The second round of matches at the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations saw the tournament get into gear, with redemption and mouth-watering final group games awaiting. Here are five things we learned from the latest round of action.
1. Algeria lose record chance, but have bigger issues
Algeria’s 1-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea is the shock of the tournament so far. This was the game when the defending champions were expected to extend their unbeaten record to 36, one short of Italy’s world record. That chance has gone, but coach Djamel Belmadi has bigger problems as his team are bottom of the group with one point and need a win against leaders Ivory Coast on Thursday.
The Desert Foxes were awful on Sunday and it is no surprise that they have yet to score a goal. After winning the Arab Cup with the “A” team in December, it was expected that when the big European stars arrived, they would go to the next level. But this was a disjointed and plodding performance. The best team in Africa were reduced to launching long balls in the direction of Islam Slimani.
Just as worrying was the body language of the players. There is a lot of work to do before a huge game against Ivory Coast, the biggest of the final round of matches.
2. Egypt deserve their first win, but still a little lucky
After a hugely disappointing defeat against Nigeria in the opener, Egypt needed a win against Guinea-Bissau for all kinds of reasons. The 1-0 victory was deserved — the Pharaohs created plenty of chances and hit the woodwork on three occasions — but it came with some fortune.
The good news is that Mohamed Salah, ineffectual almost to the point of invisibility in the first game, scored. The Liverpool star was much busier here and volleyed home what turned out to be the winner at the far post in the second half.
But Egypt were almost left to rue their wastefulness and had VAR to thank for the points. Guinea-Bissau’s shooting had been a little wayward, but with eight minutes remaining Mama Balde cut into the box from the left side and curled home a beauty. The referee went to check a possible foul in the build-up and the goal was ruled out.
It was the kind of win that will not be long remembered, but one that can get a team’s tournament up and running.
3. Morocco in a great position, but need to take chances
Morocco defeated Comoros 2-0 in the second game to become the second team, after hosts Cameroon, to book a place in the round of 16. The Atlas Lions have yet to concede a goal, and a draw in the final game against Gabon, who will also be sure of second place with a point, and first place is assured.
While the challenges have not been especially serious yet, Vahid Halilhodzic’s men are looking solid defensively, but need to become more clinical in the final third. The coach was visibly frustrated as his team missed chance after chance against the tournament debutants, though Morocco are unlikely to come up against a goalkeeper as impressive as Salim Ben Boina very often.
Despite the kinks that need to be ironed out, Morocco are exactly where they want to be — preparing for the group stage with a game to spare.
4. Tunisia take Mali frustration out on Mauritania
The big talking point of the first round was the referee blowing for full-time before the 90 minutes was up as Tunisia lost 1-0 to Mali. The Carthage Eagles channelled their anger in the right way and were two goals up inside the first 10 minutes as they defeated Mauritania 4-0.
There was never any doubt as to the outcome once Tunisia were ahead, and the winning margin would have been bigger had substitute Youssef Msakni not hit the post with a late penalty.
Coach Mondher Kebaier will be delighted that captain and talismanic forward Wahbi Khazri scored twice and looked lively. There will be tougher tests to come for Tunisia, but at least the team look to be moving through the gears. The initial target is to avoid unnecessarily tough opposition in the knockout round, and that means finishing in the top two in the group to avoid a possible meeting with Morocco. Defeat surprise group leaders Gambia and all will be well.
5. Sudan still fighting
A 3-1 loss to Nigeria was not unexpected as the Super Eagles were on top from start to finish. Sudan asked a few questions, however, and can take confidence from their performance against a team that has been perhaps the most impressive in the tournament so far.
Nigerian star Moses Simon was impressed with the Secretary Birds, and agreed that the game with Sudan was harder than the previous win over Egypt.
“We knew they were more difficult for us, but we expected it and we were ready for them,” he said.
Sudan may be bottom of the group with one point along with Guinea-Bissau, but still have the chance for glory.
If the Secretary Birds can defeat neighbors Egypt in the final game, a big if to be sure, then they will go through to the next stage and pick up one of their biggest results since winning the title in 1970.