MARK O'HAIRE'S (@MarkOHaire) continues his African Cup of Nations analysis by looking at Wednesday's semi-final encounter between Burkina Faso and Egypt.
Burkina Faso v Egypt | Wednesday 19:00 | Eurosport
Libreville plays host to the first African Cup of Nations semi-final contest on Wednesday night as the unbeaten pair of Burkina Faso and Egypt go head-to-head for a place in Sunday’s final.
Burkina Faso progressed past Tunisia in the last-eight, scoring two late goals to book their place in the semi-finals for the second time in three African Cup of Nations competitions. The Burkinabe also benefit from an extra day’s rest and preparation time over their opposition.
Paulo Duarte’s team topped a soft Group A, grabbing their sole pool success in their final fixture against outsiders Guinea-Bissau. At times the Stallions have looked a little sluggish in possession but their performance over Tunisia was greatly improved with Bertrand Traore and Prejuce Nakoulma impressing.
Burkina Faso nullified Tunisia’s aerial attack from the flanks and played superbly on the counter-attack. Bertrand Traore and Nakoulma led from the front but were ably supported by Charles Kabore in behind.
Stallions’ impressive spine
In fact, the spine of the Burkinabe’s side has come on leaps and bounds in this competition. Goalkeeper Herve Koffi hasn’t conceded a goal from open play with the defence marshalled by centre-half Bakary Kone. Captain Kabore and Nakoulma have given the group midfield ballast whilst Aristide Bance has made a positive impact from the bench.
Duarte will be over the moon with his side’s progress considering they suffered two major injuries in the first week of the tournament. Jonathan Pitroipa, named the best player of the 2013 tournament, and Spanish-based striker Jonathan Zongo were ruled out but neither have been massively missed.
Duarte now has the opportunity to complete a wonderful transformation from zero to hero. The Portuguese coach was fired following Burkina Faso’s failure at the 2012 AFCON, a situation was so bad that angry fans broke into the house he was renting and wrecked it.
Egypt’s excellent semi-final record
Opponents Egypt are bidding to enhance an already remarkable semi-final record spanning 31 years. The Pharaohs have navigated the final-four stage in each of their previous five attempts and arrive on the back of their third successive 1-0 triumph.
Hector Cuper’s charges left it late against Morocco, grabbing the winner in the 87th minute. Chuck in their 0-0 draw against Mali and you don’t need a mathematician to tell you Egypt are therefore yet to concede a goal in the competition.
The Pharaohs have stunk the place out with their pragmatic approach but having played all four fixtures on the awful Port-Gentil surface, they’ll relish a switch to a more playable surface on Wednesday night. But don’t expect Cuper to release them from their shackles.
And why should he? The deep-lying and narrow defensive system has caused opposition sides plenty of headaches and whilst Mohamed Salah hasn’t lit up the competition as we’d hoped, it’s an approach that works.
At the back Egypt lack pace, hence the sitting deep. And between the sticks Essam El Hadary, who turned 44 this month, has appeared a little wobbly on crosses. So the protection of Ali Gabr and Ahmed Hegazy is pivotal to their system, sitting in front and providing the platform for the Pharaohs to frustrate.
Goals at a premium
Injury has ruled out Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny and striker Marwan Mohsen is a doubtful starter but I don’t expect either potential absence to affect Egypt from grinding towards another low-scoring encounter – 14 of their last 15 outings have featured fewer than three goals.
Collectively, the two nations have rewarded Under 2.5 Goals backers in all eight games they’ve played at the 2017 AFCON with no goals conceded from open play.
Another cautious opening should be expected on Wednesday night and for that reason I’ll invest my faith in the 0-0 half-time correct score at fair 13/10 odds from BetStars.
Burkina Faso v Egypt – 0-0 half-time correct score (13/10 BetStars)