The Africa Cup of Nations moves onto the knockout phase after a remarkable group stage packed with goals, drama, shock results and a huge scare for hosts Ivory Coast, but holders Senegal remain the team to beat.
The tournament is on course to be far more prolific than either of the two previous editions to feature 24 teams, after 89 goals were scored in the group stage.
That average of 2.5 per game marks a huge increase after 68 were scored in the first round in Cameroon two years ago, and in the first expanded AFCON in Egypt in 2019.
Senegal got to the final of both of those tournaments, and won the title for the first time in 2022.
They have so far lived up to their billing in Ivory Coast, with Aliou Cisse’s side alone in finishing the group stage with a 100 percent record.
Led by Sadio Mane, they swept aside Gambia, Cameroon and Guinea and can be confident going into a last-16 tie with the Ivorians in Yamoussoukro.
Meanwhile Morocco, the continent’s top-ranked team, eased through with seven points and the sense is there must be more to come from a side led by Paris Saint-Germain full-back Achraf Hakimi, as they face South Africa next.
Three-time champions Nigeria have looked remarkably sound defensively, with coach Jose Peseiro openly admitting keeping clean sheets is his number one priority.
That is despite the Super Eagles’ impressive array of attacking options around superstar Victor Osimhen, the African player of the year.
“My responsibility is to choose the best way to win this competition,” Peseiro said when asked about his decision to put the focus on the defence.
“I chose another strategy, and the players believe in it — don’t concede goals because we will score at least one.”
He astutely pointed out that Senegal only scored one goal in their first three games at the last AFCON before going on to lift the trophy.
Nigeria’s meeting with Cameroon is a mouthwatering repeat of the 2000 final, when Rigobert Song’s Indomitable Lions won on penalties in Lagos — he is now the Cameroon coach.
Egypt have been the opposite of Nigeria — a team that conceded only six goals across the last three tournaments combined have let in six in three group games here.
“Obviously this is something that worries me,” said their coach Rui Vitoria, although the fitness of talisman Mohamed Salah is their biggest concern before facing the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He has returned to his club Liverpool for treatment on a hamstring injury amid suggestions he might not be fit to come back for Egypt unless they reach the February 11 final.
Not all the heavyweights survived the group stage, with Tunisia and Algeria the biggest names to be eliminated.
In contrast, Namibia and Mauritania have made it beyond the group stage for the first time, while Cape Verde and Angola’s impressive showings so far give them reason to believe they can win knockout ties for the first time.
“In our first team meeting I said to the players the objective was to get to the semi-finals,” declared Cape Verde coach Pedro ‘Bubista’ Brito.
Ivorian hopes still alive
Few in Ivory Coast could have contemplated that their team, one of the traditional powerhouses of the African game and two-time continental champions, could be eliminated in the group stage.
Yet they came within a whisker of becoming the first AFCON hosts to go out in the first round since Gabon in 2017, and just the second since Tunisia in 1994.
That was after a shocking 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea, their heaviest ever home loss.
However, they squeezed through as the last of the four best third-placed sides and now face Senegal.
The Elephants became the second team to sack their coach during the tournament, following in the footsteps of Tanzania by dismissing Jean-Louis Gasset.
Emerse Fae is their new interim boss and he takes over a team that is not as strong as past Ivorian sides but still boasts quality, particularly in midfield.
It remains to be seen if they can compete with the defending champions, however.