BENGUELA // The saga of Flavio's knee is over and Angola go into the biggest match in their history with their prime forward fit. They reached the quarter-finals two years ago, but with home support and their opponents Ghana - the hosts in 2008 - staggering under an injury crisis that has robbed them of half a dozen first-teamers, they have a golden opportunity to reach the semi-finals for the first time.
The return of Flavio is a huge boost. Perhaps there was some contrivance about the goalless draw against Algeria in the match he missed, but it is also true that without him Angola seemed to lack potency. Flavio's movement has always been good, but for a player who once had a reputation for proflig-acy, the 30-year-old's three headed finishes have been exceptional. The first, against Mali, perhaps was simply a case of making an aggressive run, but his other two were the result of fine technique, shaping his finishes past the goalkeeper.
"When I took on the job, my goal was to get Angola the best qualification they had ever had," said the team's coach Manuel Jose, who must take credit for developing Flavio at the Egyptian side Al Ahly. "We've managed that by winning our group. Now anything can happen. We could be knocked out or we could even go all the way and win the title." Ghana also welcome back a key presence with the Rosenborg midfielder Anthony Annan back to add his experience to a youthful line-up that only just eased out Burkina Faso in the group stage.
With Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah, Laryea Kingston, Sulley Muntari, John Mensah and John Pantsil all missing, their coach Milovan Rajovac has drawn heavily on the side that won the Under 20 World Cup last year; as many of four of that side could be involved this evening. For Angolans, the sense of anticipation is intoxicating. "This could be our biggest day since independence [in 1975]," said Marco Craveiro, an Angolan fan who will make the seven-hour journey from Benguela to see his team today. "I've never seen the country so excited."
There is a darker side to Angola's enthusiasm, though, and as in Egypt four years ago there is just a sense that home advantage may have gone too far. Malawi's coach Kinnah Phirri complained that his side were prevented from training three times by local authorities before their 2-0 defeat to the hosts, while Ghana have reported a fan and a journalist being assaulted by police. "If this is some deliberate tactic, they'd better think of breaking our legs as well," said the Ghanaian Football Association's spokesman, Randy Abbey. "But our players are relaxed and confident."
Their hopes may rest on whether they can maintain that attitude in the cauldron of the Estadio de 11 Novembro this afternoon. The day's other quarter-final sees the tournament favourites, Ivory Coast, face Algeria, both of whom seem to have been suffering hangovers from World Cup qualification in this tournament. After a 3-0 defeat to Malawi in their opening game, Algeria have switched from a back three to a back four and qualified on the back of two subsequent clean sheets. "I think we're more comfortable like that," said the centre-back Madjid Bougherra. "There's an extra man so there's less movement, and that gives us more security."
Given the failing of this highly-gifted Ivory Coast generation, with their array of centre-forwards, has been their inability to break down sides who sit deep against them - as Egypt did, for instance, in beating the Elephants 4-1 in the semi-final two years ago - this will be a significant test of whether they really have evolved from the team that has stuttered against Egypt in the latter stages of the previous two tournaments.
"Algeria deserve our respect because they eliminated Egypt from the World Cup," said the Ivory Coast coach Vahid Halilhodzic. "It will be very difficult. They are well organised and compact." firstname.lastname@example.org Angola v Ghana, KO 8pm, Ivory Coast v Algeria, KO 11.30pm, Aljazeera Sport + 9