The African Cup of Nations has already seen Ghana out, defending champions Algeria finish bottom of their group and now Nigeria eliminated at a relatively early stage after a shock loss at the hands of a COVID-19-ridden Tunisia on Sunday.
That result really showed that the trophy could go anywhere, and as unimpressive as Egypt have been so far, coach Carlos Queiroz’s words after the group stage ended are looking increasingly accurate.
“Now the real work begins, and now the real competition will begin,” he said. It was the kind of thing that you would expect such an experienced campaigner to say. After all, Egypt had not impressed in the group stage with a poor, to say the least, performance in a 1-0 loss to Nigeria in the opener. It was followed by two unconvincing victories by the same scoreline against Guinea-Bissau and then Sudan.
With criticism at home, it was understandable, then, that Queiroz, who took the job in September, wanted to look forward rather than back. Yet the 68-year-old former Real Madrid manager has taken four teams through successful World Cup qualification campaigns and knows what he is talking about.
Nigeria were perhaps the best team in the group stage and were certainly the only one to take maximum points. Drawn against Tunisia then in the second round, the Super Eagles, newly installed as tournament favorites, were expected to win. Not only had they been impressive in the first round, with winger Moses Simon a real standout, but Tunisia had been anything but.
The North Africans had limped through to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams, winning just one game and losing against Mali and Gambia, the latter an embarrassing defeat. All their goals had come in the 4-0 win over Mauritania. The odds were against the Carthage Eagles flying any higher in the tournament.
A serious outbreak of COVID-19 in the Tunisia camp lengthened the odds of a win considerably. The federation announced that as many as 12 players out of the 28-man squad had tested positive, including star striker Wahbi Khazri. By the time the Nigeria game rolled around, at least seven players were unavailable. Coach Monhder Kebaier had also tested positive and his duties were taken over by assistant Bilal Kadri.
But the Tunisian coaching staff did not use the infections as an excuse at any point. Despite all the problems, or perhaps because of them, Tunisia gave everything, working harder than their opponents, who gave the impression that they expected a comfortable evening. In what was a highly disciplined performance, Tunisia gave Simon no time or space, doubled up on the Nantes star and tried to cut off the supply to the forwards.
Nigeria, who had looked the most creative of all the teams in the group stage (though admittedly the bar had been set pretty low by the rest), seemed to have few ideas and only started to come alive after Tunisia took the lead early in the second half thanks to a fierce long-range shot from Youssef Msakni. But a red card given to Alex Iwobi handed the initiative back to Tunisia, and in the end, they recorded a shock but deserved win. The 2004 champions now move into the quarter-finals and a winnable tie against Burkina Faso on Saturday. The extra six days should mean that coach Kebaier can field his strongest team, and hopes are now high.
If Egypt can take some inspiration from Tunisia when they meet Ivory Coast on Tuesday, then the Arab world will have more than one team to cheer for when the quarter-finals kick off. With Queiroz a big fan of discipline, organization and shape, he will not have that much to learn defensively, but in terms of mood and confidence, Tunisia put the mediocrity of the group stage behind them and went out to win and, importantly, took their chances.
It does not matter now how Egypt performed last week. They have a chance to reset, but they must start to take their chances after scoring only two goals in 270 minutes so far. “Look, I promise you, starting from tomorrow they are going to be doing finishing exercises from the morning until the afternoon,” Queiroz said at the weekend. “They just need to score more goals. To only play good football is not enough — we need to build up more goals and with that be more relaxed in the game.”
Tunisia’s win over Nigeria serves as a perfect reminder that not only does the tournament start here, but that it is wide open. Ghana are out, Algeria are out and now Nigeria are out. It really is up for grabs.