Against Stal­lions

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - NJABULO NGIDI

THE sup­port of Gabon’s na­tional team on the streets of the cap­i­tal city feels more like a thing that they ought to do, like pay­ing your taxes, in­stead of some­thing that they en­joy do­ing. There are the pre­dictable small flags on most of the cars, big­ger ones on the walls and build­ings, while the face of Samba – the mas­cot, a black pan­ther – is all over this city.

The sup­port seems forced rather than some­thing that comes nat­u­rally. That’s how Gabon played in their open­ing match of the Africa Cup of Na­tions (Af­con) against debu­tants Guinea-Bis­sau. Their game plan felt forced, with­out much cre­ativ­ity but con­stantly look­ing for Pierre-Em­er­ick Aubameyang,

who was tightly marked. When they ditched the “pass to Aubameyang” strat­egy, they looked lively on the wings.

Span­ish coach Jose An­to­nio Ca­ma­cho will look to build on that to­mor­row (6pm) at Stade de l’Ami­tie when the hosts take on Burk­ina Faso in the sec­ond round of Group A matches.

A win there will see Gabon put one foot into the quar­ter­fi­nals af­ter the first two matches ended in 1-1 draws which sees the four na­tions equal on every­thing.

But Gabon aren’t equal with the Stal­lions in every­thing. De­spite boast­ing the deadly Aubameyang up front and the ex­pe­ri­enced Di­dier Ovono in goal, Gabon’s squad can’t match that of Burk­ina Faso pound-for-pound.

Then there is Paulo Duarte, who will be sit­ting on the Stal­lions’ bench. The Por­tuguese coach knows Gabon well, hav­ing spent 18 months man­ag­ing the Pan­thers in be­tween his two stints with the Burk­ina Faso.

Duarte was fired for fail­ing to take Gabon to the 2014 Fifa World Cup, iron­i­cally fin­ish­ing be­hind Burk­ina Faso and Congo in the qual­i­fy­ing group. The out­spo­ken coach will look to deny Gabon pas­sage to the last eight with vic­tory to­mor­row in a group where the Stal­lions and Cameroon are now favourites to go through.

“We have a good group of play­ers and there is a good bal­ance of the team,” Duarte said. “The only thing that I need to do is do the job with the play­ers that I have. If our wingers worked well, we could have won against Cameroon. That’s an as­pect of our game that we need to work on. We have many play­ers in­jured. Burk­ina Faso has an­other problem in the sense that we don’t have play­ers who are play­ing in big leagues in Europe. We have to man­age with the least play­ers that we have.”

The Pan­thers need a win to not only keep their Af­con dreams alive but also to lift the sub­dued at­mos­phere in the cap­i­tal. It’s mostly for­eign fans, from Sene­gal and Cameroon, who are ex­cited about this tour­na­ment on the streets. But if Gabon can reg­is­ter a con­vinc­ing win, they can win over their fans to back them be­fore they take on the In­domitable Li­ons of Cameroon in their last Group A match on Sun­day. If the hosts get a pos­i­tive re­sult, the fans will sup­port them out of love rather than duty.

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