Gabon face former coach Giresse
© AFP

Gabon, on a roll after galloping through the first round with a perfect three straight wins, come up against an old acquaintance when they meet Mali in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals tomorrow.

The co-hosts have defied predictions since battle began a fortnight ago, claiming the scalps of previous winners Morocco and Tunisia, as well as debutants Niger.

And in a delicious twist of fate, the Group C winners face a side coached by a man who knows their weaknesses and strengths better than perhaps they do themselves.

We are playing for our fans. It's not the team's Nations Cup, it's not mine, it's for the Gabonese people. It's their Nations Cup.
Didier Ovono, Gabon captain

Alain Giresse was coach of Gabon for four years before his contract was not renewed and he was taken on by the Eagles, with Gernot Rohr given his former job. The Frenchman, says Gabon captain and goalkeeper Didier Ovono, is like a "Papa" to all the players.

Ovono, who plays for French side Le Mans, added: "Alain Giresse knows us all, he knows our qualities and our faults. But we're not individuals, we play as a team, a solid group, and that makes a difference.

"We're a group that fights together, a group that supports itself. It's a bit of a shame we're meeting him in the quarters. We'd have preferred to meet him in the final."

He added: "Gernot has a different approach, he has introduced a Germanic mentality to the team, we are psychologically solid. No matter what the match, we know we can score. We have confidence that no matter who our rival is, we know we can cause them problems. We're not scared of anyone."

Former team-mates face off
To add further intrigue, Rohr and Giresse were team-mates together at Bordeaux in their playing days. "I met Alain at a wedding a couple of months ago and we joked about our paths crossing in the quarter-finals," said Rohr.

"We played together in Bordeaux. He's a friend, and now the competition has thrown us together. He is facing his old side and his old fans, but now I'm coach of Gabon and he's coach of Mali."

Giresse commented: "I've had some great moments here in Libreville with the Gabon team, but that's in the past now. It's true this match is a little special for me."

When asked what Gabon's trump card was, Rohr replied: "Mental strength, heart and lots of application. You saw that against Morocco [when Gabon scored the winner in a 3-2 victory in the eighth minute of stoppage time]. We were in great difficulty in that match, but the players gave everything."

Ovono is counting on Gabon's home support to see them overcome this latest obstacle. "We are playing for our fans. It's not the team's Nations Cup, it's not mine, it's for the Gabonese people. It's their Nations Cup.

"In the Morocco game, we were in trouble, the fans woke up and they woke us up, they gave us a boost. With them on our side, we can put any team in difficulty."

Gabon's surge into the last eight has been led by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has produced three of their six goals. Former Hull City striker Daniel Cousin has also been a major asset.

Mali need to be 'very strong'
Mali's march to the knockout stages as Group D runners-up has been in large part inspired by returning veterans Cedric Kante and Seydou Keita. The pair of 32-year-olds have inspired their younger comrades to wins over Guinea and Botswana, their only hiccup being a 2-0 loss to Ghana.

Looking ahead to the tie, Barcelona star Keita said: "They are playing in front of their fans. They'll have pressure but also the motivation with their supporters behind them."

Kante commented: "The advantage is that we know them well. The disadvantage is that they're playing at home and we'll have to be very strong to beat them."

The reward for tomorrow's winner is a semi-final date with either Côte d'Ivoire or Equatorial Guinea in Libreville next Wednesday.