The Africa Cup of Nations has been every bit as exciting as it promised to be.
Equatorial Guinea, a nation with 1.6million inhabitants, thrashed hosts Ivory Coast 4-0 on Monday. Cape Verde, an archipelago of 10 small volcanic islands off the coast of west Africa, threw up the tournament’s first upset on the second day, beating four-time winners Ghana 2-1.
And we have not even reached the knockout stage yet.
After these early tournament shocks, Ivory Coast and Ghana sit third in their groups of four, having played all of their matches. Although that would have seen them exit the tournament in previous editions, the expansion in 2019 to 24 teams means the four best third-placed teams will qualify for the knockout stages — leaving them reliant on results elsewhere.
Here, The Athletic looks across the tournament to assess the state of play with eight games remaining in the group stage…
How does qualification for the AFCON knockout stages work?
Like in the European Championship, AFCON uses head-to-head as the first tiebreaker to separate teams tied on points. If head-to-head cannot separate the teams (ie, if they drew) goal difference is used as the second tiebreaker. For example, Equatorial Guinea have advanced through Group A as winners ahead of Nigeria due to their superior goal difference, as the sides drew 1-1 on the opening matchday.
In the unlikely event two teams cannot be separated after two tiebreakers, goals scored in all group matches, followed by the drawing of lots, will be used to determine the final positions. If more than two teams are tied, head-to-head is used between the teams in question.
For third-placed teams to advance to the knockout stage, they must rank within the top four third-placed teams based on points, goal difference, and goals scored.
Ivory Coast are set to progress into the knockout stages with three points, while Ghana are the fifth-best third-placed team with two points, but these positions are subject to results in the remaining fixtures on Tuesday and Wednesday.
With the other four third-placed teams yet to play, Ivory Coast and Ghana’s future in the tournament is up in the air. We dig into that in more detail later…
What’s the state of play in the groups?
Equatorial Guinea have been one of the tournament’s surprise packages, going unbeaten in their three matches, winning twice and drawing once. Their most impressive performance, and probably the best performance across the tournament, was their 4-0 dismantling of hosts Ivory Coast.
Emilio Nsue, their captain, scored twice in the win and is leading the Golden Boot race with five goals after a hat-trick against Guinea-Bissau in their second match. Nsue, formerly of Middlesbrough and Birmingham City in the EFL’s Championship, alternates between right-back and striker for his club side, CF Intercity, who play in Spain’s third tier. Equatorial Guinea will play the third-placed team from Group C or D.
Led by Victor Osimhen, Nigeria have qualified in second with seven points from three games. Despite reaching the knockout stages comfortably, they have flattered to deceive this tournament, scoring only three goals and both their wins finishing 1-0.
For one of the pre-tournament favourites to realise their ambitions, coach Jose Peseiro will look to their plethora of top attackers, including Osimhen, Alex Iwobi and AC Milan winger Samuel Chukwueze, to produce more. They will play the runners-up of Group C.
After a bright start to the tournament, comfortably beating Guinea-Bissau 2-0 in the first game, Ivory Coast’s future is out of their hands. Should they qualify, they will face Group B winners Cape Verde or the winner of Group C in the round of 16.
Later on, we will look at what Ivory Coast need to happen to advance.
Like Equatorial Guinea, few people expected Cape Verde to make such light work of qualification to the knockout stage. Their points total of seven is four more than second-placed qualifier Egypt and they have done it in style.
Manchester United fans will remember Bebe for his struggles at Old Trafford, but he has been a sensation for Cape Verde this tournament. His free kick from 40 yards out against Mozambique might have prompted a few questions of the goalkeeper, but there was no keeping out the third in the 3-0 win, a long-range strike from winger Ryan Mendes. Cape Verde will play the third-placed team from Group A or D.
Bebé’s long range free-kick gives Cape Verde the lead! 💥 pic.twitter.com/qIAHiHjxlE
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) January 19, 2024
Egypt, who could be without Mohamed Salah for the remainder of the tournament after the Liverpool attacker suffered a muscle injury in the 2-2 draw with Ghana, finished in second. They will play the runner-up of Group F.
Ghana are third after a disastrous stoppage-time collapse against Mozambique, conceding in the first and fourth minute of stoppage time to draw 2-2. Providing they qualify, the form of Mohammed Kudus, who scored twice in a 2-2 draw with Egypt, is encouraging for a talented squad capable of winning knockout matches. If they progress, they will face the winner of Group C: Senegal or Guinea.
Senegal have made light work of Group C, qualifying for the knockout round before the third game.
The holders have been one of the most impressive teams in this tournament and are among the favourites to win it. Their 3-1 dismantling of five-time winners Cameroon demonstrated their quality, with Ismaila Sarr, Habib Diallo and former Liverpool attacker Sadio Mane on the scoresheet. If they win the group, they will face the third-place finishers from groups A, B or F.
Despite missing star attacker Serhou Guirassy, who is expected to be fit for the match against Senegal on Tuesday, Guinea are well-positioned to qualify thanks to a 1-0 win over The Gambia. They will face Nigeria in the round of 16 if they fail to beat Senegal and results elsewhere go in their favour.
Cameroon, however, can sneak into second place if they beat The Gambia, who need a win to stay in contention, and Senegal beat Guinea. Cameroon may have to bring their shooting boots, however, as Guinea have a three-goal advantage in the goal-difference tiebreaker.
In Group D, it is all in the balance.
Despite sitting third, Algeria might feel the calmest heading into the final group game against Mauritania, who have yet to win a point. If Algeria beat their opponents on Tuesday night, they guarantee their qualification in a top-two spot. Baghdad Bounedjah, who plays for Al-Sadd in Qatar, has been Algeria’s most reliable performer, scoring all three of their goals, including an equaliser in the fifth minute of stoppage time to rescue a draw against Burkina Faso.
The top two sides, Angola and Burkina Faso, face off simultaneously. While the four points they have already amassed is enough for qualification into the knockout stage in third place, both sides will want to end the group stage in good form. The winners of this group will face the third-placed team from groups E or F, while the runners-up will face the winners of Group E.
Having already proven they can all take points from each other, Group E’s final day is difficult to predict.
Mali lead the group with four points after beating South Africa 2-0 and drawing 1-1 to Tunisia. South Africa responded to that defeat by winning 4-0 against Namibia, who beat Tunisia 1-0.
With South Africa against Tunisia and Namibia facing Mali, Mali are the only side guaranteed not to finish bottom of the group.
World Cup semi-finalists Morocco have not had it all their way, sharing the points in a 1-1 draw with DR Congo on Sunday after beating Tanzania in their first match 3-0.
DR Congo sit second ahead of Tanzania in third, but they are level on points, head-to-head, goals scored and goal difference. If those two teams cannot be separated after Wednesday’s matches (Tanzania vs DR Congo and Zambia vs Morocco), the drawing of lots will determine their finishing position.
Regardless of results on Wednesday, Morocco have sealed qualification with four points from their opening two games, as that is a better tally than two third-placed teams who have completed their group stage already (Ivory Coast, three points, and Ghana, two points).
The winners of Group F will face Group E’s runners-up, while the Group F runners-up will face Egypt. If the third-placed team qualifies, they could face either the winner of groups D or C.
What do Ghana and Ivory Coast need to happen to go through?
The table below shows the teams occupying the third-placed positions in the six groups as things stand. We will update this after each day of matches. The final column shows the probability of them reaching the knockout stages, as calculated by Opta’s predictions model.
The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) by using betting market odds and Opta Power Rankings. The odds and rankings are based on historical and recent team performances. The model considers the strength of opponents by using these match outcome probabilities and simulates the remaining fixtures in the competition thousands of times.
A reminder that for third-placed teams to advance to the knockout stage, they must rank within the top four third-placed teams based on points, goal difference, and goals scored.
For Ivory Coast to be certain of progression, they rely on one of the following to happen:
- Cameroon do not beat The Gambia
- The Gambia do not beat Cameroon by more than one goal
- Namibia lose to Mali AND Tunisia fail to beat South Africa
- DR Congo beat Tanzania AND Morocco beat Zambia
According to Opta Analyst stat centre’s prediction model, Ivory Coast have an 81.4 per cent chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. They are also the fifth favourites to win the tournament.
For Ghana to progress, because they only finished on two points after three games, they are relying on all of the following permutations:
- Cameroon and The Gambia must draw
- DR Congo to win or draw against Tanzania, or to lose by a two-goal margin or more. A defeat by a one-goal margin means it will come down to goals scored between them and Ghana. Right now, DR Congo have scored two and Ghana have scored five. If they are still level after that, then lots will be drawn between DR Congo and Ghana
- Morocco must beat Zambia. If they do so by only one goal, then Ghana will go through providing Zambia do not score more than twice. If they score three times, then there would be a drawing of lots to decide who goes through between Zambia and Ghana. If they score more than three, Ghana will be eliminated.
According to Opta Analyst’s model, Ghana have a 12.4 per cent chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, the worst of any team still left in the tournament. Their model suggests Ghana have a 0.9 per cent chance of reaching the final and a 0.3 per cent chance of lifting the trophy.
Which high-profile players could be returning to their clubs sooner than expected?
West Ham fans will follow the results intently over the next couple of days, knowing Kudus will rejoin the squad if Ghana do not make the knockout stages. With no FA Cup fixture, their next game is on Thursday, February 1, against Bournemouth, giving plenty of time for Kudus to adjust and recover before returning to Premier League action.
Athletic Bilbao would no doubt welcome an early return for the Ghana forward Inaki Williams as they chase European qualification in La Liga, and his absence will be felt in their Copa del Rey quarter-final against Barcelona on Wednesday night.
When it comes to Ivory Coast, Nottingham Forest will be keeping tabs on the fortunes of their three players, Serge Aurier, Ibrahim Sangare and Willy Boly.
Andre Onana was dropped by Cameroon on Tuesday but was starting every game for Manchester United before joining up with his national team. If Cameroon fail to make the last 16, he could be back for United’s FA Cup match against Newport County on Sunday.
(Top photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)
Read the full article here