As the 2022 ACFON group stages come to a close on Thursday evening, amongst all the chaos, there have been some major upsets and moments of magic. That is AFCON for you, it’s predictable in its unpredictability and it wouldn’t be right if everything went to plan. Situations like when Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe twice ended the game between Tunisia and Mali before the 90 minutes was up, only happen at AFCON. Whilst it is entertaining and part of the fun, if AFCON wants to be taken more seriously, (which it should with the quality of players participating, including the worlds very best) these types of howlers need to stop happening and CAF need to do better.
However, from a purely football perspective, the quality from the lower-ranked sides has been better than I expected and has often led to shock results. Out of the pre-tournament favourites, Senegal, Algeria, Egypt, and Ivory Coast, none of them have hit the ground running. The current holders of the tournament Algeria have been especially poor and with just one point from their first two games, they face a serious threat of group stage elimination.
The bookies favourites Senegal, meanwhile, have scored one goal (a 97th minute penalty) in two games and are lucky to be on 4 points. As for Egypt, an overreliance on their ‘Egyptian King’ Mo Salah saw them lose to Nigeria on their opening game before Salah provided the game’s only goal in a 1-0 win over Guinea-Bissau.
Whilst Ivory Coast got off to a steady start with a 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea, they were left shocked by Sierra Leone who scored a dramatic late equaliser as the game finished 2-2. Sierra Leone has been one of the surprises of the tournament, first holding off Mahrez’s Algeria with a 0-0 draw after an excellent goalkeeping display by Nbalie Kamara before the drama of the late equaliser against Ivory Coast (below). Sierra Leone know that a win against Equatorial Guinea in their final game would send them through to the knockout stages.
It really has been the tournament of surprises, from Gambia winning 1-0 against Mauritania in the opening game of their first-ever AFCON appearance to Vincent Aboubakar leading the top scorer’s chart with 5 goals from 3 games.
That brings me onto the standout teams of the tournament thus far and you don’t have to look further than Aboubakar’s team and host nation Cameroon. They might not have the hardest group, but they have brought the goals to an otherwise low scoring tournament. They followed up an opening day 2-1 victory over Burkina Faso, with a 4-1 dismantling of Ethiopia. They finished the group with a 1-1 draw against Cape Verde but having already secured their last 16 place, it mattered little. With Aboubakar leading the line and providing the goals for a host nation firmly behind them, Cameroon are giving a convincing case as the competition's dark horses.
Having said that, I think the two biggest standout sides of the tournament have been Morocco and Nigeria. I would be hard pushed to say which side I think is better placed to win the tournament. Morocco will have to be a lot more clinical in the latter rounds than in their 2-0 victory over Comoros and Nigeria will rely on the inconsistent Iheanacho for goals. However, both sides have played the best football of the tournament so far and look the most solid all over the pitch. Nigeria caused a shock result by beating Egypt in their opening game, whilst Morocco defeated Ghana, which was far from expected. Morocco backed that up with a 2-0 win which should have been more like 5-0 and Nigeria glided past Sudan 3-1 as both teams booked their place in the last 16.
The pre-tournament favourites still have time to turn it around and put forward a case for their champion credentials, however in the case of Algeria time is running out and time to perform is now.