5 talking points from group stage finales at Africa Cup of Nations

With the Africa Cup of Nations’ group stage almost complete, we ponder five things about the Arab teams’ latest efforts.

1. Egypt get the job done, but need to be more clinical

Egypt needed just a point against Sudan, but ran out as 1-0 winners, which was enough to seal second place in Group C and a spot in the last 16. It remains to be seen if finishing below Nigeria will work out well in terms of opposition faced in the next round.

It was a deserved win against a team that sat back for much of the game and did not offer much going forward. Egypt will be happy at recovering from the opening game defeat against Nigeria to take six points but there will be some concern that only two goals have been scored in 270 minutes of football.

Against Sudan, Egypt had over 70 percent possession and while chances were made, none were put away apart from the first-half header from Mohamed Abdelmonem. Mohamed Salah looked lively in flashes but was well-handled by the Sudan defense. 

Despite a lack of creativity in midfield, Egypt have done what they needed to do and have got out of the group stage. Coach Carlos Queiroz said: “The real tournament starts now.” He has a point, but Egypt will have to take more of their chances in the knockout stages or they will not be around too much longer.

2. Textbook group stage performance from confident Morocco

It has been a stress-free group stage for Morocco. Wins from the opening two games ensured a place in the knockout stage even before the final group showdown against Gabon. It meant that coach Vahid Halilhodzic could make six changes, rest some players and give others a chance to get a taste of the tournament.

Solid in defense and creating chances, Morocco fought hard when they had to against Ghana to win the big opener 1-0 and would have defeated Comoros by more than 2-0 had they not come up against an inspired goalkeeper. 

If the Atlas Lions keep going then the boss may not have to answer questions about leaving out Chelsea star Hakim Ziyech, but is sure to still focus on what is developing into a solid team spirit.

“Now we play faster and there is more movement off the ball,” said Halilhodzic. “The goals were scored by defenders, midfielders and forward, because our strength is the collective and that’s very important.”

It is all going smoothly. With Algeria missing the chance to equal Italy’s world record of 37 unbeaten games, Morocco may be the next in line as they now have gone 24 games without defeat. 

3. Sudan tough opponents, but will leave with some regrets

Sudan lost the Nile Valley Derby 1-0 to Egypt to be eliminated, but it is worth remembering that when these two teams met just last month at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar, Egypt — without Mo Salah and their Eurostars — ran out 5-0 winners. That result played a part in coach Herbert Velud getting his marching orders and Burhan Tia being handed the reins temporarily. This was a very different line-up and a different result.

Sudan had been vulnerable to set pieces throughout the tournament and there was always a feeling that Egypt would benefit from having plenty of firepower in that regard, and so it proved.

The Sudanese team performed creditably in the tournament overall, but they may have some regrets about the final game. They just did not ask enough questions of Egypt, and when they did find themselves in interesting positions in the Pharaohs’ half, were too happy to unleash a wild shot from long range. Egyptian goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy had little to do and it was all too comfortable. 

It is no disgrace to exit the competition at this stage, but Sudan will surely regret not laying a glove on Egypt. Only in the last 10 minutes or so did they start to push forward, but it was too little, too late.

4. Do-or-die for Algeria  

Thursday evening should be interesting, indeed. Who would have thought that Algeria, the defending champions and unbeaten for 34 games heading into the tournament, would be bottom with no goals and one point from two games? They simply have to beat Ivory Coast to go through. If they do, they could progress as group winners. 

At the moment, Algeria will be happy just to progress as they have been awful so far. They seemed complacent against Equatorial Guinea in the second game and crashed to a 1-0 defeat. They have one last chance but cannot afford to mess up again. As coach Djamel Belmadi said: “We are in a difficult situation, a big difficult situation that we have not experienced for a long time.”

Now we will see what Algeria are made of. 

Tunisia are already through, but will not want to finish in their current third position as that would mean a meeting with Nigeria, perhaps the best team of the tournament so far. A win against Gambia will guarantee at least second. 

5. Nigeria and Egypt did Comoros a favor, and so can Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea

Anyone with even the slightest interest in African and Arab football will be aware that tournament debutants Comoros defeated four-time champions Ghana 3-2 on Tuesday.

Those three points, the first the islanders had managed at the tournament, eliminated the Black Stars and put Comoros in the running to progress to the second round. The margins were tight, as if either Guinea-Bissau defeated Nigeria or Sudan defeated Egypt then it was all over. Both lost, however.

There is still one more danger on the final matchday of the opening round. At the moment, Sierra Leone will move above Comoros on goal difference if they draw against Equatorial Guinea. But if Algeria, currently bottom of Group E, defeat Ivory Coast then it will also be over for Comoros.

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