/ 7 February 2008

Africa gears up for top-grade semis

Hosts Ghana kick off a high-calibre Africa Cup of Nations semifinal programme when they take on Cameroon at Accra’s Ohene Djan stadium on Thursday at 5pm GMT.

The Black Stars, title winners four times between 1963 and 1982, will have to make do without suspended captain John Mensah, banned for one match after being sent off in Ghana’s 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Nigeria.

Ghana coach Claude Le Roy, who hails Mensah as one of the world’s best centrebacks, said his absence was a huge tactical problem against Cameroon, who have won the tournament four times since 1984.

In the other semifinal, title holders and five-time champions Egypt play 1992 winners Côte d’Ivoire at the Baba Yara stadium in Kumasi at 8.30pm GMT for a repeat of the final the Pharaohs won on penalties two years ago in Cairo.

Didier Drogba’s Ivorians have shown they are strong enough to lift the trophy after scoring 13 goals and conceding only one in their first four matches.

Côte d’Ivoire coach Gerard Gili welcomes back centreback Kolo Toure, who has recovered from a groin injury.

Egypt began with a 4-2 win over Cameroon, who had still to get into their stride, then completed their group games with a 3-0 win over Sudan and draw against Zambia.

They avoided any of the big guns in the quarterfinals, when they still needed a lucky bounce to beat Angola 2-1 on Monday.

”Côte d’Ivoire have a very good team, but so have we,” said Egypt’s assistant coach, Shawky Gharib.

”We played them in the final and group phase at the last Nations Cup and they didn’t beat us then, so we’re not worried about them.”

Côte d’Ivoire sailed through their group phase with a 100% record, then hammered Guinea 5-0 in their quarterfinal when four of the goals were scored in the last 20 minutes.

However, they appear to have been distracted by the controversy over striker Didier Drogba’s failure to win the annual African Player of the Year award on Friday.

Drogba was not allowed by his team to attend the ceremony in Togo on Friday and the award went instead to Mali’s Frederic Kanoute.

Côte d’Ivoire team spokesperson Jean-Claude Djacas said the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had planned to give the award to the Chelsea forward but decided not to after he stayed with his team in Ghana, an allegation CAF strenuously denied.

The Ivorians refused to speak to the media at all on Tuesday.

Ghana need to reshuffle their defence to cope with the absence of suspended Mensah.

The defender misses the match in Accra after receiving a red card for a professional foul in Sunday’s win over Nigeria.

”It’s a big blow but we have to get on with it. That’s just how it is,” midfielder Sulley Muntari said.

Le Roy has admitted it will be difficult to adjust the defence but has hinted Michael Essien might be used at centre back against formidable Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o.

Essien has scored twice in the last two games with his strong runs from the centre of midfield.

The tournament hosts also face the possibility of doing without striker Asamoah Gyan, injured in Sunday’s match.

Le Roy, a Nations Cup winner with Cameroon 20 years ago, has already branded his team ”heroes” but will need them to show even more determination against a combative Cameroon.

The Indomitable Lions were written off after a 4-2 defeat by Egypt in their opening group match but have since stormed back with 11 goals in three games, including an extra-time winner against Tunisia in Monday’s quarterfinal in Tamale.

Under German coach Otto Pfister, their playing style is more about physical power than finesse but it has been effective.

Striker Eto’o became the highest scorer in Africa Cup of Nations history at this tournament although did not get a goal on Monday.

”It’s not easy to play a team like Cameroon, they are physically very strong,” Tunisia coach Roger Lemerre said after his side were knocked out by Pfister’s men.

Cameroon are in their first Nations Cup semifinal since winning the tournament in 2002, while Ghana are through to the last four for the first time since 1996. — Reuters