Best AFCON group stages of all time?
Goals! Lots of goals
The group stages of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations are now over, with 89 goals scored in the 36 fixtures played so far.
That’s a big increase on the previous two editions to feature 24 teams; just 68 goals were scored in both the 2019 and 2022 group phases, while the entire tournament two years ago produced a measly 100 goals in total.
Obviously the exponential increase in goals has made this tournament significantly more fun, but it’ll primarily be remembered for a long time as the competition of upsets.
Early exits for heavyweights
In a 24-team competition, just eight of the field are eliminated after the group phase but, even with this significant margin for error, three traditional heavyweights all crashed out.
Between them, Ghana, Algeria and Tunisia all failed to win a single game, with the Black Stars and the Fennec Foxes actually ignominiously exiting in the first round for a second successive tournament.
The lack of jeopardy did help some teams though, emphasised by the fact Egypt will face DR Congo in the round of 16, despite the fact neither won a group game; that must be some kind of first?
Minnows making it through
At the same time, the underdogs really grasped their opportunity, with four of the eight lowest-ranked teams making it through.
The pre-tournament FIFA rankings had Namibia at 115 and Angola in 117th, placing them below Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Madagascar, while only just above North Korea, Estonia and the Solomon Islands.
Nevertheless, both are through, with Namibia winning an AFCON match for the very first time, beating the aforementioned Tunisia in the last minute, while Angola got out their group for the first time since 2010, with the Black Sable antelopes actually finishing top and unbeaten.
Other minnows to mention include Mauritania who, since making their AFCON debut in 2019, have qualified for three successive editions and, by vanquishing Algeria on Tuesday, not only claimed their first-ever tournament win, snuck through at the expense of the 2019 champions.
Cape Verde had never won multiple matches at a single Cup of Nations before, but beat both Ghana and Mozambique, before holding Egypt to a draw, as the Blue Sharks claimed top spot in Group B.
However, arguably, the least-likely group winners were Equatorial Guinea who, by virtue of hammering the hosts 4-0 on Monday, finished first above Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, who’ve won five AFCONs between them.
The last thing to mention in this truncated group stage review is what’s been going on with the managers, because these storylines are peak Africa Cup of Nations.
Hosts Ivory Coast were demolished 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea, condemning les Éléphants to third spot in Group A, meaning they were not guaranteed to qualify, after which head coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked.
48 hours later however, it transpired that Côte d’Ivoire were the fourth best-raked third-place finisher, so had just done enough to advance, but will now face Senegal on Monday under caretaker Emerse Faé.
Put succinctly, they essentially sacked a manager for getting them eliminated from a tournament that they had in fact not been eliminated from.
That though is not the end of the chaos, just ask Morocco boss Walid Regragui, who has been banned for four games, two of which as suspended, following a post-match brawl which saw him clash with DR Congo captain Chancel Mbemba last Sunday.
In other managerial suspension news, Adel Amrouche took charge of Tanzania’s opener, but that turned out to be the end of his tournament.
Following the Taifa Stars’ 3-0 defeat to Morocco, the coach suggested their opponents had ‘influence in CAF to manipulate match scheduling and officiating’, which saw him handed an eight-match ban and duly sacked by the TFF.
Chris Hughton and Djamel Belmadi have been swiftly dismissed by Ghana and Algeria respectively in a surprise to exactly no one, but we don’t need to think about those teams anymore. Bring on the knockouts!
Looking ahead to the round of 16
Angola vs Namibia- Saturday
As alluded too above, not many would’ve predicted that either Angola nor Namibia would feature in the round of 16, so what a chance this is for both to get even further at Stade de la Paix.
The Brave Warriors did beat Tunisia in their opener, but have been far from impressive since, with Collin Benjamin’s team hammered 4-0 by South Africa, before an uneventful goalless draw with Mali.
Thus, we most certainly give the edge to Angola, given that Pedro Gonçalves’ side are yet to lose a match at this AFCON, winning their last two, scoring five times in the process.
Nigeria vs Cameroon- Saturday
Saturday night sees, possibly, the tie of the round at Stade Félix-Houphouët-Boigny, as three-times Africa Champions Nigeria take on five-times winners Cameroon.
These two nations have met in the final of this competition on three previous occasions, 1984 in Abidjan, 1988 in Casablanca and 2000 in Lagos, all won by the Indomitable Lions, but we see this tie going the other way.
The Super Eagles were generally impressive during the group phase, accumulating seven points, most-notably beating Côte d’Ivoire 1-0, conceding just one goal, despite the pre-tournament concerns about their defence.
Cameroon also finished second in their group, but did so with just four points, swatted aside 3-1 by Senegal last Friday, thereby only getting through thanks to Christopher Wooh’s stoppage time winner against Gambia.
At the same stage five years ago in Alexandria, Nigeria prevailed 3-2, with a similar outcome expected here.
Equatorial Guinea vs Guinea- Sunday
Equatorial Guinea’s reward for topping Group A is the fact they’ll get top billing at the main venue, Stade Alassane Ouattara, whilst, more importantly, facing Guinea for the very first time.
The National Thunder reached the quarter-finals in both 2012 and 2022, as well as the 2015 semi-finals, but even so, no one expected Juan Michá's side to top their group unbeaten above both Nigeria and the hosts.
Emilio Nsue scored three times in the 4-2 win over Guinea-Bissau, making him the oldest player to bag an AFCON hat-trick, before also netting twice in the famous 4-0 hammering of Côte d’Ivoire on Monday.
Based on these two results, Equatorial Guinea will take some stopping.
As for Guinea, there’s not a lot to say about their group stage, it was kind of just fine, holding Cameroon to a credible 1-1 draw, narrowly beating minnows Gambia 1-0, concluding with a 2-0 defeat to Senegal.
The National Elephants have lost all six Cup of Nations knockout matches they’ve ever featured in, and we don’t expect it to be seventh time lucky.
Egypt vs DR Congo- Sunday
We don’t want to just talk about him, but what even are Egypt without Mohamed Salah?
The Liverpool forward hobbled off during the 2-2 draw with Ghana last Thursday and has since returned to Merseyside, thereby inarguably removing the Pharaohs from the serious contenders category.
With and then without him, Rui Vitória’s team are yet to win a match at this AFCON, involved in three 2-2 draws, taking a 93rd minute lead through Mostafa Mohamed against Cape Verde, only to concede in the 99th minute.
That said, Egypt have never lost to DR Congo, winning six of eight encounters, including a 2-0 victory in Cairo at the 2019 Cup of Nations, but les Léopards will surely never get a better chance to change this fact.
Sébastien Desabre’s side, like their opponents, got through with three draws, the first two of which ended 1-1, while Wednesday’s goalless stalemate with Tanzania was dull, and that’s putting it politely.
So, this tie in San Pédro is tough to call but, even without Salah, Egypt kick off as marginal favourites.
Cape Verde vs Mauritania- Monday
Another tie here between two surprise packages, although Cape Verde are strong favourites to prevail at Stade Félix-Houphouët-Boigny.
Bubista’s team were straight-up impressive in the group phase, beating Ghana and holding Egypt to a draw.
Despite their lack of name recognition, this is the Blue Shark’s third appearance in the knockout phase, eliminated by Senegal in this round two years ago, so victory here would be historic.
Meantime, just getting here is the achievement for Mauritania who, at the ninth attempt, secured their maiden AFCON win on Tuesday, Mohamed Dellahi Yali’s goal downing Algeria, a result that saw them sneak through.
Head coach Amir Abdou led the Comoros Islands to the 2022 quarter-finals, but this could be the end of the road for his Lions of Chinguetti.
Senegal vs Ivory Coast- Monday
The other blockbuster last 16 tie comes from Stade Charles Konan Banny as the hosts and the holders meet.
Côte d’Ivoire appeared to have their ‘Brazil 2014′ moment on Monday, completely unravelling against Equatorial Guinea, eventually hammered 4-0, les Éléphants joint-biggest competitive defeat of all-time.
However, Morocco’s 1-0 win over Zambia 48 hours later meant Ivory Coast had, just, done enough to sneak through but, now led by caretaker boss Emerse Faé, they’ll need to improve to go any further than this.
Defending champions Senegal meantime are the only team to win every match so far, scoring eight goals, conceding just one and looking generally impressive throughout.
Côte d’Ivoire have won both previous AFCON meetings with Senegal 1-0, these coming in 1965 and 1986 but, despite being faced with a partisan crowd, the Lions of Téranga are clear favourites in Yamoussoukro.
Mali vs Burkina Faso- Tuesday
These two teams both perfectly fit the billing when it comes to your archetypal ‘dark horse’, with both fancying their chances of victory in Korhogo, frankly making a winner tough to call.
On the evidence of what we saw in the group phase, Mali might just be slight-favourites, although they were far from imperious, beating South Africa 2-0 before playing out a pair of draws.
Les Aigles have fallen in the last 16 at the last two Cup of Nations, so will it be déjà vu here?
Burkina Faso meantime also won their opener, requiring a 96th minute Bertrand Traoré penalty to overcome Mauritania, before failing to win either of their fixtures subsequently, defeated 2-0 by Angola a week ago.
Les Étalons have reached, at least, the semis at three of the last AFCONs for which they’ve qualified, but we see Mali knocking them out, just as happened when the pair last met at the tournament two decades ago.
Morocco vs South Africa- Tuesday
The round of 16 comes to a close on Tuesday night, but will pre-tournament favourites Morocco still be in the hunt for glory after this tie at Stade Laurent Pokou.
Despite some mixed performances, the Atlas Lions comfortably topped their group, the only side in the section to win a game, the one negative being the suspension picked up by head coach Walid Regragui.
Five years ago, Morocco beat South Africa 1-0 in Cairo, while the sides also met in qualifying for this edition, with both encounters ending 2-1 to the hosts.
So, can Bafana Bafana take confidence from that victory in Johannesburg just seven months ago and do it again?
Well, this does seem unlikely, given that Hugo Broos’ side were underwhelming in the group phase, hammering Namibia 4-0, but failing to win or score in either of their other fixtures.
If Morocco do not get through this one in San Pédro, it would be a major surprise.