As the Africa Cup of Nations heads into the knockout rounds, FRANCE 24 looks at the teams who have imposed themselves as favourites with impressive performances in the group stage – from rampant winners Nigeria, to hosts Cameroon, to the Ivory Coast team who sent title-holders Algeria crashing out.
Nigeria established themselves as the hottest prospects to seize the trophy when they became the only team to win all three group stage matches.
In their first match, they swatted aside Egypt – the team of the greatest African player of his generation, Mo Salah. A clinical, ruthlessly opportunistic goal by Leicester striker Kelechi Iheanacho put Nigeria ahead in the first half and they never looked back. The Super Eagles dominated the match as their midfield passing cut off the Pharaohs’ attempts to build up attacks. If anything, the 1-0 score flattered Egypt.
A thrilling 3-1 demolition of Sudan followed, showcasing the Super Eagles’ combination of creative skill and sharp finishing skills. A decisive 2-0 win over more impressive opponents – tenacious, well-disciplined Guinea-Bissau – only added to the aura surrounding Nigeria.
Winger Moses Simon is their star of the tournament so far – a joy to watch, with his daring, evasive runs making a mockery of defenders. Simon’s goal against Sudan exemplified this, seeing him burst down the left, lob the ball into the box for a one-two, take it back off his chest, then practically dribble it into the back of the net.
While Simon is undoubtedly the technical master at the tournament so far, its ultimate star has been Vincent Aboubakar, goal-scoring powerhouse for hosts Cameroon. No other player has come close to matching his group stage tally of five goals; the closest competition comes from a handful of players notching up two.
When Cameroon injected dynamism into a previously goal-shy Africa Cup of Nations with their 4-1 thrashing of Ethiopia last week, Aboubakar led the way with two goals in three minutes – exhibiting the lacerating speed and ruthless finishing skills that have taken the tournament by storm. Enraptured Cameroon fans likened him to Lionel Messi.
Aboubakar is Cameroon’s greatest asset in the knockouts, but the Indomitable Lions boast major talent elsewhere on the pitch – notably Aboubakar’s strike partner, Lyon forward Karl Toko Ekambi, who scored two good goals in the group stage. Cameroon also benefit from the home advantage, as their fans' pride and enthusiasm coruscate around the stands to boost their team and intimidate opponents.
Nevertheless, minnows Cape Verde exposed Cameroon’s defensive weaknesses as they held them to a draw in the third group stage match, pouncing on the slightest sloppiness to attack, and eventually cutting through with a Garry Rodrigues goal.
Sometimes the most enjoyable match in a tournament is the one where the underperforming favourites are ruthlessly exposed – a genre epitomised by Germany’s 7-0 trouncing of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. Ivory Coast’s 3-1 demolition of Algeria wasn’t on that scale. But they provided a thrilling masterclass in attacking football featuring goals from three of their greatest assets: AC Milan’s box-to-box midfielder Franck Kessié, PSV Eindhoven midfield linchpin Ibrahim Sangaré and Arsenal winger Nicolas Pépé.
The Elephants demonstrated their pertinacity and resolve in their win against Equatorial Guinea; a team whose discipline and tactics compensate for their lack of star talent. Ivory Coast’s draw against Sierra Leone showcased their two splendid attacking assets: Ajax’s Sébastien Haller – the Champions League’s top goalscorer so far this season – and Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha – the Premier League’s greatest player outside the Big Six clubs.
But goalkeeper Badra Sangaré will have to maintain his form, after a bizarre injury time fumble allowed Sierra Leone to equalise, blemishing Ivory Coast’s otherwise impeccable record.
Few pundits would have bet money on them before the action started, but Gabon have been one of the most interesting teams at the Africa Cup of Nations. Talismanic striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang left the squad, returning to his club Arsenal after a bout of the coronavirus. Attacking duo Jim Allevinah and Aaron Boupendza stepped into the breach in magnificent style – capped by Allevinah nutmegging the Morocco keeper and Boupendza scoring from a tricky angle against Comoros.
Although none of their players captured fans’ attention like that Gabon duo, Morocco topped the group with wins over Ghana and Comoros, with strong discipline and an impressive attacking presence in the shape of Sofiane Boufal, who notched up two goals in three appearances at the tournament.
Senegal also topped their group, as expected. But they hardly romped to victory. The team of Liverpool’s Said Mané and Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy scraped to victory thanks to a dubious penalty gifting them a 1-0 win in the dying minutes of injury time in a lacklustre stalemate against minnows Zimbabwe. Two soporific goalless draws followed against Guinea and Malawi. Will the Teranga Lions finally roar in the knockout rounds? The talent that made them initial favourites is still there; the question is whether they can play together as effectively as they do for their clubs.