The best and the worst of the Afcon group stages

Cameroon's head coach Rigobert Song celebrates with his players after they won their Africa Cup of Nations match against Gambia

Cameroon's head coach Rigobert Song celebrates with his players after they won their Africa Cup of Nations match against Gambia. Photo: Kenzi Tribouillard/AFP

Published Jan 27, 2024

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The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) taking place in the Ivory Coast is only going into the knockout stages on Saturday, but already there seems to be a general consensus that this is the best of the 34 editions in the 67-year history of the biennial, continental soccer showpiece.

Early as it is to make such bold a call, it is easy to understand just why many believe we are witnessing a fantastic tournament given the top-class nature of the matches which have produced some stunning results. The outcomes in the group stage seemed to suggest that the playing fields have been levelled -with reputation, pedigree, history and even the star-studded nature of teams not guaranteeing success on match day.

The elimination of the so-called giants of the continent in Ghana and Algeria, for example, as well as Namibia and Mauritania going into the knockout stages after registering their first wins in the finals has brought about excitement.

Ahead of the Round of 16 on Saturday, here’s my look back at the highlights and lowlights of the round robin phase. What do you think of my choices? Do you agree?

MY BEST and WORST OF THE AFCON GROUP STAGES

BEST MATCH

Cameroon 3 Gambia 2 (Group C Matchday 3)

When Cameroon went into their final match against a Gambia side that had been beaten twice and were yet to score, I expected the Indomitable Lions – themselves not that impressive following a draw and a loss – to have no trouble winning.

But boy did they sweat for the three points in a thriller whose implications see-sawed so wildly I was left a little dizzy. Having picked the Indomitable Lions to win the tournament, you can understand just why I was invested in the game.

It was goalless at the break and I feared the worst, for a draw would have seen Cameroon eliminated. When Georges-Kevin Nkoudou crashed the ball against the upright on 49 minutes, it appeared this was just not going to be their day. But shortly thereafter Karl Toko Ekambi flicked home a cross for the opener.

Delight!

Poor defending on 72 minutes saw Gambia equalise. Shucks! Toko Ekambi rattled the crossbar on 75 minutes. Phew! Five minutes from the end Gambia scored what looked like an unlikely winner.

Disaster!

But the Indomitable Lions’ response was swift as they forced an own goal for the equaliser. Come On! They were still out though. But as with most of the matches in this tournament, it’s never over until the fat lady sings. On 90 minutes Cameroon scored, Christopher Wooh heading in powerfully from inside the box. Ole! Ole! Ole! My heart sank when Gambia equalised at two minutes added on. But the Cameroon defenders protested vehemently and thanks to VAR the goal was not allowed as Muhammed Sanneh had tried in vain to emulate Diego Maradona’s infamous Hand of God. What a match!

BEST PLAYER

Emilio Nsue – Equatorial Guinea captain

Only the discerning follower of continental football would have really been aware of the Nzilang Nacional skipper, mostly from his exploits back in 2015 when he scored the tournament’s opening goal and helped his country to a semifinal finish. Even then, no one would have picked him to be leading the scoring, and definitely not with five goals from three matches. After all, Nsue plays as a right-back for his club – a fact that would also not have been known by many given that he plays for a third division club (CF Intercity) in Spain. At 34 years,, he is one of the oldest players at the tournament. But you would not have said that was the case as he pulled the strings for his team as a fetcher, carrier and distributor. He has proven lethal in front of goals, scoring a hat-trick – the oldest player to do so at the finals – against Guinea Bissau before adding a brace in the 4-0 demolition of hosts Ivory Coast. He has really epitomised the saying ‘leading by example’ and will be a huge threat to Guinea on Sunday.

BEST GOAL

Abubakary Koita’s stunner for Mauritania against Angola

I remember debating with myself as to whether I should take a nap to be rested for the later evening matches or watch this ‘clash of Group C 'minnows’. I watched, only because a Cosafa team was involved. Boy was I grateful I did!

The five-goal thriller produced some fantastic goals – Sidi Bouna’s solo run to end Mauritania’s long (over ten hours) run without an AFCON tournament goal was impressive and it was matched by Gelson Dala after the break.

And then there was Gilberto’s strike from a narrow angle inside the box. But none, not even that classy second goal by Senegal’s Lamine Camara in their opening match, took my breath away like Aboubakary Koita’s thunderbolt for Mauritania’s second goal against in this 3-2 defeat. If you are to score a consolation goal, you better do it in style and Koita clearly got the memo.

Receiving a pass from just inside the Angola half on the left, he pushed the ball twice in a short run and then cut inside to leave a marker in his wake, controlled and then unleashed a thunderbolt that few goalkeepers in the world would have been able to stop.

A stupendous goal!

BEST SAVE

Herve Koffi denies Abubakary Koita

Though a lot of goals have been scored, we have seen some impressive goalkeeping with the likes of Namibia’s Lloyd Kazapuwa, Fabrice Ondoa of Cameroon, Zambian Lawrence Mulenga making some memorable stops.

Particularly impressive was the alertness of a few goalkeepers who made double saves in quick succession with their sides under pressure.

The one that stood out for me though was the one made by Burkina Faso’s Herve Koffi to deny Aboubakry Koita a goal from a free kick just outside the box.

Koita struck the ball superbly as he made it swerve past the defensive wall which had slightly unsighted Koffi who was going the other way only to show brilliant reflex to get his hands on the goal-bound ball and tip it over from a corner.

Top class goalkeeping.

BIGGEST SHOCK

Equatorial Guinea 4 Ivory Coast 0

Never in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations has a host nation been beaten as thoroughly as the Elephants were in their final group match.

Granted, there was something amiss about the Ivory Coast, the home team looking nothing like the side that opened the tournament with an inspired 2-0 win over Guinea Bissau and were unlucky to lose 1-0 against Nigeria via a penalty goal.

In this match, their biggest loss at home, they just could not do anything right while just about everything the Nzilang Nacional touched seemed to turn to gold.

Not surprising that the Ivorians needed armed escort as they left the pitch to deafening jeers from their own fans. They finished third but made it to the knockouts where they face defending champions Senegal.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Algeria’s Desert Foxes

The Desert Foxes were supposed to redeem themselves in the Ivory Coast. Champions back in 2019, they were knocked out in the group stages at the previous edition.

But they came into the tournament on the back of a fantastic winning streak against African opposition that suggested they would be among the contenders for the title. They were ranked fourth on the continent and you thought they’d want to have a great outing in their 20th appearance at the final.

But star player Riyad Mahrez just did not show up and it was left to Qatar-based Baghdad Bounedjah to carry the team although his trio of goals were just not enough to save Algeria from the embarrassment of yet another first round exit.

It was made worse by the fact that they were literally knocked out by opposition as lowly as Mauritania who beat them in the final match - the West African country registering their maiden AFCON win that sent them into the knockouts.

@Tshiliboy

IOL Sport