CAIRO – There will be tough encounters in the round of 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt where stars like Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and Alex Iwobi will play leading roles.
After a poor group-stage, in which none of the big teams have fallen, the last-16 draw will be theoretically easy with Morocco and Senegal the favorites to win this year’s title but there are some crucial clashes left to be played.
The first bracket of the knockout stage includes three tough matches Egypt-South Africa, Nigeria-Cameroon and Ivory Coast-Mali, which is then set to be finished with an easier clash of Algeria versus Guinea.
The North African teams of Egypt, Algeria and Morocco had good results in the first phase, winning all three group-stage matches and conceding no goals, putting themselves atop the favorites list.
It will be Morocco, in the other bracket, which will kick off the last 16 matches taking on Benin, a side that never made the second round before.
Benin, however, managed to qualify this time being the Group F third-placed team after collecting three draws.
The “Atlas Lions” is a possession-play team and dominates the midfield thanks to the Ajax’s star Hakim Ziyeh, with Leganes’ forward Youssef En-Nesyri being the most dangerous player in its attacking line.
This side of the brackets will also see other three duels, which are: Uganda-Senegal, Madagascar-DR Congo and Ghana-Tunisia.
This is the first edition of the AFCON to have 24 national teams, and not just 16 as before, which allowed the best four third-placed teams, out of six, to join the second round of the tournament.
Salah’s Egypt, however, remains the tournament’s top favorite, facing off against South Africa, a team that includes big names but has not shown that on the field so far, advancing to the second round as a third-placed team, with three points after notching a single win and conceding two defeats to Ivory Coast and Morocco.
The “Pharaohs” seemed to be solid in their group stage matches, with Salah, who has just won the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool, putting on a sparkling performance, including his outstanding free-kick goal against Uganda, which has come to be considered one of the tournament’s best scores.
Aware of his weight on the Egyptian team, Mexican coach Javier Aguirre asked Salah to get closer to the midfield, than being stuck on the forward line, so that the Liverpool’s talisman would take part in a better attacking transition, which has allowed the player to notch two goals and assist on another.
Algeria reached the round of 16 with the best scoring record in the tournament so far (6-0), seeing its most-feared attacking line led by Manchester City’s winger, Mahrez, playing well at the moment.
The “Desert Warriors” will play a Guinea team that is led by Liverpool’s midfielder Naby Keita, who did not participate in the team’s first group-stage match as he was recovering from an injury he sustained with the Champions League winner in the semis first-leg encounter against Spain’s Barcelona.
Senegal’s Sadio Mane is another big figure of the tournament, being a key player in Liverpool’s European success and a joint Premier League Golden Boot winner this season, along with Salah and Arsenal’s and Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Mane should be a fundamental player for his national team, coached by Aliou Cisse, during its upcoming easy match, on paper, against Uganda, as Senegal will try to make up for its unconvincing performance during the first stage.
Furthermore, AC Milan’s promising forward Keita Balde presented himself as the tournament’s big surprise, as he had a hand helping Senegal make the second round.
On the other hand, the Nigerian “Super Eagles” is a side set to square off against the reigning champion, Cameroon, after being a disappointment in the tournament so far but the Nigerian side should remain as a favorite.
Nigeria did not play good soccer until now, while Arsenal winger, Iwobi, put on a poor performance full of inaccurate passes and netting no goals, a task that was accomplished only twice across the first stage by defender Kenneth Omeruo and veteran striker Odion Ighalo.
Under Dutch coach Clarence Seedorf, the “Indomitable Lions” of Cameroon advanced to the second round as the Group F second-placed team, claiming a single win in addition to two scoreless ties.
The most outstanding surprise of the tournament up till now was the debutant Madagascar who topped Group B standings with seven points, after two victories over second-placed Nigeria and last-placed Burundi and a 2-2 draw with Guinea in their opener.
The Malagasy team is to face DR Congo, a team that was one of the best third-placed sides, after one win and two defeats.
Tunisia – which still did not edge a single victory in the 2019 AFCON and qualified as the Group E second-placed team after three draws – is set to face off against Ghana, the Group F winner with five points.
The Group E winner, Mali, staged two wins and one draw to make the second round, clashing against one of the fastest teams in the tournament, Ivory Coast, which was the Group D second-placed team with six points.