Garoua, Cameroon – The knockout rounds of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) have arrived with 16 teams progressing and eight being eliminated.
While the opening round served just 12 goals in 12 matches, the action picked up considerably after that.
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It has proven to be a good tournament for the goalkeepers with a number of excellent performances.
Added to that are a number of heart-warming stories from some of the traditionally less accomplished sides who punched above their weights to create bits of history for their nations.
The overarching feeling for host nation Cameroon is vindication.
Despite doubts over its readiness and capability to host, the proceedings have gone on with few hitches, leading to a great atmosphere inside the stadiums and a memorable tournament so far.
Nigeria is the only team to collect 9 points in #AFCON2021.
The last time just one nation managed to finish the group stage with the full mark in a #TotalEnergiesAFCON edition was in 2010: Egypt.
— #TotalEnergiesAFCON2021 🏆 (@CAF_Online) January 21, 2022
Who made it through?
Four of the six top-seeded sides finished top of their groups, with Nigeria the only side to post a 100 percent record.
Cameroon and Morocco finished with seven points each, while Senegal – despite only scoring once in three matches – accumulated five points to top its group.
There was progress for dark horses Mali, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, as well as Gabon despite a troubled preparation and the loss of captain Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.
However, the real story of the group stage was the surprising progress of debutants Comoros and The Gambia, both advancing despite being handed challenging draws.
The Scorpions were impressive in winning two of their three matches, while Comoros produced an improbable result against Ghana in the final group match to seal progress.
Malawi also made it through for the first time in their history, holding Africa’s highest-ranked team Senegal to a goalless draw along the way.
Qualified teams: Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Senegal, Guinea, Malawi, Morocco, Gabon, Comoros, Nigeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Gambia, Tunisia.
Who crashed out?
The shocking elimination of reigning champions Algeria was the subject of furious discussion and analysis.
The Fennec Foxes exited the tournament following a 1-3 defeat to Ivory Coast, bringing to an end a short-lived title defence that took in a draw with Sierra Leone and defeat at the hands of Equatorial Guinea, which ended its 35-match unbeaten run.
There was heartbreak for Ghana too who finished bottom of Group C, chastening learning experiences for Mauritania and Sudan, reasons for optimism for Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, and disappointment for Guinea-Bissau, whose goalless streak at AFCON stretched to seven matches.
— The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) January 21, 2022
What’s in store next?
The standout tie of the last-16 will take place in Douala with Ivory Coast, winners of Group E, taking on Group D runners-up Egypt on January 26.
This would be a game fit to be the final but nevertheless, it promises to be a compelling match.
In Garoua, Nigeria face Tunisia, a repeat of the third-place playoff from the 2019 edition.
Burkina Faso v Gabon
Nigeria v Tunisia
Guinea v Gambia
Cameroon v Comoros
Senegal v Cape Verde
Morocco v Malawi
Mali v Equatorial Guinea
Ivory Coast v Egypt
Player of the round
It is difficult to look past the tournament’s leading goal scorer Vincent Aboubakar as AFCON’s outstanding player so far.
The Al-Nassr striker has been a man on a mission in his home country Cameroon, leading the line with intent and scoring in all of the group matches (including braces against Burkina Faso and Ethiopia).
Despite scoring the winner in the 2017 final, Aboubakar has never really headlined a tournament with the Indomitable Lions. He is getting to do so now.
Play of the group
Moses Simon came off the bench in Nigeria’s final group match with Guinea-Bissau and produced a moment of mesmeric quality.
After weaving his way into the box and past three different challenges, the Nantes’ winger’s shot cannoned back off the crossbar and into the path of team captain William Troost-Ekong, who calmly prodded the ball home for the game’s second goal.
The final is still a long way but the tournament bracket does seem to suggest one of Africa’s classic matches – Cameroon against Nigeria – for the final.
These sides have met in the tournament on three occasions, with Cameroon winning all three.
The latest meetings took place in Lagos when Nigeria co-hosted the tournament in 2000, and Nigeria’s thirst for revenge makes the prospect of a final rematch that much more exciting.
What has the interest been like?
Attendances during the opening match days were mostly lacklustre due to COVID-19 restrictions, which require proof of vaccination and a negative PCR result for admission into stadiums.
However, those regulations have been relaxed somewhat, and the final group matches were played to sizable crowds in various centres across Cameroon.
There is also a thriving fan zone culture, with spectators who are unable to gain access to the stadiums, or reluctant to go through the COVID protocol, banding together to follow the action in ad hoc open-air viewing centres.
Any controversies to talk of?
The decision by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to introduce the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) from the group stage was bound to lead to a number of controversial moments.
Malawi and Guinea-Bissau were left aggrieved by the decision-making process. The former had a penalty decision overturned in the match against Senegal while the latter had one of the goals of the tournament, from striker Mama Balde, ruled out for a perceived infringement, much to the consternation of the Djurtus.
However, the biggest controversy of the tournament came in the match between Tunisia and Mali. Referee Janny Sikazwe, one of the continent’s most respected referees, made a series of bizarre decisions late in the second half of that encounter.
First, he called a late water break, then signalled for added time with 11 minutes left on the clock, before blowing the final whistle in the 86th minute, awarded a red card and ran past the VAR screen when asked to review the incident, before blowing the final whistle again prematurely.
It was a strange episode that prompted Tunisia – 0-1 down at that time – to file a petition with CAF for a replay.
It was summarily rejected and the decision upheld.
Essam Abdel-Fatah, the head of the #AFCON2021 referees, has revealed that Janny Sikazwe suffered from sunstroke during the Tunisia-Mali game, which caused him to lose his concentration yesterday.#AFCON2021 pic.twitter.com/rhXCmb9qXq
— Football Tweet ⚽ (@Football__Tweet) January 13, 2022