Two quarterfinal match-ups were decided in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Durban and Port Elizabeth on Monday, with Ghana and Mali progressing from Group B to the knockout stages of the tournament.
Ghana made it look easy with a 3-0 victory over Niger at Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth, but Mali were made to work hard for a 1-1 draw with the Democratic Republic of Congo at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium, the draw being enough to see them through in second place in the group.
That means a quarterfinal showdown with Bafana Bafana for Mali's Eagles in Durban on 2 February, while Ghana's Black Stars will take on Cape Verde in Port Elizabeth on the same day.
Ghana topped the group standings with seven points from their three games, Mali earned four points, the DRC three after three draws and Niger a single point.
After Monday's game, Ghanaian coach Kwesi Appiah declared himself happy with his team's performance against Niger, saying they had lifted themselves for the challenge. "Niger was a good team. They defended well. My players stepped up their performance and that resulted in Niger not coming out as they are used to."
Still, he warned: "We are half way through and can do much better."
Deserved to advance
Mali conceded a penalty in the first minute of their showdown with the DRC and found themselves behind almost before any players could break a sweat, but truth be told they had the better of the game and deserved to advance.
Eagles' coach Patrice Carteron praised the Leopards after the contest, saying: "We are happy to have qualified for the quarterfinals. We played a difficult game against a difficult team. They have a good team and a good coach."
Looking ahead, he said: "Our next match is against South Africa. That will be another tough game for us but I believe that pressure will be on them on Saturday. This stadium [Moses Mabhida] will be full with all the supporters of South Africa, but we will do our best."
Hope for Mali
Mali captain Seydou Keita led from the front and was the Eagles' best player on the day. He said the victory would mean a lot to the Malian people. "This means a lot for Mali. This qualification will give hope to Mali people, you all know what is happening in our country. I'm very happy.
"I think we played very well, this was a good game. We have our next game against Bafana Bafana. I'm hoping we can continue playing well in this tournament. We have played against Bafana before. They are a host country. They are big here in Durban. We are going to play them in their own ground. That won't be easy."
In Port Elizabeth, Ghana made sure little pressure built on their quest for a quarterfinal spot by taking the lead after only six minutes and doubling their advantage only 17 minutes later.
The first goal came when captain Asamoah Gyan finished off a counter-attack down the right flank by blasting past Kassaly Daouda from the right corner of the six-yard box, leaving the goalkeeper with little chance of stopping his low shot.
Niger had the ball in the Ghana net in the ninth minute, but the referee ruled goalkeeper Fatawu Dauda had been fouled and the Black Stars retained their lead.
Christian Atsu and Gyan then combined beautifully down the left-hand flank to once again open up the Ménas defence, resulting in a close range shot for Atsu, who finished with composure with his left foot to make it Ghana 2, Niger 0.
Three goals to the good
The Black Stars' third came early in the second half after Daouda could only parry a downward header from Gyan. Defender John Boye was on hand to pounce on the loose ball and tap it into the Nigerien net to put his side three goals to the good.
Gyan starred for Ghana, having a hand in all three goals, while Boye and Isaac Vorsah were solid at the back. Niger struggled to make an impression on the Ghanaians, although Moussa Maazou fought manfully to test the Black Stars with little support.
DRC vs Mali
In Durban, midfielder Mohamed Sissoko was caught out in the very first minute of the game when Yves Diba burst past him into the box. Reacting too late, Sissoko caught Diba with a boot, sending the striker to the ground. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Dieumerci Mbokani was given the responsibility of taking the penalty kick and responded with a well-placed shot, high to the goalkeeper's left to put the Leopards ahead.
Mali didn't panic and drew level just over 10 minutes later through Mamadou Samassa after the Congolese, under pressure, conceded possession inside their box. Adama Tamboura, attacking down the left, robbed a defender and then picked out Samassa, who was left unattended mere metres from goal. He finished with his right foot to make it 1-1.
The Eagles, with Keita pulling the strings, dictated the pace of play, although the Leopards managed to match them in the possession stakes.
In the second half, Samassa tested DRC goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba with a left-footed shot from the edge of the box in the second half, which Kidiaba fumbled, but the ball rolled wide of his left hand post and out for a corner.
Cheick Diabaté found the outside of the same goal post in the 82nd minute after he had beaten Kidiaba, only to be challenged by two Congolese defenders. Keita also broke through shortly before the final whistle, forcing Kidiaba into a save with his feet.
Apart from Keita, Modibo Maiaga shone out wide for Mali, while goal scorer Samassa did good work up front. Tamboura was good down the flank and Molla Wague led the defence effectively.
Yves Ilunga was the DRC's best player and worked hard to get forward. Youssouf Mulumba gave as good as he got in the midfield and defenders Mpeko Issama and Kiritsho Kasusula combined well to hold the Eagles at bay.