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AFCON 2017: Ghana eager to break 35-year jinx

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Ghana will be eager to break a 35-year jinx as they look forward to securing a final berth at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) on Thursday in Gabon.

The Ghana Black Stars face Central Africa’s Cameroon in the semi-finals of AFCON at the Stade de Franceville in Franceville on Feb. 2.

Cameroon and Ghana are both four-time champions, but Cameroon last won 15 years ago and Ghana’s long wait to be champions of Africa again (now 35 years and counting) is becoming an African Cup folklore.

Cameroon beat favourites Senegal on penalties and will now face Ghana as they attempt to secure a place in the AFCON final for the first time since 2008.

Nine years ago, the Indomitable Lions were beaten by Egypt, who face Burkina Faso in this year’s other semi-finals in the showpiece and will be hoping to go one better after a 15-year wait for the African title.

The five-time winners, who will host the 2019 AFCON, face Ghana in the last four.

The Black Stars were beaten finalists two years ago, but their spell without winning the trophy goes back more than 30 years to 1982.

Ghana are in the last four for the sixth straight tournament.

En route to the semi-finals, Jordan Ayew gave Ghana the lead and elder brother, Andre Ayew swept in a 78th-minute penalty for the winner to beat Congo at Stade d’Oyem.

At 1-1, the definitive moment came when Christian Atsu sped onto a pass late on and was tripped by Lomalisa Mutambala, giving Andre Ayew his chance from the spot.

He took it, and Ghana progressed to the semi-finals for the sixth straight time.

Ghana’s forward Andre Ayew celebrates with Ghana’s midfielder Mubarak Wakaso (back) after scoring a goal during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations group D football match between Ghana and Uganda in Port-Gentil on January 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO

However, that hasn’t meant much for Ghana, still looking for a first triumph since 1982.

Ghana has lost in three finals and four semi-finals since 1982, including an agonising defeat in a penalty shootout to Ivory Coast in the deciding game at the last African Cup.

The experience two years ago left Andre Ayew sobbing uncontrollably and inconsolable.

The painful memories will likely keep Ghanaian feet on the ground this year, even after getting past Congo, a tricky adversary.

The Black Stars are also sweating on the fitness of their top striker, Al Ahli’s Asamoah Gyan and also their reliable defender, Baba Rahman who plies his trade for Schalke 04 of Germany.

When Gyan limped off the pitch during Ghana’s narrow defeat to Egypt in their last group game, the Black Stars’ AFCON campaign “seemingly’’ looked gloomier.

Gyan, Ghana’s leader of the line for the best part of a decade, has a groin problem and his availability, or otherwise, for Sunday’s quarter-finals will have a bearing on morale.

Gyan will feel as frustrated as anybody if he misses out of the semi-finals after watching from the bench during the team’s quarter-final victory over DR Congo.

Five times a semi-finalist at AFCON, and his country’s all-time leading scorer in the tournament, he has two runners-up medals and a bronze medal in the competition but has yet no first prize.

Ghana will be forgiven for thinking that this should be their year, given that so many heavyweight teams have fallen before and after the last-eight stage.

However, they need vigilance and their entire arsenal at their disposal if they hope to get past a very compact Cameroonian side.

The other semi-final encounter pits the Pharaohs of Egypt against the Stallions of Burkina Faso at the Stade d’Angondje in Angondjé on Feb. 1.

The fallen giants of the AFCON are rising again as Egypt became the final team on Sunday to force its way into the semi-finals amid late drama.

The record seven-time champion, held back by years of political upheaval back home, returned to the last four for the first time since 2010 with an 87th-minute winner over Morocco in the last quarter-final in Gabon.

In Port-Gentil, El-Hadary and Egypt maintained their record of not conceding a goal at the tournament as Morocco was frustrated for much of the second half.

Mahmoud Kahraba hooked in a volley in a goalmouth scramble at the end, giving the Egyptians a 1-0 win and their 44-year-old goalkeeper a chance to taste success one more time.

Celebrations at the final whistle centered on goalkeeper Essam el-Hadary, who has won four African titles with Egypt, the first an astonishing 19 years ago.

El-Hadary hugged his defenders after watching Morocco’s last chance sail wide of his goal at the Stade de Port-Gentil on Gabon’s Atlantic coast.

He wasn’t meant to be there, but has ended up captaining the team after the other two keepers in the squad picked up injuries.

With El-Hadary and his defence holding out under second-half pressure from Morocco, Egypt joined Ghana as quarter-final winners on Sunday.

Like El-Hadary and Egypt, the Ghanaians have strong ties to African Cup history: The Ayew brothers are the sons of Abedi Pele, a member of the last Ghana team to lift the African Cup more than three decades ago.

And then there’s the outsider, Burkina Faso, which reached the final in 2013 but certainly wasn’t expected to be in the semi-finals in Gabon.

The Stallions beat Tunisia with two goals in the last nine minutes to reach the last four.

Substitute Aristide Bance scored with a low drive from a free-kick only five minutes after coming off the bench.

While, Prejuce Nakoulma made sure of the victory on the counter-attack, after Tunisia had thrown everyone forward, rounding the goalkeeper 40 yards out before slotting into an empty net.

The Burkinabes, however, still fret over the fitness of Al Ain’s Jonathan Pitroipa, the winger struggling to regain fitness since a muscle strain forced his withdrawal early in the group-stage draw against Gabon.

But Burkina Faso have gained momentum without him, topping their group thanks to a goal from Bertrand Traore, the Chelsea striker on loan at Ajax, in the 2-0 win over Guinea-Bissau, including their famous 2-0 victory over Tunisia.

The Stallions, finalists in 2013 but never AFCON winners are shaping up as dark horses.

Their uphill task now would be to crack the solid defence of an Egyptian side yet to concede a goal in the tournament.

With the three most successful teams in the history of the tournament and the 2013 finalists still alive in the AFCON last four, it promises to be a thrilling semi-finals encounter sure to keep fans on the edge of their seats until the end.

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