FRANCEVILLE, Gabon – Ghana found traces of its best form at the African Cup of Nations as impressive goals by Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew led it to a 2-0 win over Mali on Saturday and to the brink of the quarterfinals.
Ghana was held for an hour by a defensive Mali before breaking throught in a battle of Group D’s favourites at Stade de Franceville.
Ghana’s victory sealed Botswana’s elimination, while the Black Stars, Mali and Guinea will all battle for two quarterfinal places in the final round of matches.
The top teams at the African Cup have struggled against inspired underdogs, but Ghana stamped its authority on Group D with a strong finish against Mali, while Botswana was put in its place with a 6-1 hammering by Guinea in Saturday’s first game.
Ghana needs just a draw against Guinea to win the group and set up a quarterfinal against either Tunisia or co-host Gabon.
Coach Goran Stevanovic made three changes following an underwhelming 1-0 win over Botswana, but it was Gyan and Ayew — who hold Ghana’s attacking hopes at the tournament — who were the difference against Mali.
Mali focussed much of its attention on closing down lone striker Gyan, but his 63rd-minute free kick swung the momentum Ghana’s way — and he punched his chest in aggressive celebration near the corner flag in case anyone missed who the goalscorer was.
“This shows how great I am,” Gyan said, shrugging off concerns that teams would target him in the latter stages of the tournament in an attempt to shut down Ghana’s attacking threat.
Ayew’s goal was maybe even better as he teased two defenders with deft ball control before firing a precise shot in at the near post.
As Ghana rose to the top of the group standings, Botswana’s semiprofessional players were badly exposed by Guinea’s powerful and pacey forward line.
The Guineans were already 3-1 up and in complete control when Botswana’s Patrick Motsepe was sent off for an ugly studs-up lunge at Pascal Feindouno in the 47th minute.
Ibrahima Traore scored direct from the resulting free kick and Guinea could easily have gone on to win 8-1 against the 10 men if Ismael Bangoura had found the target instead of twice hitting the goal frame in the second half.
“By scoring six goals today we’ve made a very important point,” said Guinea coach Michel Dussuyer.
The last acts of the group stage begin on Sunday when Equatorial Guinea and Zambia meet to see who will top Group A.
With its place in the last eight already confirmed, the other co-host, Equatorial Guinea, will be striving to top the group and thereby avoid tournament favourite Ivory Coast — which is expected to win Group B — in the quarters.
“All the supporters are saying they don’t care who we play and that they’re not worried about Ivory Coast,” Equatorial Guinea captain Juvenal Edjogo-Owono said, “but we know Ivory Coast are a level above the rest.”
Zambia needs a point to progress.
Senegal — the tournament’s first high-profile failure — will aim to salvage some pride against Libya in Group A’s other game in Bata, but a win for the Libyans and a loss for Zambia could take the North Africans into the quarterfinals in another major surprise.
In that case, goals would decided the group’s second qualifier after the teams drew 2-2 in their meeting.
Associated Press writer Mark Walsh contributed to this story from Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.