The SFG Team of the First round. In a 4-6-0 formation as there were so many outstanding performances from offensive players behind strikers and no outstanding performance from any out-and-out striker. Salim Masoud Said picks the XI. To the business at hand:
Fabrice Ondoa – Cameroon
There were a few candidates in this spot but, all things considered, it had to go to the 19-year-old. He looked unfazed and unflustered in his first appearance on the biggest stage, commanding aerially despite having to contest the balls with a lofty and physical Mali team and, like in qualifying, exuding the aura of a teenager who is utterly comfortable in his own skin.
Randy – Equatorial Guinea
At AFCON 2012 he was a left winger. Three years later, he seems to have made a successful, Ashley Young-esque, winger-cum-full back transition. Equatorial Guinea had a few standout players in the first game – at least before they tired in the end – but Randy’s transition into defensively respectable right back was one that went undetected.
Bruno Ecuele Manga – Gabon
Gabon’s 2-0 win over Burkina Faso was nowhere near as comfortable as the scoreline depicted. Wasteful finishing by Burkina Faso played a part, but Manga’s resolute, last-ditch interventions also had a say. With him in the backline, Gabon are far more commanding.
Nicholas N’Koulou – Cameroon
Lucky not to give a penalty away after a late challenge on Bakary Sako, but that was an uncharacteristic when accounting for N’Koulou’s usual modus operandi. Arguably the best African defender over the last five years, few centre-backs in the modern game can time their tackles as well as an in-form ‘Niko’, not to mention an eerie habit of being at the right place at the right time – something he did on a few occasions whenever the scenario looked ominous versus Mali.
Ali Maaloul – Tunisia
Provided enormous energy down Tunisia’s left for their draw versus Cape Verde, especially for the entirety of the second half. One of SFG’s defenders to watch at this tournament, the CS Sfaxien left back was the provider for club team mate Mohamed Ali Moncer’s equaliser after a trademark raid down the left flank.
Jamel Saihi – Tunisia
The Montpellier man’s neatness on the ball was crucial as Tunisia, behind and lacklustre, went about establishing parity against a well-oiled Cape Verde team. His penetrating pass to spot the run of Maaloul was the catalyst for the leveller.
Andre Biyogo Poko – Gabon
Unlike Saihi, Biyogo-Poko was unwise in his usage of the ball against Burkina Faso, with a passing success rate that was below 70%. But his diligent and intelligent defensive work kept a combative Burkina Faso midfield at bay. His 7 tackles and 4 interceptions in the opening game are all the more incredible considering he had little defensive support from fellow midfielders Didier Ibrahim N’Dong and the more attack-minded Levy Madinda.
Bertrand Traore – Burkina Faso
Did not deserve to be on the losing team after one of the tournament’s best individual performances so far, troubling Gabon wherever he loitered. He cam hold his head high after the loss, though – it was his team-mates’ wastefulness of the chances he fashioned rather than a lack of quality from him. And he gets to console himself with a place in our team of the round. What more could a man who has just lost want?
Ibrahima Traore – Guinea
Africa’s answer to Arjen Robben? Like the Dutch wing wizard, the left-footed Gladbach winger plays on the right, is intrepidly direct and loves drifting inside to create opportunities or get a shot away. He did exactly that set routine against Ivory Coast, giving competitive debutant Wilfried Kanon an uneasy time at left back, and one of his efforts from drifting inwards hit the crossbar.
Bakary Sako – Mali
The Wolves winger gave his opponent Ambroise Oyongo an explosive workout in the first half. Supported by the sudden surges of Adama Tamboura from left-back, Sako, combining pace and brawn, was on a one-man mission to take the game to Cameroon. He has added some much-needed verve in a Mali attack that had become robotically predictable, and it is for that reason that he is also SFG’s AFCON Player of the Day for Day 4.
Yannick Bolasie – DR Congo
The Crystal Palace winger has been a victim of his own success. A by-product of his superb form at club level is that teams are likely to double up on him at AFCON, or at least pay very close attention to him, as Zambia did on the opening day. Intelligently, though, he evaded the strict marking by constantly being on the move, whether it was switching flanks or coming deeper to pick up the ball, and his eventual reward was a thumping finish past Kennedy Mweene.
Honorable mentions: Didier Ovono, Rais M’Bolhi, Yrondu Musavu-King, Faouzi Ghoulam, Yacouba Sylla, Thuso Phala, Mohamed Ali Moncer, Iban Zarandona, Yacine Brahimi, Ibrahima Conte, Emilio Nsue, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Frederic Bulot, Thievy Bifouma, Mame Biram Diouf,