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NELSPRUIT, South Africa, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast have emerged as clear favourites as the African Nations Cup enters its knockout stages but if past finals are anything to go by, the tournament remains ripe for more surprises.
Following 12 days of intense action across South Africa, half of the 16-team field - including defending champions Zambia - have been eliminated as the event's recent tradition of unpredictability has continued.
The progress of dream weavers Cape Verde into the last eight is a fairytale result for one of the continent's smallest countries, while Burkina Faso and Togo have also upstaged the bigger names to advance.
Burkina Faso finished ahead of Nigeria and eliminated Zambia in Group C while Togo, whose coach Didier Six labelled a "little team", set aside preparations clouded by bickering over money to win a first-ever place in the knockout stages.
Those achievements have taken some of the spotlight off the Ivory Coast's quest to finally deliver on the potential of what is often termed their "golden generation" and add to their sole success in the tournament 21 years ago.
The burden of expectation has proven too strong for the Ivorians in recent editions but they have also had to contend with opponents of similar quality. This year, however, the rest of the field is markedly inferior.
The pace of 'The Elephants' attack, the work rate of their midfield and the contribution that talented individuals can provide make it difficult to see them failing again.
Having to luxury of being able to leave star forward Didier Drogba on the bench is testimony to the depth at coach Sabri Lamouchi's disposal.
Ghana showed their future potential by topping Group B but have a young side that has yet to be properly tested.
They are now handily placed to advance to the final in the bottom half of the draw, facing debutants Cape Verde on Saturday with a likely semi-final clash against either Burkina Faso or Togo next week.
Nigeria, another of the continent's perennial contenders, are also in the throes of building for the future and will do well to advance any further than the quarter-finals.
Coach Stephen Keshi warned ahead of tournament that his side were far from the finished product but he was still panned by his country's media as Nigeria stumbled into the last eight on the back of two late penalties against Ethiopia on Tuesday.
They next meet the Ivorians in the marquee quarter-final in Rustenburg on Sunday.
As for the host nation, there was a collective sigh of relief rather than ecstatic celebration as they advanced from Group A, equalising six minutes from the end of their final match against Morocco to avoid an embarrassing early exit.
"To be honest, we were under huge pressure, it would have been an absolute tragedy had we not qualified for the last eight," coach Gordon Igesund said this week.
South Africa's progression to a quarter-final against Mali on Saturday has at least ensured an increasing interest in the tournament as more casual conversations across the country focus on the Nations Cup.
There had been little excitement ahead of the event and attendances have followed the trend set at previous tournaments of home supporters ignoring all matches except those involving their team.
Not helping the cause is the fact that the first 24 matches have produced a paltry 49 goals, the second lowest return since the finals were expanded to 16 teams in 1996. (Editing by John O'Brien)