Ghana beats Niger at Africa Cup of Nations
Asamoah Gyan powered Ghana into the knockout rounds and laid down the challenge to Didier Drogba and Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations on Monday.
Mahamadou Samassa's equalizer also squeezed Mali through from Group B as the first two quarterfinal lineups were decided.
Nearing top gear, Ghana will face Cape Verde in a match pitting the four-time champion against the tournament debutant in Port Elizabeth.
Because of its problems back home, Mali will have the support of many neutrals in the other quarterfinal on Saturday when it meets host South Africa, which will have the overwhelming backing of a 50,000-plus crowd in Durban.
Gyan scored one and set up two as Ghana finally announced itself as a genuine title contender with a flowing 3-0 win over Niger to finish top of Group B. Mali's hard fought 1-1 draw with Congo ensured it qualified second in the group.
"Today was a great day for us. All the players are happy ... Their confidence is growing,'' Gyan said.
While the Cape Verdeans will have undoubtedly watched with some trepidation as Gyan and Ghana's new breed of attacking youngsters picked apart Niger's previously miserly defense at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, the Black Stars' slick performance may also have raised some eyebrows in Rustenburg on the other side of South Africa, where Ivory Coast is preparing for its final group game.
Gyan and fleet-footed newcomers like Christian Atsu and Albert Adomah showed that favorite Ivory Coast's heavyweight stars might not have a straightforward march to the title.
"We have to admit that we played a team that was a little bit faster than us,'' Niger coach Gernot Rohr said after Ghana rushed into a 2-0 lead inside the first 25 minutes and could have won by five or six goals.
Convincingly turning around his and Ghana's sluggish start to the Cup of Nations, Gyan smashed in the opening goal in the sixth minute, set up Atsu for the second in the 23rd and had a major role in a third for John Boye early in the second half.
Ghana's captain, lead striker and talisman also had two more good opportunities as the Black Stars found their feet and raced past Niger, which had only conceded once in its two previous games. Niger's problem was it also didn't score, and left the tournament without a goal.
Mali ensured it was moving on and Congo was going home after the Malians held their nerve after falling behind to a third-minute penalty from Dieumerci Mbokani at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. Samassa scored just over 10 minutes later and Mali held out in a foul-ridden game.
It didn't show the flair of Ghana, but the Mali team's resilience might be crucial later in the tournament as it tries to bring unexpected happiness to its people back home.
"I won everything in football, I won all the titles,'' Mali captain and former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita said. "Today the only thing I want is to bring joy to my country. You cannot imagine how happy I am to be here.''
In an emotionally charged quarterfinal, South Africa will be under enormous pressure to bring satisfaction to its expectant followers, who are again likely to fill Moses Mabhida Stadium with their vuvuzelas and in their bright yellow Bafana Bafana shirts.
Group C's quarterfinalists will be decided on Tuesday when Nigeria and defending champion Zambia attempt to scramble through and throw off the underdog challenge of Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
And amid Gyan's attention-grabbing performance, Drogba still stole some attention on Monday.
Turkish club Galatasaray announced it had signed the Ivory Coast captain on an 18-month deal from China's Shanghai Shenhua, taking the former Chelsea striker back to the Champions League - but only after his latest and maybe last attempt to finally win the African Cup.
Ivory Coast was the first team to qualify for the quarterfinals at this Cup of Nations and is waiting for its opposition to be decided.