RUSTENBURG, South Africa - Some of the biggest names in the African Cup of Nations will go head-to-head in one of the most anticipated quarterfinals this weekend, when Ivory Coast and Nigeria fight to stay on track for their first title in two decades.
Led by Didier Drogba and others based in Europe, Ivory Coast wants to keep alive its hopes of rebounding from a disappointing loss in last year's final. It is trying to lift the trophy for the first time since 1992.
Headed by Chelsea players John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, Nigeria wants to finally break through with its first title since 1994 and start to relive the glory days it enjoyed throughout the 1990s.
Players and coaches from both teams admit Ivory Coast is considered by most as the favourite, but everyone has been quick to downplay the alleged superiority of the Elephants ahead of Sunday's match in Rustenburg.
"They lost in the final the last time, when they were the favourites," Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo said on Friday. "Zambia is also out of the tournament as the defending champions. It's not about the names, about individuals, it's about qualifying to the next stage. Not being the favourites doesn't put us under pressure. We got through the first stage and now it's a different competition."
Ivory Coast has been the top team in Africa in recent years and it arrived at the African Cup as the main contender again, thanks in part to a squad filled with stars such as new Galatasaray striker Drogba, Arsenal forward Gervinho and Manchester City players Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure.
"We've been the favourite every time we have come to this tournament," Ivory Coast midfielder Max Gradel said. "But to continue in this position we have to win the cup. The most important thing is to win it."
Ivory Coast won the difficult Group D after beating Togo and Tunisia and drawing with Algeria.
"Ivory Coast has a team playing together for six years, they probably played four editions (of the African Cup) with the same squad," Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said. "But it's not an excuse, we will come here on Sunday to do our best. Football is a game of 90 minutes. We will have to see after the game is over. We have confidence now."
Nigeria used to dominate African football in a similar way Ivory Coast has done it recently. It won the African title in 1994 and represented the continent in the World Cup that same year and in 1998.
It reached the African Cup final in 2000, losing to Cameroon on penalties, and finished third in four of the last six tournaments it played, including in 2010 in Angola, where it lost the semifinal to eventual runner-up Ghana. The Super Eagles didn't qualify for last year's tournament but brought a revamped squad to South Africa under the command of Keshi, the captain in 1994.
"This is my sixth (African Cup), it's tough to believe we haven't been able to win it," Yobo said. "I've played with very strong teams before but never made it to the final. We are here to win this time."
Nigeria opened with two consecutive 1-1 draws, both times after picking up the lead. It was on the brink of elimination while drawing with Ethiopia 0-0 in its final Group C match, but late penalty kicks converted by Moses secured the two-time champions in the second round.
"It's a wonderful squad, a very good team," Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi said through a translator. "It has young talented players who can cause problems to any team. It doesn't matter that it was second in its group. This is a good squad that can surprise anybody."
Lamouchi made several changes to the Ivory Coast lineup after a lacklustre opener, including benching Drogba and Kolo Toure. He didn't use Gervinho, Yaya Toure and goalkeeper Boubacar Barry in the final match against Algeria, when it needed two late goals to erase a 2-0 deficit and avoid defeat. He is expected to field his top players on Sunday at Royal Bafokeng Stadium.
Keshi won't be able to count on suspended midfielder Fegor Ogude.
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