The delayed 2021 African Nations Cup in Cameroon is still very much in its infancy, but below are the five things Arab News has learned after the first 72 hours of the tournament.
1. Abject Egypt got what they deserved — nothing
The only good thing that can be said about Egypt’s 1-0 loss to Nigeria was that at least it was not a heavier defeat. The Super Eagles made almost all of the running in an attacking sense and the Pharaohs never really looked like scoring. An isolated Mohamed Salah cut a lonely figure up front and, apart from a blocked shot and then a scuffed effort, was rarely involved in the action. Nobody expects Liverpool levels of service, but if the “Egyptian king” is going to lead the team all the way to the title then he is going to need better support than long balls pumped forward from deep. Carlos Queiroz’s men were nonexistent in midfield.
Overall, it was a poor performance. Nigeria could, and should, have scored more than the fine first-half goal that came from Kelechi Iheanacho. Egypt improved slightly after the break, but it was only in the closing minutes that they looked anything close to threatening and, even then, there was not a single clear chance created.
At least that should be the toughest test of the group stage out of the way. The seven-times champions need to beat Guinea-Bissau in the next game and will have to play a good deal better. At least they cannot get much worse.
2. Frustration for Algeria, but little to worry about
Algeria were involved in the seventh game of the tournament and the first that ended all square, with the defending champions held to a 0-0 draw by Sierra Leone, who were playing in their first tournament for over 25 years and gave absolutely everything against one of the competition favorites.
The draw means the North Africans now have gone 35 games unbeaten and are just two short of Italy’s world record. Coach Djamel Belmadi would have preferred the three points, but he can at least console himself with the fact that while Algeria were as goalless as Egypt, they at least looked like scoring.
A number of Algeria’s talented attackers were guilty of wastefulness. Yacine Brahimi missed perhaps the best of the lot when he had just the goalkeeper to beat early in the second half, while Said Benrahma of West Ham could have won it late on, but shot wide from 10 yards. At least opportunities were created; the next step is to become more clinical.
The next game against Equatorial Guinea should bring the three points that will almost guarantee the champs a place in the next stage, but Belmadi, who grew increasingly annoyed as opportunities came and went, will be looking for first place.
3. Morocco can scrap when needed
Opening games often do not set the tone for the rest of the tournament, especially when the match is between the biggest rivals in the group, but that makes Morocco’s 1-0 win over Ghana very sweet, indeed, with the victory taking the pressure off the Atlas Lions for the remaining group games. Indeed, a place in the knockout stage should be clinched, or as good as, in the next game against tournament debutants Comoros, who lost their first game against Gabon 1-0.
In truth, the game with Ghana was scrappy. It was a battle between two strong midfields, with the final ball all too often going astray. Slack defending in the final minutes cost Ghana, as Soufiane Boufal was given a little too much space in a crowded area and smashed the ball home.
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic was delighted. With a number of players missing through injury and illness, Morocco showed that they can battle their way to the points when needed. It bodes well for the coming games when the team will surely start to find more fluency in attack.
4. Comoros and Sudan show what they are made of
Comoros lost their first-ever game at this stage 1-0 to Gabon and it took a fine strike from Aaron Boupendza to give the Panthers the points. It was clear that if the debutants were to have a chance of the next stage then a win in the opening game was necessary, and possible given the issues in Gabon’s camp. It did not happen, but Comoros were not outclassed at all and put their opponents under plenty of pressure even if the decision-making in the final third was not great. The Coelacanths can take heart from their continental bow.
Sudan’s 0-0 draw with Guinea-Bissau was also not a spectacle for the neutrals, but it felt like a victory for the Secretary Birds as goalkeeper Ali Abu Eshrein saved a penalty 12 minutes from time. Whatever happens against Nigeria on Saturday, the result means Sudan will be in the running for the second round when they meet Egypt in the final game.
5. A slow start all round
Nine goals in nine games does not scream excitement. Some tournaments start like a runaway train in terms of action and drama, and then calm down, while some do the opposite and others never really catch fire at all. It is to be hoped that AFCON steps up a gear in the coming days, or at least in the knockout stages. Amid a slow opening and tight games, there has been little to write home about for the 24 nations involved. Fans in Cameroon are waiting for a real humdinger to light the touchpaper.
The hosts came back from a goal down to defeat Burkina Faso in the opening game, but did so courtesy of two penalties. The following seven games brought six goals. Senegal, tournament favorites for many, struggled to get going in their 1-0 win over Zimbabwe and had to wait until the 97th minute when Liverpool star Sadio Mane got the all-important goal.
So far, only Nigeria have really impressed and shown they have a few gears at their disposal. It goes without saying, however, that there is a long way to go.