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AFCON quarterfinal preview: Who will make the final four?

Mubarak Wakaso was inconsolable in his press conference following Ghana's penalty exit against Tunisia in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

The Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals are upon us. With favourites like hosts Egypt and Morocco out, the last eight teams are vying to to lift the trophy in Cairo. Here's why each side will (and why it won't) advance to the final four.  

SOUTH AFRICA

Why they will

South Africa have arguably completed the hardest job at this AFCON already -- silencing the hosts, Egypt, in their home stadium and beating them on Saturday night with a display full of control and flair. There is a feeling in the camp that this is just the start for Stuart Baxter's side, who had a disrupted preparation for the tournament but have found their groove in the nick of time. They are young, vibrant, fresh and full of running, while Baxter is a wily Englishman with decades of experience. It is a combination that could give Bafana Bafana the momentum to go all the way.

Why they won't

It is one thing beating a nervous Egypt side, who ultimately wilted under the pressure of expectation. It is another beating teams like Nigeria -- and then, presumably at least one of Algeria and Senegal -- who all look more accomplished than Javier Aguirre's side ever did, in reality. South Africa are an inexperienced side primarily built with an eye on the 2022 World Cup; anything they achieve now is a bonus and, while there can be an advantage in playing with the shackles off, you would expect one of these opponents to stop them in their tracks soon enough. Ivory Coast and Morocco certainly had few problems doing so in the group stage.

NIGERIA

Why they will

Did we see the real Nigeria in the second half of their thrilling win over Cameroon? They looked a fluent, potent attacking force at last, Odion Ighalo leading the line masterfully while Alex Iwobi inflicted devastating harm in the pockets around him. If that is the norm from now on then the Super Eagles have attacking riches -- speed, power and guile -- that few can match and will be difficult to repel. That surprise defeat to Madagascar in their final group stage game might just have been the sharp wake-up call Gernot Rohr's side needed.

Why they won't

They might cause damage up front but Nigeria always have a defensive mistake in them. A relatively modest Cameroon side showed that with their two quickfire goals on Saturday and Madagascar punished their ponderousness at the back too. Rohr has experimented with different formations and partnerships but has yet to find a perfect, watertight blend. With top opponents in wait from here on, three games without error would appear unlikely at a time when there is the margin for none.

SENEGAL

Why they will

In the last 16, Senegal shut out a lively Uganda side like a team of practised, seasoned pros. They grabbed an early goal via Sadio Mane and then put up a brick wall. Their opponents barely created a chance and that is what makes Aliou Cisse's team so effective. While Mane always gives you an opportunity at the sharp end, backed up by Ismaila Sarr and Keita Balde, their physical power -- the strength and tenacity of Idrissa Gueye and Kalidou Koulibaly -- make them almost impossible to penetrate further back. A few more smart 1-0s and a first AFCON title will finally be theirs.

Why they won't

The big frustration with Senegal is that they look capable of so much more. They have a tendency to sit back on leads and rely on their ability to hold opponents at arm's length, but that can be a dangerous game in the knock-outs when most teams are blessed with players who can turn a game. There is also the enduring issue with their inability to play through midfield, bereft of a genuine ball-player. That can lead them into a more direct game and, as Algeria showed in the group stage, the better sides can deal with that problem easily.

BENIN

Why they will

Why not, given that they came through a tough group undefeated and then made it past Morocco -- whose fluent performances had lit up the group stage? Benin have few stars but they are compact, tight-knit and well drilled by Michel Dussuyer. As other underdog victors at major tournaments have shown, those qualities can override even the heaviest sprinklings of stardust. They will not outplay anyone but the Squirrels, who are strong on set-pieces at both ends of the pitch -- will keep themselves in games might just have enough to grind their way through to the bitter end.

Why they won't

In the end quality tells and Benin, who by the end of the Morocco tie had resorted largely to kicking their opponents, are clearly less well-off on that front than the other contenders. They enjoyed a significant slice of luck in getting this far too, Hakim Ziyech striking the post with a last-gasp penalty to grant them extra-time, and it is unlikely they will get that fortunate again. Morocco could have scored four or five, even while not at their best, and the tournament's more efficient sides will be licking their lips.

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ALGERIA

Why they will

Algeria look the most complete side left in the tournament and, at this stage, the question is: who can stop them? They were masterful in picking apart Guinea with an exhibition of total control and were equally impressive in a ruthless group stage campaign. Djamel Belmadi's side have yet to concede a goal and score more than enough, too, with Riyad Mahrez among those hitting form. They have already struck a blow in defeating Senegal and, with no obvious signs of weakness, it is difficult to see who can stop them.

Why they won't

Nobody quite knows how Algeria will respond to any setbacks, particularly on the back of a fallow few years and with the mounting pressure to break a 29-year AFCON drought. They have a habit of niggling their way through games when opponents are getting on top but must keep their discipline as the prize nears. They are well supported in Egypt but, as the host nation themselves have shown, the weight of expectation can be mightily difficult to bear.

IVORY COAST

Why they will

On paper, the Elephants have the best attacking balance at this tournament. The in-form Wilfried Zaha and the in-demand Nicolas Pepe are a rapier-like threat from the flanks and, if Jean-Michel Seri's radar is on point, they have a playmaker who can create chances too. They have found their range after some early wobbles and, while this vintage cannot yet match the "golden generation" of Didier Drogba, the Toures and company, there is a believe about Ivory Coast that those storied names have instilled. They do not expect to lose in a Cup of Nations and, at this point, there is every chance they will not.

Why they won't

Those quickfire wingers can hide a multitude of ills, primarily a lack of real pattern to their play. This is a side, too, that lacks the characters of those before it -- something that comes into the equation when an Algeria, for example, is trying to put you off your game. There remain doubts over Jonathan Kodjia's efficiency up front and the best opponents may take advantage of Eric Bailly's absence from the back line, too.

MADAGASCAR

Why they will

Madagascar are exuberant, and who can blame them? They have stunned everyone in getting this far, and by doing so with a progressive, daring brand of football that most underdogs eschew. They also have nerves of steel. After being pegged back at the end of their last-16 meeting with DR Congo they might have been expected to wilt in extra time. Instead they withstood the pressure and took four flawless penalties. Their coach, Nicolas Dupuis, believes they have already won their own Cup of Nations -- but, incredibly, there is little sign at this point that they cannot entertain serious hope of winning the real thing.

Why they won't

All good things come to an end and Madagascar will surely find things tougher against the tournament's best-drilled sides. They profited against a slack, experimental Nigeria defence and then took advantage of the questionable form DR Congo had shown throughout the competition. They have plenty of verve but no obvious difference-maker at this level; they are not the most watertight either and, while there may well be more fun along the way, it would be a sensation almost without parallel if they were not eventually put to the sword.

TUNISIA

Why they will

Sometimes the gods just seem to be on your side. When Alain Giresse brought on substitute goalkeeper Ben Mustapha for Monday's penalty shoot-out with Ghana, promptly seeing him save decisively from Caleb Ekuban, it felt like the kind of moment than can define an entire campaign. Tunisia have not been fancied here, largely for good reason, but they have an experienced defence and a proven attacking star in Youssef Msakni. Will they now feel that the stars have aligned for a real shot at their first AFCON title since 2004?

Why they won't

While they were relatively enterprising against Ghana, the bare fact is that Tunisia are yet to win a game inside 120 minutes at this competition. While they may end Madagascar's fairytale there is little to suggest they can go toe to toe against Algeria or Senegal -- as anyone who witnessed their dire group stage draw with Mauritania will attest. This is their sixth quarterfinal in the last eight editions of AFCON and the sense is that, as on those other occasions, they are not good enough to go too far further.

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