from ROSY SADOU in Yaoundé, Cameroon
YAOUNDE – THE knockout stage of the continent’s top football tournament has paved way for some interesting and exciting ties as the road to the final kicks into life.
Notwithstanding, the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 is shaping up to be a tourney of the unfancied sides and highlights the diminishing gap between the giants and minnows of the beautiful game locally.
The underdogs have shown teeth in a series of coups staged in a sporting sense.
If the conclusion of the Group stages of the 33rd edition of the biennial CAF tournament is anything to go by, the titans remaining in Cameroon can only take the lightweights too lightly at their own peril.
The defending but soon-to-be-dethroned champions, Algeria, and permanent favourites, Ghana, have learnt this the hard way.
They landed in Cameroon high on form and expectation but seemingly also, complacency. Now, they have left Central Africa with tails tucked between their legs.
By finishing bottom of a pre-tournament seemingly easy Group E, Algeria has joined an ignominious group of defending champions that have been knocked out at the Group stage.
“It is simply a failure, difficult to make a rational analysis on the spot,” coach Djamel Belmadi put it mildly at the post-match conference.
He lamented the theme prevailing in the team’s campaign in Cameroon.
The Algerians’ streak of dominating possession, creating more chances than opponents but failing to convert them was monotonous.
They failed to get maximum points despite having average possession of 62,66 percent than opponents (they also were the most team flagged offside in the Group stage, ten times) .
“We did not manage to materialise our chances. Even the penalties did not enter, doubt set in, we never managed to enter this competition,” Belmadi bemoaned.
The 2019 winners’ loss against Equatorial Guinea (0-1) and a goalless draw against minnows Sierra Leone rank among major upsets in the tournament’s history pertaining to the Cup holders.
The underrated Equatoguineans, who are through to the knockout stage, and the Lone Stars finished higher than the North Africans in the group.
For a team that arrived as favourites, on the back of a 35-match unbeaten run and winning the FIFA Arab Cup in December, Algeria’s Desert Foxes were mysteriously washed-up in Cameroon.
Ivory Coast took them to the cleaners with a 3-1 thrashing in the final group match.
By some twist of fate, Ivory Coast was the last team to suffer the embarrassment of being the defending champions to bow out at the first hurdle, in 2017.
Zambia (2012 winners, meanwhile absent in Cameroon) join them in that hall of shame.
Egypt, for all their prestige as the most successful AFCON nation with seven titles, is also a member of this champ-turned-chump club.
The Pharaohs won an unprecedented three titles between 2006 and 2010 but failed to qualify for the defence of their tournament in 2012.
At the ongoing tourney, four-time winners Ghana, crashed out after finishing bottom of their group but high on the list of the ill-mannered participants.
A 2-3 loss to debutantes Comoros, who have advanced to the Last 16, ranks among the lowest point for the Black Stars. It followed an uninspiring draw versus Gabon, who also progressed, alongside Morocco, who topped the group.
Thanks to the confrontational approach, the West African outfit has received the highest number of red cards (two) at this stage of a tournament contrastingly founded on the Pan-Africanism ethos of comradeship.
In skipper Andrew Ayew, they are guided by a man replicating a despotic general agitating his troops to bloody wars than a captain instilling calm among his seafarers through turbulent waters.
With their red cards, the unruly forward and the equally irritable Benjamin Teteh may have not dented Ghana’s revered standing as Africa’s oasis of peace but their militancy has contributed to the West African team’s humiliation here in Cameroon.
In Group F, titans Tunisia have survived by the skin of their teeth and qualified as one of the best third-placed teams.
A 1-0 defeat by first time participants, Gabon, who they finished below, was another tournament surprise but an evolving script.
Cape Verde and Malawi, two other sides tipped for early flights back home, are through to the knockout stage.
While the final placing of the teams has pitted some giants against each other in the Last 16, some David-versus-Goliath fixtures could be the tussles to light up the tournament.
The Last 16 runs from Sunday to Wednesday.
Hosts Cameroon welcoming Comoros, Guinea against Gambia, Senegal versus Cape Verde and Morocco entertaining Malawi could see reputations ripped to shreds.
Nigeria playing Tunisia, and Ivory Coast tackling Egypt, will be the clash of the titans.
Matches featuring the dark horses and rank outsiders – Guinea against Gambia and Mali versus Equatorial Guinea – complete the Last 16 fixtures.
– CAJ News