By Baboucarr Camara, Team Gambia Media Officer
Scorpion Sulayman Marreh has remarked that Gambia will treat tomorrow’s last 16 tie against Guinea Conakry in the African Cup of Nations last 16 stage as a final.
Tom Saintfiet’s charges finished second in Group F, levelled on seven points with Mali, who pipped the debutants to top spot by just a single goal. In their maiden campaign amongst the big boys of African football, The Gambia, the lowest ranked side in the competition at 152, shocked the continent by beginning its campaign with a 1-0 defeat of Mauritania.
They followed that up with a 1-1 draw against one of the favorites Mali before saving the best with a last gasp Ablie Jallow winner to secure a 1-0 defeat of 2004 champions Tunisia. Finishing second, the reward is a west African derby with Guinea at the Kouekong Stadium in Bafoussam, one-and-half hour drive from the Scorpions’ Hotel La Vallee de Bana base.
Speaking at a pre-match press conference today at the Tagidor Garden Resort, the Gent midfielder, who started the first two matches of the competition before been rested for the final group encounter promised a good match against the Sylli Nationale.
“Everybody in the team is very motivated. Even though we know Guinea are favorites on paper, they should expect a good game as it is our intention to get the victory,” Marreh asserted.
“We have played every game like a final and that is the same game plan we have against Guinea. Our motivation as players is getting a new challenge and coming out victorious.”
After three matches in this competition, the Scorpions have endeared themselves to the hearts and minds of many locals and neutrals alike. In many quarters, there is already the talk of the team pumping beyond its weight. Statistics have backed this claim. In a group containing two pre-tournament favorites, The Gambia scored three goals in as many matches and yet to concede a goal in open play, whereas, as debutants, there’s still the big matter of being the only unbeaten team in the African Cup of Nations history.
A monumental achievement of epic propositions, this is the wonderful story of an underdog turned to a big dog at the 33rd edition of the competition. Saintfiet’s charges are the revelations of this tournament. After Equatorial Guinea as hosts in 2012, no team has won an AFCON match in its debut game until Jallow’s stupendous strike after 10 minutes on January 12 banished that jinx into the history books.
Speaking earlier, Gambia’s Belgian coach who has been in charge for the past three and half years said being an underdog against one of his former players side, Kaba Diawara, is an added motivation to win the encounter.
“Guinea are the favorites, but that actually gives us a lot of motivation because we are in the knockout stages in our first appearance. We are not afraid as we have been together with the players for over three years, meaning we have cohesion and great team spirit,” he stressed.
“Kaba Diawara was my player in Qatar and I wish him the best in his career as coach expect tomorrow [against Gambia]. We can employ different styles and approaches in different match situations. We want nothing short of a win and Guinea must be prepared for a proper duel.”
Also speaking at the press conference, earlier in the day, was Guinea Coach Kaba Diawara: “What we want is to have the best start against Gambia as we seek the important win that will elevate us to the quarterfinals.”
Similarly, when the Confederation of African Football released its Team of the Group stages, Musa Barrow was included in the eleven, grabbing a spot in the left side of midfield, in a 4-3-3 formation. The bench comprised of 12 players and amongst those substitutes included Liverpool duo Sadio Mane & Mohamed Salah as well as Nigeria and Leicester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi.
The ability of this team to come from behind to draw Mali after 90 minutes and with the last kick of the game winner over Tunisia, the Scorpions have personality and character. The beauty of it all is that this team do not know when they’re even beaten. They’ve no regard for reputation, yet they remain grounded in modesty and taking it one game at a time.
One thing is certain, Gambians can expect a team that would sweat, toil and work hard for their national colors.