The knockout stages of the competition begin on Friday.
RANK OUTSIDERS WITH few if any players that will be familiar to an Irish audience, Uganda nonetheless performed relatively well so far. In the group stages, they beat a DR Congo side that has exceeded expectations in previous tournaments, finishing third in 2015 and qualifying for the quarter-finals in 2017. However, after picking up four points in their group, they face a very tough round of 16 match with Senegal.
One of the teams most fancied to triumph, Senegal boast one of the strongest squads in the tournament, with Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Idrissa Gueye (Everton), Keita Baldé (Inter) and Sadio Mane (Liverpool) among their big names. The highest ranked team in Africa, they were still beaten by Algeria in the group stages and needed to overcome Kenya in the final game to be sure of a place in the second round.
Their coach, Hervé Renard, is seeking to make it a hat-trick of Africa Cup of Nations wins, having previously guided Gabon (2012) and Ivory Coast (2015) to victory. And while there are better squads at the tournament, Renard certainly has some talented players to choose from, including Ajax duo Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui, as well as Wolves’ Romain Saïss. So far, they have impressed, picking up three wins from three in what looked a tricky group that also featured Ivory Coast, South Africa and Namibia.
The least likely team to win if the bookmakers are to be believed, unless you are an avid follower of African football, you probably won’t have heard of too many of their players, many of whom are on the books at low-profile French clubs such as Niort, Caen and Sochaux-Montbéliard. They are tough to beat, however, and just about did enough to advance to the last 16, drawing all three of their matches against Cameroon, Ghana and Guinea-Bissau.
Ranked 108th in the world, not many people will have fancied Madagascar ahead of the tournament, but they have excelled so far, pulling off a stunning 2-0 win over three-time AFCON champions Nigeria in the group stages and topping a group that also included Guinea and Burundi. They are another side lacking obvious stars, but that factor hasn’t prevented them from performing superbly so far, and they will be optimistic about their chances of beating DR Congo and qualifying for the quarters on Sunday.
DR Congo (50/1)
Having performed well in recent competitions, DR Congo have been distinctly underwhelming so far, losing twice in the group stages and needing a win in their final group game against Zimbabwe to progress. They have been written off prematurely in the past and coach Florent Ibenge has plenty of experience, having been in charge since 2014, though they will certainly again be required to punch above their weight if they are to emulate past feats. There are far more talented squads to choose from, with Middlesbrough striker Britt Assombalonga, Anderlecht’s Yannick Bolasie and former Newcastle defender Chancel Mbemba among their better-known players.
The current incarnation are, in most people’s eyes, not as impressive as previous Ghana teams, such as the side that reached the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup and were unlucky to lose to Uruguay on penalties. They have won the Africa Cup of Nations on four previous occasions, though not since 1982, despite reaching the final in 2010 and 2015. They are not favourites this year, but with players such as Kwadwo Asamoah (Inter), André Ayew (Fenerbahçe), Thomas Partey (Atlético Madrid) and Christian Atsu (Newcastle), they deserve to be considered dark horses. That said, they looked less than convincing in the group stages at times, with the Black Stars held by both Benin and Cameroon.
Coached by legendary ex-France international Alain Giresse, whose CV also includes stints in charge of Georgia, Gabon, Senegal and Mali, who he guided to third place at the 2012 tournament, Tunisia achieved the improbable feat of advancing to the knockout stages without winning a game, as they were held by Angola, Mauritania and Mali in a group where four of the six games were draws. With a high number of home-based players, they are not a side expected to go all the way. Premier League fans may remember attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri, who spent a couple of ill-fated seasons at Sunderland and is now playing for Saint-Étienne in Ligue 1.
Another side who have gone relatively under the radar due to the lack of star names in their team, Mali have still been relatively impressive so far, topping their group with seven points. Curiously, they have not one but two Adama Traorés in their team, both of whom scored in their 4-1 opening win over Mauritiana. They have never won a major trophy at international level, coming closest in 1972, when they were runners-up in the Africa Cup of Nations. On Monday, they face a difficult last-16 encounter with Ivory Coast.
Ivory Coast (10/1)
Another team who perhaps don’t quite have the same array of high-quality players as previous versions of the side, such as the champions of 2015, Ivory Coast still have a number of individuals playing at a good level and are rightly considered among the favourites to lift the trophy. They are captained by Tottenham’s Serge Aurier, while other big names include Lille’s Nicolas Pépé, Swansea striker Wilfried Bony, Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Milan’s Franck Kessié. They haven’t had it all their own way so far though, losing 1-0 to Morocco in the group stages.
Managed by former Southampton player Djamel Belmadi, Algeria’s star name is unquestionably Man City player and team captain Riyad Mahrez. Yet they have plenty of talent elsewhere too, including Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, Leicester’s Islam Slimani and Napoli’s Adam Ounas, with these individuals helping them to progress from the group stages with a 100% record, beating another highly rated side, Senegal, in the process.
Liverpool’s Naby Keïta is unquestionably their star name and one of the best midfielders on the continent currently. Elsewhere though, they lack the depth of the top nations, which is why they struggled in the group stages at times, edging through on four points with a tough last-16 match against Algeria to come.
The three-time winners last won the competition in 2013 and will be hopeful of repeating that feat with the likes of Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), team captain John Obi Mikel (Middlesbrough) and Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester) among the solid if not spectacular names to choose from. Up front too, they have decent options, with Odion Ighalo and Ahmed Musa, formerly of Watford and Leicester respectively. They are led by German coach Gernot Rohr, who is no stranger to managing African sides, having also taken charge of Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso. A surprise 2-0 defeat by Madagascar means they had to settle for second in their group and now face a difficult last-16 tie with Cameroon.
Cameroon are managed by legendary former Dutch player Clarence Seedorf, who won four Champions League titles with Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan. Seedorf, however, is still looking to prove his worth as a coach, having endured brief, difficult stints at AC Milan, Shenzhen in China and Deportivo la Coruna. The tournament’s holders are captained by former Stoke and current PSG attacker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, while highly regarded Ajax stopper André Onana is their number one. Premier League fans will also likely be familiar with Brighton’s Gaëtan Bong and Fulham’s André-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Clinton N’Jie, meanwhile, was on the fringes of the Tottenham first team briefly, before sealing a permanent transfer to Marseille in 2017. With five Africa Cup of Nations titles, only Egypt (7) have won the competition more. They were not totally convincing in the group stages, however, picking up just one win and progressing on five points.
Many people’s favourites, this is largely due to two factors — their status as hosts of the competition and the presence in the side of one of the best players in the world, Mo Salah. To be fair, they have backed up the hype so far, with three wins from three, though their opening games have been overshadowed to an extent by the controversy surrounding Amr Warda. Other important players include Aston Villa’s Ahmed El Mohamady and Arsenal’s Mohamed El Neny, with 15 members of the 23-man squad home-based. They are looking to bounce back from a deeply disappointing 2018 World Cup, where they were one of two sides (along with Panama) that failed to pick up a point.
South Africa (66/1)
The current crop of South American players are a long way from the glory days of 1996, when the likes of Shaun Bartlett, Mark Fish and Phil Masinga inspired them to their one and only Africa Cup of Nations title (with the substantial caveat that they were barred from competing between the competition’s onset in 1957 and 1992 because of apartheid). They followed their sole triumph up with a runners-up placing in 1998, but have flattered to deceive in more recent years. They didn’t even qualify in 2017 and only got past the group stages once in the last seven competitions. With the majority of their 23-man squad home-based, they’ve struggled to this year’s knockout stages, finishing third in their group and losing twice already, with most people expecting them to bow out against Egypt in the last 16.
Upcoming Round of 16 matches (Irish time in brackets):
Morocco v Benin (4pm)
Uganda v Senegal (7pm)
Nigeria v Cameroon (4pm)
Egypt v South Africa (7pm)
Madagascar v DR Congo (4pm)
Algeria v Guinea (7pm)
Mali v Ivory Coast (4pm)
Ghana v Tunisia (7pm)