x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sharjah duo helping bring chance of African Cup of Nations success to UAE

Burkina Faso's unheralded UAE-based pair Wilfried Dah and Pan Pierre Koilibaly could yet taste glory after their side's unlikely success so far at the African Cup of Nations.

Burkina Faso's former Al Ahli forward Aristide Bance battles for the ball against Zambia's Isaac Chansa.
Burkina Faso's former Al Ahli forward Aristide Bance battles for the ball against Zambia's Isaac Chansa.

The chances of an Africa Cup of Nations medal coming back to the UAE at the end of the 29th edition of the tournament trebled on Tuesday evening, somewhat against the odds and in defiance of the precedents.

Burkina Faso, the nation who had travelled abroad to seven different Afcons and never gone beyond the first round until now, topped Group C after their goalless draw with Zambia.

You'd still assume Al Ain's Asamoah Gyan, spearheading Ghana's attack, is more likely than the Burkinabe pair of Wilfried Dah and Pan Pierre Koulibaly to bring a gold, silver or bronze medal home from South Africa, but the two Sharjah-based strikers will be watching on television for the outcome of Togo against Tunisia among compatriots confident that they can hold their own against either in Sunday's quarter-final.

Dah, particularly, will be intent on pressing his claim for a recall to the starting line-up - he has played 90 minutes here, 45 as a first XI player, 45 as a sub - given the likely absence, with a hamstring complaint, of Alain Traore, whose three goals in the tournament so far have propelled Burkina Faso into the last eight.

If Dah and Koulibaly, both 26, have not registered powerfully on the Emirati football radar yet, that would be because they play outside the Pro League, in the tier beneath. They were marquee recruits last year for ambitious Al Dhaid, and have made their mark there.

Koulibaly, a tall centre-forward had accumulated eight goals from his nine first division matches before he set off for the Nations Cup; Dah has been a regular provider of assists for his compatriot, and contributed three goals himself to push for promotion by the Sharjah club. That push may suffer from the Burkinabe pair's unexpectedly extended stay in Africa.

For a country with a reputation for being poor travellers in the continent's principal tournament - the 'Stallions' did, memorably, get to the semi-finals of an Afcon once, in 1998, but they were hosts then, and, as others present at that event would concur, they were very evidently lifted by their enthusiastic supporters - Burkina Faso breeds resourceful voyagers among its individual players.

Besides the Sharjah-based pair, there is striker Aristide Bance, who has stood out in South Africa more for his bleached blonde braids than his penetrative football, was once at Al Ahli in Dubai, now plays for Augsburg in the German Bundesliga, latest stop on a journey that began with a football apprenticeship in Ivory Coast and has also hopscotched through Belgium, Turkey and Qatar.

The Burkinabe strengths here have been the solidity of their defending, with the Lyon defender Bakary Kone and Pan Pierre Koulibaly's brother, Paul, having overcome some early difficulties in the 1-1 draw against Nigeria to build an effective partnership at centre-half.

The Stallions reacted well to the sending-off of first-choice goalkeeper, Abdoulaye Salama in their game against Ethiopia: An emphasis, down to the men, on swift counter-attack rather suited them, with the Rennes winger Jonathan Pitroipa's speed and slipperiness an important weapon.

Pitroipa gives the Stallions their gallop. Traore, scorer of the equaliser against Nigeria and the first two of goals of the four they scored against the Ethiopians - they topped the group, ahead of Nigeria, thanks to superior goal difference - usually gives them a coolness in front of goal and a dexterity from set pieces. They would miss that in his absence.

Centre-forward Momo Dagano, a 32-year-old veteran of Arabian Gulf football, now in his sixth season in Qatar, has lost some of the pace he had in his 20s and has not threatened a great deal; if head coach Paul Put needs alternatives in the later stages of the quarter-final, he might turn to Pan Pierre Koulibaly.

"Our aim coming here was to do better than we had at the last five tournaments," says the Belgian Put. "We are a small country, without oil or diamond wealth, but there is progress, and what we have done here is Burkinabe football's greatest achievement."

Knocking out the champions at the first hurdle - no title-holder has gone out as early as Zambia in the last 21 years of Afcons - is certainly a feather in their cap. Next target: a medal.

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