LIBREVILLE: Senegal coach Aliou Cisse insists Africa Cup of Nations opponents Cameroon are favorites to win the eagerly awaited quarterfinals in Franceville on Saturday (Sunday in Manila).
Pundits beg to differ, though, making the Senegalese Teranga Lions favourites not only to reach the semi-finals, but to go on and win the competition for the first time.
Senegal impressed when winning Franceville-based Group B, defeating Tunisia and Zimbabwe by 2-0 scorelines before starting with 10 reserves in a 2-2 draw against Algeria.
Cameroon came second in Libreville-based Group A, drawing 1-1 with Burkina Faso, edging Guinea-Bissau 2-1 and holding Gabon in a 0-0 stalemate, a result which eliminated the 2017 hosts.
Cisse sounded like a Cameroon praise-singer as he spoke ahead of the last-eight showdown, the fourth meeting between the countries in the Cup of Nations with the Indomitable Lions holding a 2-1 advantage.
“Cameroon are the favorites,” he stressed. “They have won the Cup of Nations four times while Senegal have never won it. So, if there has to be a favorite, it must be Cameroon.
“The Indomitable Lions have great players and an experienced coach. I and my team are very honored to meet them.”
As to being tournament favorites, former national team star and captain Cisse was having none of that either.
“How can we be favorites when you have the likes of Ghana, Morocco and the Democratic Republic of Congo still in contention?
“Ghana were finalists in the last tournament, Morocco have impressed and DR Congo exhibit tremendous potential.
“For me, reaching the quarterfinals was a huge relief as Senegal have not been to the knockout stage since 2006 in Egypt.
“Our first goal was to qualify from the mini-league and the boys did that. Congratulations to them.”
Cisse preferred not to dwell on the last Cameroon-Senegal clash — the 2002 final won 3-2 on penalties by the Indomitable Lions after 120 goalless minutes in Bamako.
The Senegal coach captained his country that evening and failed to convert a penalty in the shootout.
“I suspected that final would come up in the media,” said Cisse, “but 2002 is in the past.
“Most of our squad in Gabon was quite young then. Even if they do remember the finals, it would be a vague recollection.”
Cameroon boasted stars in 2002 like Rigobert Song, now deceased Marc-Vivien Foe and Samuel Eto’o, while El Hadji Diouf was the best known Senegalese.
Cameroon have no stars now, rather a team of emerging internationals led by France-based goal poacher Benjamin Moukandjo who are dedicated to working for each other.
“We have young players hungry to play and keen to win,” said Belgian coach Hugo Broos. “Now that we have reached the quarter-finals, anything can happen.”
Senegal do have current stars, most notably Liverpool attacker Sadio Mane. He has already scored twice in Gabon having finished third in the 2016 African Footballer of the Year poll.
Cameroon and Senegal kick off at 2000 local time (1900 GMT), three hours after Burkina Faso and Tunisia launch the two-day quarter-finals schedule in Libreville.
Burkina Faso held Cameroon and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang-led Gabon before comfortably disposing of Guinea-Bissau to surprisingly top Group A.
After wasting many scoring chances in a 2-0 defeat by Senegal, Tunisia beat Algeria 2-1 and Zimbabwe 4-2 to finish Group B runners-up under vastly experienced Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak.
Leading Tunisia scorer Naim Sliti says his team play “beautiful football” and the four-goal 37-minute destruction of Zimbabwe was clinical finishing at its best.
But physically imposing Burkina Faso, boasting experienced campaigners like Bakary Kone, Charles Kabore and Prejuce Nakoulma, are likely to prove stubborn opponents.