The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) group stages ended in dramatic fashion, with defending champions Algeria dumped out and favorites Ghana among the teams shockingly eliminated. These two of Africa’s eight highest ranked teams failed to make it out of the group stage, alongside Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Mauritania. This leaves sixteen teams with a chance to win Africa’s top competition. But what are the matchups, and who could win?
Burkina Faso vs. Gabon
In my pre-tournament predictions, I said that a lack of goals would be Burkina Faso‘s main problem. That proved accurate: in three games, Burkina Faso scored just three goals but managed to finish second in the group. None of their players scored more than one goal. However, Burkina Faso looked good in all three of their matches – even in their loss to hosts Cameroon – and conceded zero goals from open play. Mistakes plagued them, however, as they conceded three goals from penalties.
Gabon will head to the knockouts without star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has headed back to London with rumors of cardiac issues and transfer rumors swirling. Nonetheless, Gabon got the job done, navigating a tricky group consisting of Morocco, Ghana, and Comoros, all without losing a single match.
Prediction: This looks like it will be a close match, with Burkina Faso having a consistent defense but limited offensive firepower. Gabon win this match.
Nigeria vs. Tunisia
Nigeria eased through the group stages, finishing with a 100% win record, beating Egypt, Sudan, and Guinea-Bissau. They scored six goals – all with different goal scorers – and conceded just one goal (which came from the penalty spot). They look like a force to be reckoned with.
Tunisia sneaked through as a third-placed team, but they had a torrid time. They lost their first match to Mali in a game where the referee twice blew his whistle before the 90 minutes were up. They followed this up with dominant win over a Mauritania side that finished without a goal or a point at the tournament, and promptly lost on the final day to newcomers Gambia.
Prediction: Prior to the tournament, this would look like a showdown matchup or even a potential final. However, these teams are having very different tournaments and Nigeria should win this match with relative ease.
Guinea vs. Gambia
Guinea struggled in the group stages, beating Malawi by just one goal, holding Senegal to a draw, and losing to a Zimbabwe side that hadn’t taken a single point in their first two matches against the same opponents. In those three matches they scored just two goals but only conceded two.
Considering it’s the first time they’ve appeared at AFCON, Gambia have been hugely impressive. They finished the group stages undefeated, with two wins and a draw including victory over Tunisia. However, they’ve struggled for goals, too – three goals, two of which came after 90 minutes.
Prediction: It’s been fun while it lasted, but Gambia don’t have the goals or the experience to get farther. Guinea take this match.
Cameroon vs. Comoros
Cameroon steamrolled through the group stages at home, winning their first two matches and drawing the final match against Cape Verde when they had already clinched a spot in the knockouts. No team scored more goals, and veteran striker Vincent Aboubakar leads the tournament in goals. No team wants to face them right now.
Unfortunately for Comoros, they will be the team that has to face Cameroon. The good news? In their first AFCON tournament, they scored three goals to beat a strong Ghana side. The bad news? They conceded five goals in the group stage and have lost multiple players due to COVID, including all of their goalkeepers and their coach.
Prediction: It was always going to be tough, but with the absences due to COVID, Comoros are good as gone. Cameroon should win this match by multiple goals.
Senegal vs. Cape Verde
Senegal were surprisingly stale in the group stages, scoring just one goal in three matches but also conceding none. They weren’t exactly defensively-sound opponents, either – Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Malawi, all of whom conceded multiple goals in the group stage. Their only goal was a 90th minute penalty kick. They’ll have to step it up in the knockouts.
I called Cape Verde a team to watch in the pre-tournament preview, and they were – kind of. They beat Ethiopia (by significantly less than they should have), lost to Burkina Faso, and managed to tie Cameroon. However, they have that X-factor in Olympiacos’ Garry Rodrigues, who leads the team with 2.12 expected goals (the seventh-highest at the tournament), one goal, and an assist.
Prediction: Here’s my big upset: Third-placed Cape Verde beat Senegal, the highest ranked team in Africa. Cape Verde have put in some decent performances this tournament whilst Senegal have not been performing to their expected standards.
Morocco vs. Malawi
Morocco have been flying high – they first beat Ghana and followed this up with a multiple-goal victory over Comoros, before a late own goal meant that they tied Gabon. Morocco still finished undefeated, with only three teams scoring more goals. The defense was also solid – they held clean sheets against Ghana and Comoros before giving up two to Gabon after they had already clinched a spot.
“Don’t expect them to get anywhere, but they could stump some teams.” These were the words I used to describe Malawi in my preview of AFCON, and they proved to be mostly true. They immediately started off with a close loss to Guinea before a surprise victory over Zimbabwe and a 0-0 draw against Senegal. Impressive results, but like I previously said, this will likely be where they exit.
Prediction: Before the tournament started, I predicted Morocco to win the whole tournament. I’m sticking with that.
Ivory Coast vs. Egypt
Undefeated Ivory Coast breezed through the group stage: they beat Equatorial Guinea, tied a Sierra Leone side unlucky to make it out of the group, and tore apart defending champions Algeria with ease. Only Cameroon finished with more goals scored.
Just like Liverpool teammate Sadio Mané, Egypt‘s Mohamed Salah scored just one goal and failed to get going. Egypt finished a misleading second place with six points, only scoring two goals and having unimpressive performances in the victories over Guinea-Bissau and Sudan, both of whom finished with just one point.
Prediction: Ivory Coast should take this one fairly comfortably.
Mali vs. Equatorial Guinea
Mali took first place in their group but the controversial ending against Tunisia overshadowed the opening day victory. Mali then failed to beat Gambia, finishing with a draw, and finished with a victory against a very poor Mauritania side.
Equatorial Guinea finished in second with just two goals scored, but don’t let that throw you off. They lost their first match against Ivory Coast but then proceeded to give Algeria their first loss in over thirty matches (a debated record) and beat a Sierra Leone side with one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament (more on that here).
Prediction: Equatorial Guinea are the slightly better team. They should take care of business against Mali.
Already two of the favorites in the tournament have been eliminated, and with eight matches in the first round of the knockout stages, surely more upsets will happen. Part of AFCON’s appeal is the lack of predictability, which means any team has an equal shot at winning the entire tournament. For me, that team is Morocco.
Who do you think will win? Let me know in the comments!
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