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New boys tussle with old warriors as Cup of Nations enters knockout stages

By Paul Myers - RFI
Cup of Nations REUTERS - MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY
JAN 22, 2022 LISTEN
REUTERS - MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY

A troika of unusual suspects have made the line-up for the last 16 knockout stages at the Cup of Nations in Cameroon.

Gambia and Comoros are playing at the continent's most prestigious football tournament for the first time while Malawi's last appearance at the fest came in 2010. And back then in Angola they left proceedings after the group stages.

Of the trio, Gambia advanced after coming second in Group F. The other two progressed courtesy of the system in which the four best third-placed teams are awarded a berth in the knockout stages.

In Group B, Malawi recovered from an opening day loss to Guinea to beat Zimbabwe and draw with the 2019 runners-up Senegal.

In Group C, Comoros, lost to both Gabon and Morocco but beat Ghana to send the Black Stars home and themselves into the knockout stages.

Momentous

“It's a huge for us, said Comoros midfielder Fouad Bachirou. "We were disappointed after the first two games but to beat a team like Ghana with all their experience in this competition and one of the favourites – it's huge for us and for our country."

Comoros coach Amir Abdou has pulled off an exploit to bring a team from a land of less than one million people to the last 16. Success, despite the odds, has been a motor of the side's trajectory.

Before the game against Ghana, Bachirou said Abdou urged his players to relish the occasion.

“He told is to go out and make our country and people proud and to play for ourselves and our families. We just wanted to be proud of ourselves.”

They fulfilled his exhortations in Garoua with a thrilling 3-2 win.

Challenge

Nerve will need to be allied to the pride on 24 January when Abdou and his gallant band face the might of Cameroon in a rabidly partisan Olembé stadium in Yaounde.

A thing of beauty propelled Gambia into the knockout stages. It came from the left foot of Ablie Jallow. The Tunisia goalkeeper Bechir Ben Said was not so much rooted as entrenched as the missile arced into his top left hand corner.

Guinea, who last reached the quarter-finals in 2015 under the aegis of Michel Dussuyer, lie in wait for The Scorpions on 24 January.

Morocco, under the veteran coach Vahid Halilhodzic, should be too savvy for Malawi in Yaoundé on Monday night.

Before that clash at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo, Senegal – Africa's highest placed team in the Fifa rankings – take on Cape Verde in Bafoussam. Rather like Algeria, their conquerors in the final in Cairo in 2019, Senegal have failed to dazzle.

But at least they are still in Cameroon.

Cape Verde – another of the best third-placed outfits – grabbed a point off Cameroon in the final round of games in Group A to add to their win over Ethiopia. 

The stalemate on 17 January with the hosts should – if Senegal remember their excellence – be the high point of their journey. 

Egypt, the 2017 finalists, also need to recall their pedigree. On 26 January in Douala, they face a Cote d'Ivoire side who will either still be too busy preening themselves in the wake of their 3-1 demolition of reigning champions Algeria or enhanced.

Following that clash of the titans at the Japoma Stadium, Mali, who are seeking a quarter-final berth for the first time since 2013, play Equatorial Guinea in Limbé.

The resort town on the Gulf ofg Guinea will be the venue for the start of the knockout stages on Sunday afternoon when Burkina Faso take on Gabon.

Fellow west Africans Nigeria – the only side to win all of their pool matches – then play Tunisia in Garoua. 

The North Africans were a depleted crew in the final Group F game against Gambia with a dozen players out with the coronavirus. Most should be restored for the game against a Nigeria side who have impressed under interim coach Augustine Eguavoen.

"A lot of people thought Nigeria wasn't good enough to win the tojurnament for the simple reason ... we weren't playing very well before the competition," said Eguavoen after the 2-0 victory over Guinea Bissau. 

"Now they're starting to respect Nigeria but we won't let it go to our heads. We'll respect our opponents and play with the same approach and the same aggression ... and we'll be training on penalties."

Of course, the shoot-out. The ultimate decider of the knockout stages.

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