Madagascar & Tunisia set for fascinating
Everybody loves a Cinderella Story; as Madagascar take on Tunisia in the quarter-finals of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Egypt on Thursday, there will certainly be one prevailing after the final whistle.
On their first ever appearance at the continental tournament, the islanders have punched above their weight to make the last eight - felling some heavyweights in the process.
The north Africans, on the other hand, have managed to sneak into the quarter-finals remarkably without winning a single game.
Ahead of undoubtedly the biggest game in the history of Madagascar, coach Nicolas Dupuis will be glad he does not have any major injury worries about his team.
Marco Ilaimaharitra is back in contention for a place after missing the Round of 16 win over DR Congo.
Midfield dynamo Pascal Razakanantenaina will no doubt keep his starting berth. In attack, Carolus Andriamatsinoro, who has two goals to his name so far, is expected to start alongside Faneva Ima Andriatsima and Lalaina Nomenjanahary who both have a goal to their names.
“I think the with talent of the players, to give them a reasonable goal such as to qualify and then to keep going, if everyone is on the same page then it can be done," Dupuis said at the pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
“Qualifying and getting out of the group were achievable. Now we’re going to reach beyond what is feasible. There’s still a bit that is achievable but it’s going to be very difficult.”
Forced to start from the bench in the Round of 16 triumph over Ghana due to fitness concerns, Tunisia talisman Wahbi Khazri is expected to return to the starting line-up against Madagascar.
Taha Khenissi could also be rewarded with a start following his goal moments after coming on in the last game.
The midfield trio of Ferjani Sassi, Ellyes Skiri and Ghilane Chaalali are expected to keep their places in the starting team.
Goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha may have done a good job to help beat Ghana in the penalty shootout after coming on as a late extra-time substitute but Mouez Hassen will likely keep his starting spot.
Madagascar have already written a glorious chapter in Afcon history as the first team to reach the Afcon quarter-final on their tournament debut since Cape Verde in 2013.
That success did not come on a silver platter as they beat the likes of fellow debutants Burundi (1-0) and three-time champions Nigeria (2-0) to sensationally top Group B following a 2-2 draw with Guinea in their tournament opener.
The shootout win over two-time champions DR Congo in the Round of 16 simply shows the islanders have the temperament for the big stage.
With their seven goals scored at the tournament so far coming from five different players, evidently, it has been a real team effort in their fairytale run.
Also to their advantage, Madagascar will play under absolutely no pressure as they have already surpassed their own expectations.
The pressure, then, must be on Tunisia, who, after drawing all three group games against Angola (1-1), Mali (1-1) and Mauritania (0-0), only reached the last eight on penalties after another stalemate with Ghana (1-1) in the Round of 16.
"We had a tough game against Ghana for 120 minutes [on Monday] and we've had only two days off. We will do our best despite the fatigue of the players," coach Alain Giresse worriedly said at the pre-match presser.
"The Malagasy team does not rely on its physical strength, unlike most teams on the continent. They have special skills and play with a lot of enthusiasm."
Tunisia will be playing in their 10th Afcon quarter-final (3 qualifications, 6 eliminations) but having failed to qualify in their last five appearances at this stage, many of their fans will be worried ahead of Thursday.
The team's pedigree, coupled with the boost by the full return of Khazri who has scored two of their last four Afcon goals, might just be all they will need to get through to the semi-finals.