Cup co-hosts wary of Ivorian stars

Equatorial Guinea admit they did not want to face Côte d'Ivoire on Saturday in the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals.

The Estadio de Malabo pairing appears to be the mismatch of the last-eight phase with 133 places separating the countries on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking this month.

Côte d'Ivoire are packed with familiar English Premier League names like brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure from Manchester City, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou of Chelsea and Gervinho from Arsenal.

Equatorial Guinea do not have a single footballer with international status and are competing in the African football showcase only because places are automatically reserved for host nations.

The Ivorian build-up to the tournament was professional and smooth, but the Equatoguineans changed coaches less than three weeks before the kick-off and captain Rodolfo Bodipo has not started a match because of a niggling injury.

While Côte d'Ivoire triumphed against Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola with the minimum of fuss, Equatorial Guinea shocked Libya and Senegal before coming up short against group winners Zambia.

"I wish we could have met Côte d'Ivoire in the final rather than now," confessed midfielder Javier Balboa, once on the payroll of Real Madrid and Benfica and now with Portuguese outfit Beira Mar.

"It is not that we cannot beat them, but their status as a star-studded team is very formidable. There are very high expectations of us across the country," said the match-winner against Libya.

"So it would be catastrophic if we were eliminated in the quarter-finals as many hearts will be broken. Supporters are expecting us to reach the semi-finals and even the final."

Elephants seek to bellow
Suspended centre-back Laurence Doe and midfielder Iban 'Randy' Iyanga and rested full-back David Alvarez missed the Zambia match and should return to face the Elephants before an expected 15,000 sell-out crowd.

Côte d'Ivoire started with nine 'B' team players against Angola, but coach Francois Zahoui will take no chances against the minnows and is set to wheel in his 'big guns' with a semi-finals date against co-hosts Gabon or Mali at stake.

That means a strike force of captain Drogba, Kalou and Gervinho and guaranteed anxiety for Brazil-born goalkeeper Danilo, one of several naturalised players in the Equatorial Guinea squad.

A pre-tournament warning by former Italy-based professional Zahoui not to underestimate any opponent - no matter how weak they appear to be - seems to be rubbing off on his stars.

"Equatorial Guinea are a very organised team who play well together and have a good spirit so we need to be careful," emphasised centre-back Souleymane Bamba from English second-tier club Leicester City.

Reigning African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure echoed those views: "It is going to be tough playing against the co-hosts, but I believe we have the experience and the footballers to make it."