By Matt Carter
Written off in some quarters as mere token participants, that hosts Equatorial Guinea enter their final fixture still heralding genuine progression aspirations is in itself an astounding accomplishment.
The odds still appear stacked against the National Thunder, nonetheless victory over neighbours Gabon – in front of what will be another vociferous Bata crowd – would secure the most unlikely of quarter-final berths.
The hosts have undeniably rode their luck in acquiring draws from fixtures with both Congo and Burkina Faso, even so the manner in which Esteban Becker has in just a matter of weeks moulded a cohesive collective out of a side ranked 118th in the world represents a staggering achievement.
A draw would be enough for Gabon to advance, although their star – which was glowing brightly following an effervescent opening date success over Burkina Faso – has been dampened by a sluggish showing in falling to defeat against a resolute yet largely unthreatening Congo last time out.
In that humbling setback, Gabon visibly struggled to harness the fresh level expectation that inevitably arrived in conjunction with that Burkina Faso victory – unfortunately for the Panthers the alien and seemingly uncomfortable notion of being dubbed favourites is one which they will again be tasked with channelling on Sunday evening.
Equatorial Guinea are unlikely to present the same degree of defensive rigidity as that offered up by Congo, whilst that the hosts find themselves in a win or bust situation is liable to play into the hands of a Gabon side built to counter – an attribute which a dogged Congo were seemingly able to nullify via a relative lack of adventure.
If Gabon can dodge what is a rather substantial banana skin, then not only would their primary AFCON mission of advancing to the last eight be realised but the Panthers will find themselves back in their favoured underdog territory. Further to that, should they advance as group winners, their quarter-final opponents will likely be one of Cape Verde, DR Congo or Zambia – a beatable trio that would make the possibility of an unprecedented semi-final spot a genuine one.
Gabon, however, would be ill-advised to count their chickens quite yet. Yes, Equatorial Guinea are likely to afford them chances, but at the other end of the pitch the likes of Kike, Javier Balboa and Iban Salvador mean the National Thunder are capable of causing considerable damage, although for that to occur Becker’s side must showcase a level of composure that has thus far deserted them.
Gabon are indisputably the favourites, yet if AFCON history teaches us anything it is that the improbable can quickly amount to reality. At the same time, it is not like Equatorial Guinea haven’t belittled the odds to navigate a passage into the quarter-finals before, with the hosts having achieved that exact feat little over two years ago.
In certain aspects the pressure is off Becker’s side, given that remaining in the progression equation until their concluding fixture should have always been the chief target. Without question all the pressure resides on the shoulders of their neighbours, and with that in mind the contest’s outcome might just hinge on how Gabon handle such potential anxieties.