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With AFCON 2021 coming to a close this weekend, just four teams remain in with a chance of victory but it is not the four teams many would have anticipated before the tournament began.
It has been a competition in which many of the traditional big names (no more so than the 2019 winners Algeria) have underwhelmed and some of the continent's smallest nations have showcased that they are to be taken seriously. Comoros making the round of 16, The Gambia and Equatorial Guinea making the quarter-finals have been the standout underdogs who have impressed. These nations biggest assets are players playing in second, third, and fourth-tiers in European leagues. In comparison, the likes of Algeria, Senegal, and Ivory Coast boast players competing in the Champions League. So the achievements of The Gambia for example, with a population of just over two million people, are remarkable. Burkina Faso is a slightly more established name at AFCON but few would have expected them to make the semi-finals, two matches away from winning their maiden AFCON title.
They face Senegal who remain the tournament favourites despite the impressive displays by hosts Cameroon so far in the competition. Burkina Faso will have to be at the top of their game to progress. It has not been a spectacular tournament from Senegal despite Sadio Mane's attempts to drag his side to glory. However, with Edourard Mendy in goal and Kalidou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence, they are a difficult team to break down. Burkina Faso will be relying on their talisman Bertrand Traore to keep their dream alive by finding an unlikely breakthrough. With Ismaila Sarr now back from injury, Senegal have an added threat on the right-wing, meaning the focus of their play won't solely be down the left-hand side and Mane. Senegal also produced their best display of the tournament so far against Equatorial Guinea, progressing with a 3-1 win. Whilst it won't be an easy game for Senegal against a nation who have impressed throughout the competition, ultimately I think the favourites will prevail.
In the other semi-final, the hosts Cameroon face Mo Salah's Egpyt in a mouthwatering semi-final encounter. These are two giants of African football going head to head for a place in the final and it's there for both sides to win. Cameroon have been the tournament's highest goal scorers and Vincent Aboubakar is leading the top scorer's charts but they also have their weaknesses. Whilst exciting on the ball, off the ball they have looked vulnerable and disorganised defensively. They have been fortunate that their road to the final hasn't seen them face any pre-tournament favourites. That ends on Thursday evening as they face an Egpyt side who have already knocked out Ivory Coast and Morocco. Egpyt may not play the most eye-catching football or have one of the better squads at the tournament but with decent Premier League experience in the team and Salah leading the line, they have every chance of progressing. However Cameroon will have the support of a proud nation on their shoulders and that 12th man will see them progress, possibly in extra time.
AFCON 2021 has at times lacked high-quality football but all four sides remaining are good footballing sides and in a tournament full of surprises, I wouldn't rule anyone's chances out. That has been what has made this tournament memorable, the idea that history and expectation are meaningless the moment all the talk is over and the action begins.