Fans at the Al Salam Stadiumduring an AFCON game. Photo: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

CAIRO – With crowd attendances generally poor, and goals difficult to come by, the feeling is that the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations is yet to really take off.

That could, however, change as the event heads into the knockout stages this weekend as teams often tend to be a bit more conservative in the group stages, scared to be eliminated early on, and knowing that they do not have to win all three matches – often a win and a draw is enough to get through.

But even taking that into account, the goal-scoring return has been a bit uninspired – the 36 group matches have yielded 68 goals at an average of 1.9 goals per match, or 0.95 goals per team per game.

It's been Mali and Algeria who have been the pacesetters, scoring six goals in their three fixtures at an average of two per game. While Mali's goals have come from 40 attempts, Algeria needed just 33 attempts.

Senegal, Egypt, Ivory Coast and Madagascar are up there with five goals scored, while at the other end of the spectrum, two countries - Guinea-Bissau and Burundi, failed to register any goals in the group phase.

Burundi, together with South Africa (who qualified via the backdoor for the knockout phase after scoring just once in three outings), have had the least attempts on goal, just 24.

Tanzania, meanwhile, exhibited the leakiest defence, with eight goals conceded.

Just three nations from the six groups – Egypt, Morocco and Algeria achieved a perfect record of three out of three wins, while the highest winning margin was the Democratic Republic of Congo's 4-0 drubbing of Zimbabwe.

Kenya's 3-2 win over Tanzania, meanwhile, provided the most goals in a game, along with Mali's 4-1 victory over Mauritania and Ivory Coast’s 4-1 win against Namibia. There have been five goalless draws.

In terms of individual goal scorers, no one has yet put up their hand to make an early claim for the Golden Boot; currently there are 11 players who have each netted twice.

Included on that list are world superstars Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah of Senegal and Egypt respectively.

Neither of them has really hit top form yet, with Mane in particular yet to replicate the ability he has shown at Liverpool over the past couple of seasons.

Last season's English Premiership joint top goalscorer could have had three goals to his credit had he not missed with a weak attempt at a penalty in a 3-0 win over Kenya.

Both his other goals came in that same match – one of them a successful spot kick, and the general feeling is that Mane has underperformed so far.

Indeed, tournament organisers CAF have come in for a bit of stick for including the Senegal striker in the starting XI of their 'Group Stage Best Squad' announced on Twitter.

Mane has been included with Salah and Ghana striker Jordan Ayew as one of the three strikers, with many fans on social media believing that Egyptian Mahmoud Trezeguet and Nordin Amrabat of Morocco would have been more deserving than Ayew and Mane.

The starting XI is made up heavily of north African players, with a couple of west Africans, and just one player from outside of those two regions.

In midfield are Ismael Bennacer – named as the tournament's best player so far, and Riyad Mahrez, both of Algeria, as well as Madagascan Charles Andriamahitsinoro.

Andriamahitsinoro has scored two goals so far – one in the 2-0 win over Nigeria - which has arguably been the biggest shock result of the tournament to date.

The defence comprises of Achraf Hakimi (Moroccan left-back), central defenders Hegazy (Egypt) and Yaya Banana (Cameroon) and right-back Ahmed Elmohamady, who has netted two goals for Egypt at the competition.

In goal is another Egyptian, Ahmed El Shenawy, although some feel that Uganda's Denis Onyango deserved a place.

In terms of discipline, 112 yellow cards and three red cards were issued in the 36 matches. Kenya received the most bookings – eight yellows and one red.

Meanwhile, there have been plenty of empty stands in the majority of matches so far. It is thought that the difficulties foreign fans face in obtaining visas to enter Egypt has been one of the main reasons behind this.

Ticket prices, a reportedly complicated online ticketing system, and the fact that some games are held during business hours, have been cited as other reasons. 

African News Agency (ANA)