There were complaints, when the Africa Cup of Nations was expanded to 24 teams, that it would dilute the quality and the intensity of a tournament that had been perfectly poised when it consisted if just 16 countries.
At times during this summer’s showpiece in Egypt, those concerns have been born out.
The group stage didn’t always ignite on the field, there were some teams who appeared out of their depth at the continental high table, while the continent’s true heavyweights largely qualified for the knockouts without too much drama.
Morocco, Algeria and Egypt all progressed after winning all three of their games without conceding a goal, even tough the Atlas Lions and the Pharaohs had, on paper, according to the Fifa world rankings, been pooled into the two toughest groups.
Come the conclusion of the group stage, it felt as though an awful lot of games had been played—36, many in the scorching, searing heat of Egyptian afternoons and early evenings—only to eliminate eight teams.
Couldn’t everyone’s time have been saved and those eight teams just have sat the competition out entirely!?!
However, what the expanded Nations Cup has afforded us—as well as the chance to watch some of Africa’s lesser lights up close and personal—is a whole extra round of knockout matches.
Whereas previously, the tournament would step right from the group stage to the quarter-finals, in this year’s edition, we’ve had—for the first time ever—a Round of 16.
…and the Nations Cup’s first ever R16 certainly didn’t disappoint.
While the group stage may have been less concentrated and tense than in previous editions, this extra round of matches has been a joy to behold.
There have been shocks—Morocco’s elimination at the hands of Benin and Egypt falling to South Africa—and there’s been ample drama—notably Rami Bedoui’s 92nd minute own goal for Tunisia as progression against Ghana slipped through their hands, until they eventually turned things around by winning on penalties.
The Atlas Lions had also fallen in a shootout—4-1 against Benin after misses by Sofiane Boufal and Youssef En-Nesyri—but that was a match punctured by drama, with the Squirrels losing Khaled Adenon to a bizarre red card, and Hakim Ziyech slamming a stoppage-time penalty against the post, denying the Moroccans a spot in the final eight.
Benin have been one of the surprise packages of the tournament so far, both for good and bad reasons.
In reaching the quarter-finals, they’ve made history—this already represents the team’s best performance at the Nations Cup—although they’ve also done it in quite conservative fashion; never before 2019 has a team not been eliminated after failing to win any of their opening four matches.
Benin’s reward is a quarter-final showdown with Senegal, who did enough—but didn’t set too many pulses racing—with their 1-0 victory over Uganda in the Round of 16.
Madagascar are also enjoying an unprecedented run in the competition, having never before qualified before this edition.
The islanders progressed in top spot in Group B after a gameweek three victory over Nigeria, and then dumped the Democratic Republic of Congo out on penalties in Alexandria after twice taking the lead during regular time.
Despite being dismissed as something of a novelty act before the tournament, Nicolas Dupuis’ side are well drilled, defensively resilient, and in Ibrahim Amada and Anicet Andrianantenaina, boast quality midfielders who make effective contributions in both halves.
Tunisia in the quarterfinals will be a significantly sterner test than the DRC, even though the North Africans are also without a win up to this point in the competition.
This will be the Carthage Eagles’ 10th quarter-final appearance, although in progressing against Ghana on Monday evening in Ismailia, they finally secured progression in a knockout fixture at the tournament for the first time since 2004.
Defeat against Madagascar would be unacceptable.
In the other half of the draw, Algeria and the Ivory Coast will meet in Suez in the most heavyweight clash of the quarters.
While the Ivorians may have more star power, the Fennecs have comfortably been the most impressive team in the tournament so far; dispatching Kenya and Tanzania (before halftime) in the group stage, as well as defeating Senegal.
They were largely untroubled in a 3-0 victory over Guinea in the Round of 16, certainly after Youcef Belaili had opened the scoring on 24 minutes, and boast an immense strength in depth—particularly in the final third.
The Ivorians, by contrast, were less convincing as they dispatched an impressive Mali team, although in Wilfried Zaha—the match-winner on 76 minutes—they boast an in-form star having finally broken his four-game drought at the Afcon.
The pick of the quarter-finals, however, could be Nigeria’s meeting with South Africa at Cairo International Stadium, after the old rivals eliminated the holders—Cameroon—and the hosts—Egypt—respectively in the Round of 16.
Both will be stronger for those triumphs, as Bafana Bafana shook off the shackles to express themselves in front of 75,000, while the Super Eagles demonstrated character to come from 2-1 down to defeat the Indomitable Lions in a topsy-turvy clash in Alex.
Both sides have flaws, certainly, but having taken points from each other during the qualifiers, they’ll each be confident that they can have the edge as the semi-finals come into view.
With the exception of Algeria, no team has enjoyed passages of football as fluid as Bafana were—in moments—against Egypt, and after eliminating the mighty Mohamed Salah to silence a nation, they could yet topple another African giant.
Nigeria, and particularly, South Africa, stunned a continent in the Round of 16—truly bringing the drama, excitement and unpredictability to this competition—but only one can progress to the final four.