Two wounded giants of Africa to slug it out in the AFCON final

The fact that the tournament had made it to this point is almost inconceivable to many, such was the trials and tribulations

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Renowned for its creativity with its script, ignoring the rules of expectation and prediction, the Africa Cup of Nations has once again conspired to surprise as it reaches its crescendo. Crawling side-by-side, Ghana will play Ivory Coast to round-up Africa’s flagship tournament for another year, in a match-up that not even the participating teams truly believed could occur before the tournament began.

The fact that the tournament had made it to this point is almost inconceivable to many, such was the trials and tribulations that it went through to eventually get it to this point, after a comical few months at the latter end of 2014.

Due to be hosted in Morocco right up until two months ago, the Ebola outbreak convinced the North Africans to bail on their hosting obligation, sending CAF into chaos. Now, after tiny oil-rich nation Equatorial Guinea stepped-in as emergency hosts, we are at the end of what has been a remarkably smooth tournament given the circumstances.

Indeed, much like how Morocco’s decision to eventually pull out was unexpected, those who have ended up competing for the continental crown are equally so – as both teams ignored the pre-tournament pessimism to somehow make it all the way to the final. Now, as they prepare to face each other in the Estadio de Bata on Sunday, both will be looking to bury the hatchets of disappointment and failed expectation to rest that they’ve accumulated over the recent years.

Of the two countries, Ivory Coast will be most keen to grab a spade and start digging, so they can dispose of the demons that have been holding them back from glory. Since 2006, they have reached the quarter-finals twice, the semi-finals one and the final twice, but the trophy continues to elude Les Elephants, as the curtain comes down on the production of the so-called “golden generation” - of which so much was expected.

Except, it is not really the golden generation any more, with some key members retiring prior to the Africa Cup of Nations. Didier Drogba and Didier Zokora-less, and with Kolo Toure due to end his international career once he leaves Equatorial Guinea, people had given up on predicting that this would be the year that Ivory Coast come good – such was the consistency of their failure.

Final doubt

Collectively damaged by these defeats, people doubted whether the Ivory Coast realistically had the mental strength to come anywhere near the final, let alone the personnel. It was not just the failure to live up to expectations, but the manner in which they went out, with the 2012 final defeat to Zambia on penalties particularly harrowing. It looked as if they needed to rip up the team sheets are start again – bringing through some new blood who had not gone through such horrors.

However, they have proved capable of change, morphing into a side unrecognisable to the one that limped through qualifying. Conceding an absurd number of goals, Herve Renard’s influence on this team eventually seeped through once the tournament started, as his tactics based on strength behind came to fruition. Playing three-at-the-back with two wing-backs, they remain stubborn at the back before hitting their opposition on the break, with their immense attacking talent putting the defence to the sword as they flood forward at pace.

Ghana are similarly strained by the pressure of expectation, but have tended to bottle it earlier in the tournament than the Ivorians, making the disappointment easier to manage. Rather, whilst Ivory Coast’s failing are based on the failure of a developed generation to achieve what its talent is capable of, Ghana’s is a pressure based on a generation never reaching what it was expected of.

Not going to happen

Winning the under-20 World Cup in 2009, fans finally realized that the dynasty dream that was expected to occur over the following years was not going to happen, with years of stagnation culminating in a collective pessimism that refused to get excited about a team who would only create false hope. Yet, when no one expected anything of them, here they are in the final.

Avram Grant was hired to great indifference prior to the tournament, and managed help drag this team all the way through the tournament, despite arguably only producing 45 minutes worth of the high-quality football that is expected of them in the five games so far. Other than an excellent second-half against South Africa is the group stage, they have overall struggled to maximise their potential on the pitch, despite winning 3-0 in both the quarter-final and the semi-final against Guinea and Equatorial Guinea respectively.

Based on this, one would imagine that Ivory Coast are going to finally “do it”. Evidently the superior of the two teams, it is difficult to see Ghana breaking through the barriers that Les Elephants will have put in place – especially if Asamoah Gyan fails to recover from the injury that kept him out of the semi-final.

However, given that neither expected to make it this far, it is dangerous to assume that things are going to go with form. And with both teams infamous for choking when it matters, it will be the team that best clings onto their bottle that is likely to be victorious in Bata.

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