After 19 days of hostilities, the 33rd edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations is into its quarter-final stages, with eight teams preparing to battle it out for the right to be addressed as “Kings of African Football”.
So far, we have witnessed thrilling moments and several talking points as the tournament progressed, and it was the same scenario once again as fans across the continent witnessed more drama over the past four days with the completion of the Round-of-16 phase.
Below, we at Apex Football shall make our picks and highlight the various moments of the Second Round (Round-of-16). Let’s go!!!
THE UPSETS CONTINUE TO POUR IN: At the end of the group phase, we had seen shocks and upsets of every kind as the likes of defending champions Algeria and four-time kings Ghana both exited the competition earlier than expected. Algeria had drawn 0-0 with Sierra Leone and lost 1-0 to Equatorial Guinea to bow out, while Ghana in their last group match suffered an embarrassing 3-2 defeat to Comoros who made the knockout stages at the expense of the Black Stars.
Meanwhile, the Super Eagles of Nigeria were the only team with a perfect record at the tournament – nine points out of a possible nine available. They had beaten one of the traditional heavyweights in Egypt 1-0 in their opening match and secured a 3-1 success over Sudan, plus a 2-0 triumph over Guinea Bissau in their last match to top Group D. They were paired with the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia who struggled to make it out of their group – finishing with just three points to qualify as one of the four best-losers. Prior to matchday, several members of their squad plus the Head Coach had tested positive for Covid-19 and had to isolate, but that didn’t deter the Tunisians from recording a shock 1-0 win over the Super Eagles in Garoua.
Elsewhere, Equatorial Guinea faced the Eagles of Mali in their own knockout fixture and after 120 minutes of action, both teams could not be separated with scores at 0-0 and had to resort to the dreaded penalty shootout. It was Equatorial Guinea who caused an upset by triumphing over their more illustrious opponents to the last-eight.
UNDERDOGS FLYING HIGH: The group stages served us memorable moments which we will remember for a long time to come, as lesser lights proved to the rest of the continent that there are no more minnows in football. The Round-of-16 phase further proved that as Equatorial Guinea booked their place in the quarter-finals with a penalty shootout win over Mali. Also, debutantes the Gambia continued their Cinderella run in Cameroon by besting Guinea 1-0 to reach the last-eight.
The Flames of Malawi took a shock lead against Morocco through a delightful finish from Mhango but later succumbed 2-1 to the Atlas Lions as they bowed out with their heads held high, while the island nation of Comoros won hearts despite a 2-1 defeat to hosts Cameroon. Comoros had no recognised shot-stopper on the day as they were out due to Covid and injury but defender Alhadhur turned goalkeeper for the island nation and put up a commendable display. Comoros ended their AFCON campaign in fine style as M’Changama scored what could arguably be termed as goal of the tournament by unleashing a long-range free-kick from over 30 yards to beat Andre Onana in goal for the Indomitable Lions.
AVALANCHE OF RED CARDS: Just when we thought the football in the Round-of-16 stage would be pristine and tight presumably, referees had other ideas. There were a total of SEVEN RED CARDS dished out by referees in eight matches played in the Second Round.
Gabon’s Sidney Obissa received his marching orders in the 67th minute against Burkina Faso in a game the Panthers lost. Everton’s Alex Iwobi was sent off in Nigeria’s tie with Tunisia, as the Carthage Eagles won 1-0. Ibrahima Conte was given his marching orders for Guinea same as Yusuphu Nje for the Gambia when both sides met, with the debutantes (Gambia) going through to the last-eight. Comoros’ Nadjim Abdou also saw red in the 7th minute as the debutantes fell 2-1 to hosts Cameroon, while the duo of Patrick Andrade and Vozhina were sent off as Cape Verde suffered a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Teranga Lions of Senegal.
OFFICIATING FAR FROM BEING THE BEST: While the red cards flew in from all corners, it must be said that the level of officiating at the AFCON has been well below standard. With the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), one would have thought that the level of officiating will improve but the reverse seems to be the case.
Questionable decisions have taken centre stage, some proving to be very costly to some teams results in the second round. A prime example is the fixture between Senegal and Cape Verde as the centre referee gave out TWO red cards to the Cape Verdean players, which effectively killed off the contest. The shocking thing about the second red card was that the referee awarded it after Sadio Mane of Senegal and the Cape Verdean goalkeeper had suffered a clash of heads as they both went for the ball in a 50/50 situation. Officiating really has to improve on the continent as one can only hope that governing body CAF would have taken note and made recommendations for future tournaments.
PUSKAS STANDARD GOALS: At the start of AFCON 2021 in Cameroon, goals were hard to come by during the opening round of games but the floodgates soon opened as the goals poured in – though not in huge numbers. But of those strikes which found their way into the back, we witnessed goals of beauty and incredible ingenuity.
The Round-of-16 stage also gave us goals to cherish. Top goals for this round include Bertrand Traore’s strike for Burkina Faso as the Stallions overcame Gabon via penalties, Youssef Msakni’s effort for Tunisia in their 1-0 win over Nigeria, Gabadinho Mhango’s lovely effort for Malawi against Morocco in their 2-1 loss, while PSG right-back Achraf Hakimi fired a belter of a freekick in the fixture against Malawi which they won.
Above all, Youssouf M’ Changama’s effort is our pick for this round and possibly the entire tournament (unless we see something better). M’ Changama scored a beautiful free-kick from over 30 yards as Comoros fell 2-1 to Cameroon.
DEADLY STAMPEDE: We conclude this piece on a sad note, as a deadly stampede occurred on Monday just before kick-off in the fixture involving hosts Cameroon and Comoros. At least eight persons were killed including children aged 8 and 14, while 38 others were injured as fans struggled to get access to the venue for the game at the Olembe Stadium.