And then there were 16. AFCON 2021 is now in the knockout stages. It's do or die, win or go home. You know, all that typical verbiage, now's the time for it. We had upsets, drama, heartbreak, joy, pain, happiness and full on unseriousness in the group stage.
So as we go into the knockout stage, here's a power ranking.
Three weeks before the tournament started, Nigeria fired Gernot Rohr, lost star striker Victor Osimhen, had Emmanuel Dennis not join with the team, and lost a few other players who pulled out of the squad. Yet here we are. On form, they're the best team. Led by Moses Simon's play on the wing, Wilfred Ndidi and Joe Aribo in midfield, and anchored by Kenneth Omeruo and William Troost-Ekong, Nigeria are the only team in AFCON to win all three matches they've played so far. Despite their woes before the tournament started, the Super Eagles enter the knockouts as the favorites. Will they win or will they flame out?
The hosts are showing out. They've won two, and drawn one while led by the tournament's leading goal scorer, Vincent Aboubakar and midfield dynamo André-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Cameroon look great. Feeding off their home crowd and their newly elected football president Samuel Eto', Cameroon have the makings of winning another AFCON. They rarely lose in Yaounde and that right there is intimidating for anyone coming to play against the The Indomitable Lions.
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3. Ivory Coast
On paper, this is arguably the strongest side in the whole tournament, right? But Ivory Coast's defense has looked shaky at times even as they showed against Algeria that they have the firepower to punish teams at will. Next, a matchup against Egypt awaits them. Grab your popcorn.
Another squad who has a lot of talent on paper, Morocco might not have not reached the heights people expected from them, but they qualified and that's all that matters. They beat Ghana and Comoros, but would have lost to Gabon had it not been for some timely unserious defending and a sparkling Achraf Hakimi free kick. Can Morocco show the world why people rate them so highly?
They look good! That midfield of theirs, led by Yves Bissouma and Amadou Haidara is a stronghold and they look like a proper team. You shouldn't be shocked by this display from Mali though, they have won several championships at youth level with a lot of these players and they're just continuing their success. A deep run should not shock anyone.
6. Equatorial Guinea
One of the pleasant surprises of the tournament, they ended Algeria's unbeaten run and beat another surprisingly competitive team, Sierra Leone. Going up against Mali is going to be tough. However, Equatorial Guinea have made themselves and their country proud. Beating Algeria gets you high on any power ranking even if they don't end up going further than this.
One of the tournament favorites, they were hit hard by COVID just before the tournament began, and while their talented players returned by the end of the group stage, something just looks off with this team. Senegal are a heavily talented team on paper, but they have been quite disappointing in the group stages, scoring only one goal, a Sadio Mane penalty. The thing about football is that things are forgotten quickly when you do well, so can Senegal click and make things work?
Egypt started the tournament looking really shaky, getting outplayed by Nigeria and being saved by their keeper. The 1-0 score they lost by was very flattering. Egypt squeaked through with only two goals but the most important thing is, they are in the knockout stages. Egypt faces another challenge now in Ivory Coast. In current form, that right there, on paper, seems over before it starts, but this is AFCON. Things happen.
They are a mixed bag, they have talented players but really haven't done that much. Naby Keita scored a golazo. Their midfield is talented, and they beat Malawi, tied Senegal and lost to Zimbabwe. A matchup against the Gambia is a very tasty fixture.
This is the definition of a team. Gabon lost their captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Mario Lemina retired and they are in the knockout stages. They've shown heart, beating Comoros, coming back against Ghana and almost beating Morocco. Gabon faces Burkina Faso and this one is a tossup, making it an exciting fixture for those who do not have an allegiance to either side.
11. The Gambia
Always remember "the" before you say Gambia. They are another team who is a great story in AFCON. They're what makes this tournament special, an exciting that can score bangers. Just ask Tunisia. A match against Guinea is one to keep your eyes on.
12. Burkina Faso
Led by their captain Bertrand Traoré, Burkina Faso has not scored that much in the tournament, averaging a goal per match, but they are in the knockout stage and that is all that matters. They have shown glimpses of the quality they possess, especially in their first match against Cameroon, holding their own and even taking an early lead before eventually losing 2-1.
The Northern Africans were played off the park by Mali in their first match, but they responded well beating Mauritania 4-0 then before COVID hit. They lost to the Gambia 1-0 and with a bunch of their star players out, it looks very shaky ahead of their match against Nigeria.
14. Cape Verde
A side most are just finding out about, but as someone who saw them against Nigeria, this is not surprising. Led by Garry Rodrigues, Cape Verde has a lot of heart. They drew against Cameroon, but where are the goals coming from? They've only scored twice in three matches so far. They face tournament favorites Senegal in the knockout stages, a perfect storm from a neutral perspective.
Probably the story of the tournament. Their first AFCON, never scored a goal, two tough losses, showing that they can fight but not necessarily that they can win and then boom, three goals against Ghana to send the African giants home in a thrilling 3-2 group stage finale. Comoros' story is why we watch football, the definition of the beautiful game. They are on the map now, literally, people just finding out where Comoros is and what they are about.
They started the tournament losing to Guinea but got it together immediately, coming from behind and beating Zimbabwe. They held Senegal to a 0-0 draw. Malawi should be very happy and proud, making it to the knockout stage. They face Morocco next and that is a tough battle for anyone, let alone Malawi.