The Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON) is in full swing, the stakes higher now- plenty riding on it- as the quarterfinals begin tonight.
The predicted heavyweights are here, albeit in an unpredicted manner. And apart from the long-term goal of winning the trophy, advancing past this stage is the truest. The semifinalists will qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup. That is the lure.
Morocco has impressed so far, defeating all comers to top Group A. And perhaps, playing on home soil has been the X factor.
For many, Zambia has been the surprise team at this tournament. The She-polopolo ended as winners of a group that included Tunisia and Cameroon.
But the biggest tie of this group is one that features the most successful team of the tournament, Nigeria and the third favourite, Cameroon to win this edition.
Even more intriguing is the fact that neither of the teams has lived up to the pre-hype. This promises plenty of drama and excitement.
Zambia vs Senegal
The Copper Queens have somehow put themselves in the reckoning to win the AWCON title.
And they have deserved it. Bruce Mwape’s women wiped the floor with Cameroon in the group opener and left with a result, with no goals conceded.
The second match against Tunisia was almost trailing the same pattern as the first until substitute, Avell Chitundu scored a last-gasp winner.
A comfortable 4-1 win against Togo ensured they finished atop the group.
It is almost inevitable that Mwape will stick to what has been working in this tournament. Zambia will look to sit deep and soak up the pressure while attempting to hit on the break.
They will also count on utilising set pieces along the way.
Senegal is not far off. Two opening wins put them in good stead, the loss to Morocco not affecting much.
The pace of wingers, Habsatou Diallo and Haby Balde has proved difficult for opposing defenders. Mame Cisse will be emphasising this tactic while hoping that Nguenar Ndiaye will be clinical.
With both teams also adept at defending, goals may likely come in short supply.
Prediction: Under 3.5 goals
Morroco vs Botswana
This tie objectively favours the hosts who will now be dreaming of not just playing at the World Cup but winning a first major title.
For all intents and purposes, the North African team has not blown away their opponents. If anything, they have been effective.
A slim 1-0 victory against Burkina Faso, a 3-1 win against Uganda and a Ghizlane Chebbak penalty in the final match ensured an optimal group stage campaign.
Reynald Pedros will once again be counting on Chebbak to pull the strings. Indeed, plenty of his side’s attack has come through her.
Botswana can only be too pleased to have qualified for this stage in their first-ever outing. It surely has been a fine experience for the Mares.
They tend to play a high line in defence with goalkeeper, Maitumelo Boseja required to be a sweeper. They will have to be very cautious to avoid exploitation.
It is difficult to see anything but a Morocco win.
Prediction: Morocco win
Cameroon vs Nigeria
This is the peak of the bunch. Last edition’s bronze medallists will hope to gain automatic qualification for the World Cup ahead of the continent’s number one side.
The Indomitable Lionesses have struggled to impact this competition as they did the previous.
They needed a 2-0 win against Tunisia in the third match to secure a spot after two disappointing draws against Zambia and Togo.
Gabriel Zabo will need his star forward to come to the party for this one, especially Inter Milan’s Ajara Nchout.
At the same time, his defenders will have their work cut out against a particularly quick Nigerian side.
After a poor start, leading to a 2-0 loss to South Africa, the Super Falcons have picked themselves up.
Randy Waldrum’s women scored six in their last two matches, conceding none. Indeed, they seem to have moved on from the abrupt absence of Asisat Oshoala due to injury.
Rasheedat Ajibade has, in many ways, been the brightest star in the galaxy, Uchenna Kanu also influential.
This tie will be keenly contested while having the makings of a goal-fest.
South Africa vs Tunisia
If there was ever a time the Banyana Banyana could win the AWCON, it is now. As things stand, they have been the best side.
Desiree Ellis has moulded a very cohesive and effective machine. The team is able to transition excellently from defence to attack, playing some easy-on-the-eye football. And in truth, the progress has been steady.
Three wins out of three in Group C including against Nigeria ensured they finished as winners.
They will be positive against a Tunisian side that finished as the best loser in Group B. However, the loss of Thembi Kgatlana will be one they may yet regret.
The Carthage Eagles will surely give it a go for as long as possible. They will try to close out the spaces and try to break swiftly. Mariem Houij and Sabrine Ellouzi could prove pivotal in putting away their chances.
South Africa might be without their best player, but they should have enough to get past their North African counterparts.
Prediction: South Africa win