If there’s anything that makes the Africa Cup of Nations unique from every other tournament in world football, it’s the ability to level the playing field. It’s why, when Comoros defeated Ghana 3-2 to prevent them from reaching the knockout round for the first time since 2006, the likes of Thomas Partey, Kamaldeen Sulemana and Jordan Ayew found themselves outplayed by Ahmed Mogni, a 30-year-old midfielder playing in France’s third division who scored a brace to relegate the Black Stars to last place in the group stage. It’s why, despite being some of the finest players in their respective positions, the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mané, and Mohamed Salah will not be included in the best team of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations group stage.
In goal, we go with Sierra Leone’s 22-year-old Mohamed Kamara, who is plying his trade for domestic side East End Lions. Kamara’s heroics produced one of the shocks of the tournament, as Sierra Leone held defending champions Algeria to a draw. For the first time in 35 games, Algeria, unbeaten since 2018, were unable to score, with their 19 shots and 8 shots of goal failing to beat Kamara.
Despite a star-studded attack of Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi and Islam Slimani, the Fennec Foxes were unable to find a way past Kamara, who made 7 saves and came off his line to sweep the ball 4 times. Kamara followed that performance with a haul of 5 saves in a 2-2 draw against Ivory Coast, but he was unable to secure Sierra Leone’s place in the knockout round as they lost 1-0 to Equatorial Guinea in their final game.
Mali have arguably the finest crop of midfielders in Africa, with the likes of Amadou Haidara, Diadie Samassekou and Yves Bissouma competing for a spot in the centre of the pitch, but one of the key reasons for their excellent group stage performance was Hamari Traoré.
Having beaten Tunisia in their opening match, Mali were forced to share the spoils against Gambia as a 90th-minute penalty from Musa Barrow cancelled out Ibrahima Koné’s earlier spot-kick. However, they prevailed as group winners thanks to a 2-0 victory over Mauritania, with their one goal conceded proving the joint-second fewest behind Senegal (0). The 29-year-old Traoré, who captains Mali and Rennes, proved to be a more-than-capable performer at right-back, providing composure in possession and impressing in his off-the-ball duels.
As AFCON rages on in Cameroon, one club who has not made itself any friends in West Africa is Watford. After filing a complaint to FIFA over Marseille’s signing of Pape Alassane Gueye in 2020, who had originally agreed to join Watford upon the expiry of his contract at Le Havre before reneging on his word, Marseille were handed a two-window transfer ban whilst Gueye was suspended for four months and was forced to withdraw from international duty with Senegal. Nigeria fans have also put Watford in the cross-hairs after their red-hot striker Emmanuel Dennis missed out on a spot in the roster.
“‘We tried to reach out to the club but the club was like: “No, we will not allow Dennis to go,” said Nigeria’s interim manager Augustine Eguavoen. “Dennis also told me that his club had done everything humanly possible for him to not be at the AFCON. ‘I can’t force it, I reported the matter to the authorities and they also tried. That was why we had to wait until the last second before we pushed the button. Dennis said he wants to come but the club are threatening him, let me use the word, threatening him.”
Whilst they managed to retain their attacking talisman, Watford have continued their downward slide in-form under Claudio Ranieri since the start of the year, losing three and only just scraping a draw against relegation rivals Newcastle. One potential reason for the Hornets’ ongoing malaise could be the departure of William Troost-Ekong. Often criticized in London, Troost-Ekong has been a force in the heart of Nigeria’s defence, keeping a clean sheet in his first game against a Mohamed Salah-led Egypt, making seven clearances and completing six out of 13 long balls in a 1-0 win. After starting alongside Kenneth Omeruo in their 3-1 victory over Sudan, Troost-Ekong scored a goal and kept another clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Guinea-Bissau.
Another veteran Premier League centre-back who is experiencing a fine run of form at AFCON is Romain Saïss. Having played a crucial role in the left side of Bruno Lage’s back three at Wolves, Saïss has maintained his level for Morocco, who topped Group C. Saïss started alongside Rennes defender Nayef Aguerd in the first match against Ghana, winning two out of three ground duels, four out of seven aerial duels, and holding his own against an attack featuring Jordan Ayew and Kamaldeen Sulemana as Morocco came out victorious 1-0. The captain followed it up with a fine performance in defence in a 2-0 win over Comoros, not only offering security in duels but also excelling at playing long balls to open up the team’s attacking play. After missing out on the third group stage match due to a cold, a 2-2 draw against Gabon, Saïss will be looking to get back to full health for Tuesday’s Round of 16 match against Malawi. Having kept nine clean sheets in his past 11 matches, Saïss will be crucial in Morocco’s hopes of winning their first Africa Cup of Nations since 1976.
With an attack featuring the likes of Nicolas Pépé and Sébastien Haller, and a midfield boasting the likes of Franck Kessié and Jean Michaël Seri, Ivory Coast are certainly one of the prime candidates to win the Africa Cup of Nations. One player who has been an unsung hero in Les Éléphants’ impressive start is Ghislain Konan.
Born in the capital city of Abidjan, Konan developed in the ASEC Mimosas academy before joining the Portuguese team Vitória de Guimarães in 2016, where he would spend two years before heading to French side Stade de Reims. Alongside Reims teammates Moreto Cassamá (Guinea-Bissau) and Moussa Doumbia and El Bilal Touré (Mali), Konan jetted off for AFCON and has been a mainstay at left-back. Following an impressive display in a 1-0 win against Equatorial Guinea, which saw him win seven out of eight ground duels as well as complete three out of three long balls and five out of six dribbles, Konan held onto his starting spot in the following 2-2 draw against Sierra Leone as well as a 3-1 win against Algeria. The latter saw him rack up four clearances, three key passes, and win six out of nine ground duels as the Ivory Coast topped the table and condemned Algeria to a humiliating group-stage exit.
As the Ivory Coast prepare for an enticing Round of 16 match-up with Egypt on Wednesday, another player who will provide crucial in the side’s efforts to make a deep run in the tournament is Ibrahim Sangaré. It was just 2.5 years ago when I put Sangaré on my top five rising stars to watch at AFCON alongside Lebo Mothiba, Samuel Owusu, Diadie Samassékou and Ola Aina, and it’s fair to say he’s progressed well since Ivory Coast’s quarterfinal elimination to Algeria in 2019.
After blossoming in Ligue 1 for Toulouse, Sangaré switched over to Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven in the summer of 2020 and has taken his game up another level under Roger Schmidt. The 24-year-old has been a crucial engine for Patrice Beaumelle’s side, grabbing an assist against Sierra Leone and a goal against Algeria, and he’s proven capable at winning the ball back and striding through pressure with his long legs.
Sangaré has the energy and stamina to play as a box-to-box midfielder, but it’s his vision, passing range and top-notch dribbling that have authored the hype. He’s a player who can rob a player of possession and launch an attack with a pinpoint long ball in the flick of an eye. His physical attributes have certainly helped him, especially when taking into account his defensive solidity and his ball-carrying attribute, and his unique profile makes him a perfect complement to Seri and Kessié in the centre of the pitch.
Nigeria’s AFCON campaign has certainly had no shortage of drama, with longtime manager Gernot Rohr being sacked just weeks before the tournament and being replaced by interim coach Augustine Eguavoen. The absences of key players in attack such as Emmanuel Dennis, Odion Ighalo, and Paul Onuachu have also left the Super Eagles deprived of several key forwards for this month’s tournament in Cameroon.
Nevertheless, Nigeria became the only team to win every single one of their group stage matches, defeating Egypt, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau whilst also putting in controlled performances in Group D. One player who has provided a calming influence in midfield is Wilfred Ndidi, who impressed alongside Joe Aribo in Nigeria’s double pivot in their first two victories, winning four out of four aerial duels and completing three tackles against Egypt, and making three interceptions and two key passes against Sudan. Ndidi played alongside Kelechi Nwakali against Guinea-Bissau and once again excelled in the centre of the pitch, registering a total of seven tackles and allowing more creative players such as Moses Simon and Kelechi Nwakali with the freedom to operate in the final third.
Another team who has experienced its fair share of drama is Gabon. Prior to opening their AFCON campaign, Les Panthères had jetted off to Dubai to participate in warm-weather training and prepare for the campaign. Their two biggest superstars found themselves in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, as a video leaked showing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Lemina dining at a packed Dubai nightclub, without masks, just four days before the tournament was set to begin. Both players later tested positive for COVID-19 and were sent home before a ball had been kicked.
Nevertheless, Gabon got off to a winning start as Aaron Boupendza’s early goal proved the difference in a 1-0 win against Comoros. They fell behind early on in the second match as André Ayew turned past Anthony Oyono and fired a rocket past Jean-Noël Amonome. However, Gabon found a late equalizer via Jim Allevinah, who, after starting the first match, replaced Denis Boaunga just after halftime. Allevinah came to the rescue in the 88th minute, receiving in the left half-space, completing a few step-overs before firing into the bottom right corner. His heroics continued in the third match, with the Clermont Foot midfielder pouncing on a slip from Nayef Aguerd to slot in the opening goal against Morocco. With Aubameyang and Lemina out, the 26-year-old France native will be looking to lead his side past Burkina Faso and into the quarterfinals.
Storm clouds began to encompass Morocco’s upcoming AFCON campaign in September when manager Vahid Halihodzic dropped the team’s mercurial playmaker Hakim Ziyech after he allegedly feigned injury and refused to warm up in order to avoid playing in a friendly against Ghana. For the first time in my coaching career, I have seen behaviour that disappoints me. A player who refuses to play a game, admittedly a friendly, on the pretext that he is injured. The medical staff made several examinations and said he could play. He then refused to warm up in the second half because he was disappointed to be a substitute. For me, that type of behaviour is unacceptable. You can’t cheat with the national team. You are 100% there or you are not.”
With Ziyech missing out on a spot at AFCON and remaining at Chelsea, Sofiane Boufal has emerged as the Atlas Lions’ playmaker-in-chief. The 28-year-old has created a total of 10 chances – no player has more. Boufal provided the late winner in Morocco’s opening match against Ghana, tip-toeing into the penalty box whilst unmarked, pouncing on Thomas Partey’s botched clearance and firing in from close range. Against Gabon, he came off the bench and won a penalty before converting from the spot. After a disappointing spell at Southampton, Boufal has enjoyed a revival in-form at Ligue 1 side Angers, and he’s carrying that into the international level with his performances for Morocco.
As hosts of the tournament, Cameroon found themselves in jeopardy early on in the opening match as Gustavo Sangaré put visitors Burkina Faso up within the half-hour mark. However, Cameroon were able to turn around the deficit and head into halftime up 2-1 thanks to two well-taken penalties from Vincent Aboubakar, a scoreline that they would hold onto until the end of the match.
Les Lions Indomitables once again fell down early on, this time in the fourth minute, as Ethiopia forward Dawa Hotessa Dukele snuck in past Collins Fai to give the visitors the lead. Lyon striker Karl Toko Ekambi quickly levelled the scoreline, but it was Aboubakar who headed home the equalizer before scoring the third goal from close range, with Toko Ekambi later providing the fourth in a 4-1 victory. Aboubakar opened the scoring in Cameroon’s 1-1 draw against Cape Verde, taking advantage of a free-kick scramble and firing in from just inside the box.
Having previously led Cameroon to glory just five years ago, scoring an 88th-minute winner against Egypt in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations Final in Libreville, Aboubakar is now 30 years old and playing for Saudi club Al-Nassr after stints in France, Portugal and Turkey. Alongside Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Toko Ekambi, he’ll be looking to deliver another championship to Cameroon on home soil.
Augustine Eguavoen has taken home the AFCON Group Stage Best Manager Award after leading Nigeria to a flawless record in their three matches, but perhaps the most impressive Super Eagle has been Moses Simon. Often criticized for his wayward crossing and inconsistent end-product, the 26-year-old Nantes winger has been an unstoppable force on Nigeria’s left flank. After starting in the 1-0 victory against Egypt, Simon was the star of the show in Nigeria’s 3-1 win over Sudan, registering a goal, an assist, and two key passes, winning eight out of 10 ground duels and completing four out of five dribbles.
Having started on the bench in the third and final group stage match, Simon also wreaked havoc in his 33-minute cameo against Guinea-Bissau, completing seven out of seven dribbles. Whilst the absences of Victor Osimhen, Odion Ighalo, and Emmanuel Dennis have been tough pills to swallow for Nigerian supporters, Simon’s stellar form alongside Kelechi Iheanacho, Taiwo Awoniyi and Samuel Chukwueze in attack is giving the Super Eagles faithful reason to believe.