guirassy, Keita and Kamano were thrown on in search of a goal on Sunday, and those substitutions proved to be inspired as Kaba Diawara’s side eventually found one, though it’s hard to truly judge how successful those changes really were considering their opponents were down to 10 men for the majority of the second period.
If Guirassy and Keita are fit enough to start at the same venue on Friday night (KO, 20:00), though, it might be worth Diawara going strong from the off in order to avoid another situation where a red card and missed penalty acts as the trigger for a turnaround.
DR Congo have Premier League experience in their defence with former West Ham United full-back Arthur Masuaku and ex-Newcastle United centre-back Chancel Mbemba lining up in front of Lionel Mpasi-Nzau, and there are goals in the frontline with wingers Yoane Wissa (Brentford) and Meschack Elia (Young Boys) either side of Galatasaray centre-forward Cedric Bakambu.
Bayo has scored two of Guinea’s three goals in Ivory Coast and should keep his place in attack after his heroics last weekend, but adding Guirassy - whose electrifying start to the Bundesliga campaign saw him net 17 league goals before Christmas - alongside him would really send out a message to the Leopards.
Keita, meanwhile, is the national-team captain, and despite an injury-disrupted season in Germany - on the back of his struggles in England - is their strongest technician by a considerable margin, and a source of goals (12 in 57 caps) and assists for his country. The 28-year-old isn’t too fondly remembered on Merseyside considering the hype that preceded his move from RB Leipzig, but he was labelled an “exceptional footballer” last year by the departing Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, whom Keita has referred to as a father figure. He said earlier this week:
"I'm not on the [social] networks but when they told me, I had tears in my eyes. He took me to Liverpool as his son and I consider him my dad.
"I wish him the best for the rest of his life. I'll try to write to him afterwards. Such is life, I bumped into him and I wasn't disappointed. We got trophies."
Naby Keita, speaking to RMC about Jurgen Klopp’s decision to leave Liverpool
With Keita in full flow, Guinea could be a markedly different side for the rest of the competition. Among the remaining eight teams in the 2023 AFCON, only Namibia (11) and Angola (15) have made fewer 10+ pass sequences - the number of open play sequences that contain 10 or more passes - than the National Elephants (17). By contrast, DR Congo have made 26, and Ivory Coast lead the way with 49 [The Analyst].
DR Congo have also registered more direct attacks (eight - scoring from one) than Guinea (four - no goals scored), and have recorded nine more high turnovers. Perhaps those statistics, and their undefeated run to the quarter-finals, back up the Leopards’ status as favourites to reach the semi-finals.
But the star power available to Diawara - ready to explode at any time - marks Guinea as a dangerous side to discount from advancing to the next stage, and further. If Ivory Coast do make their way past Mali - as expected in front of their own fans - it cannot be forgotten that the hosts were on the end of a hammering at the hands of Equatorial Guinea less than two weeks ago.
With Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Cameroon and reigning champions Senegal already dumped out of the competition, the door is open for anyone to burst through and announce themselves as winners of the 2023 AFCON, including Guinea.
Check out our AFCON Betting Tips here.