By Alex Dudley
Egypt have begun the Africa Cup of Nations as heavy favourites in the odds and they were on a roll from the very first kick of the ball. The entire country is engrossed in what they are doing, especially due to the additional pressure to win the competition in front of their home fans. Still, they are excelling under that role as tournament hosts.
The same can be said for Mohamed Salah. The Liverpool man would have been the leading light for the country heading into the competition, and the AFCON has proven that he is more than capable of delivering what the country expects. He has already scored two goals in three appearances at the competition and looks set to continue with that ratio for the remainder of the competition.
Egypt looks well equipped to bat off any threat from opposing team in the competition, having already scored five goals in their three fixtures at the showpiece event on the African calendar. Meanwhile, defensively, they look the most solid of all the teams, and that has given Salah the platform he needs to excel.
However, there remains threatening sides throughout the competition in the other groups of the AFCON, and it looks like the tests are going to get more vigorous as the final on the 19th of July fast approaches.
The next opponent is Bafana Bafana and while the South African team shouldn’t be belittled, we believe the Pharaohs will come on top, due to their collective quality. However, despite their impressive group stage record, Egypt fell into the ‘cursed’ side of the bracket and they will have to face holders Cameroon or Nigeria in the next stage, with a possibility of playing against Ivory Coast or Algeria in the semi-finals.
So, theoretically, the other side of the bracket definitely looks less deathly. Still, which are the teams from the left side who are more likely to surprise and get to the final?
Very few experts would have predicted that Madagascar would top Group B ahead of the heavily fancied Nigeria. They are debutants in the competition, and they were down in the bookmaker’s lists, just like the Miami Dolphins in the odds to win the World Series.
Their underdog status has allowed the team to excel thus far will remain for the entirety of the competition, and they will be more than happy with that. With that tag, they could progress deep into the tournament as they have already demonstrated all their qualities in a group that they weren’t expected to qualify from.
Their 2-2 draw against Guinea in the opening game was a thrilling encounter, but their chances of qualifying were quickly written off. However, a win over Burundi in their second game meant that they headed into their final game needing just a point to go through.
They did better than that and added another famous win to their record; this time against another bookie favourite Nigeria. Their defensive set up stifled the Nigerian team, and they struggled to find the cutting edge that was needed to break them down.
However, Egypt is not likely to face Madagascar since they are in the other side of the bracket. The insular team will face RD Congo next and they are capable of passing that obstacle and then facing Ghana next – probably an opponent against whom they would need to step up their game. The only way Egypt can face Madagascar is in the final and we know most Egyptians would sign up for that fixture right now.
There could be a fascinating matchup later in the competition between Liverpool teammates, as Sadio Mane’s Senegal could be the only team standing in the way of Egypt and a famous AFCON victory in their own country. The Senegalese started the competition steadily by beating Tanzania 2-0.
However, they were dealt an early blow by Algeria in the next game as they were beaten 1-0 by Mahrez and company. The result meant that Senegal were destined to finish second behind the Algerian side and thus setting up a harder route to the final. They bounced back from this defeat in fine fashion by demolishing a helpless Kenya 3-0. Mane scored his first two goals of the competition in this last group game and could be hitting form at a worrying point from an Egyptian perspective.
Senegal have been dragged to the theoretically easier side of the knockout stage and will face Uganda next, with Ghana and Morocco seeming to be the teams who can pose most threat in their path to the final. With a team filled with stars – Koulibaly, Mane, Keita Balde and rising star Ismaila Sarr, they are favorites to get to the last match in Cairo and we would be thrilled if their opponent was non else than the hosts Egypt.
The final team to look out for in this tournament is Morocco. They have emphatically finished top of Group D with three 1-0 wins in a row. The best of these came against the Ivory Coast. Their defensive backline, led by Wolves Roman Saiss and former Juventus player Mehdi Benatia has been impressive, and they remain yet to concede a goal in the AFCON.
Of course, one of the other teams to have not conceded too is Egypt and should they come up against each other than you would feel that the host nation should have enough in the forward areas to get past the Moroccans. Hakim Ziyech is their main star, but the Ajax attacking mid hasn’t yet put his signature on the scoresheet of the tournament.
They seem to have a pretty easy match, on paper, against debutants Benin, who have reached the knockout stage after being one of the best third placed teams, with 3 draws in a row. They might have to face Senegal next and that’s where things get tough.
That being said, fans must acknowledge that coming out of the group stage in winning form and an excellent defensive record is a concern from an Egyptian point of view. It would be an excellent final though, between two of the remaining four North African teams in the tournament – the others being Tunisia and Algeria – which would prove that this side of the continent excels in producing football talent.