By Tom Danicek
We are entering the final phase of this year’s AFCON. Just one more game, one more win, and the team you are cheering on is suddenly playing for medals. It is therefore the perfect time to at least attempt to rank all of the remaining sides from weakest to strongest, with the presumed weakest naturally having the best shot at winning the whole thing because it’s AFCON and last time Cameroon won.
Why they will
They could be the closest thing we’ve got here to Cameroon 2017 (while not coming all that close). Take Cameroon’s goalscoring record in their first four games at the last AFCON — 2 goals, 1 goal, 0 goals, 0 goals. Just like Benin this year. And who was awaiting Cameroon in 2017 quarter-final? Exactly. See? It doesn’t matter I am playing with chronology here and there. It’s all lined up. Trust me.
Now what remains is to answer the following questions: Can Steve Mounié turn into a Vincent Aboubakar? Can David Djigla somehow catch up to Christian Bassogog? Can Jordan Adéoti suddenly start channeling his inner Sébastien Siani?
Everything is possible…
Why they won’t
… though at the same time, it’s almost certain that at this stage, Benin are just what they seem to be — the side that simply puts all their men behind the ball and proceeds to desperately hoping and praying that the ball only innocently bounces around, caressing their eyebrows, posts, anything… just not the net.
Meanwhile, Benin have completely resigned on producing any offence; putting the one set piece goal and one loooong-range effort from Sessègnon aside, they’ve accumulated a pathetic 0,14 xG in the last 210 minutes of action against Cameroon and Morocco.
It definitely increasingly feels like they did their goalscoring job early on and now they’re just going to sit on it.
And you know what? Fair enough. They are a limited side doing what the protypical limited side often does — resorting to a passive, 3-at-the-back formation to hopefully hide their weaknesses and not coming out of the shell whatsoever. It has worked to an extent and thanks to some incredible luck, but it can’t work forever, surely.
Let’s face it; bandiera Michel Dussuyer had never won an AFCON knockout game before, and he most probably can’t believe this himself.
7. IVORY COAST
Why they will
Ivory Coast had quality individuals as far as I can remember, but the issue was always building an actual team that pulls in the same direction. This is not that team, and it doesn’t even boast individuals of the highest quality like many times before, but they can still hit you once you stop paying attention even if just for a little bit.
While “Route One” should nowadays ideally exist only in a virtual reality, as a desperate strategy for the last minute of a Football Manager match, Ivory Coast barely know any different and they can be pretty deadly regardless. One long ball behind the line and Zaha or Kodjia are both well versed in navigating it in the net.
It’s not pretty, they look outright terrible for long stretches, but it may not matter in the end.
They decided the Round of 16 like this, despite trailing in all the meaningful  stats. They opened the scoring vs Namibia exactly this way, having been the second best side for nearly all of the prior action (about 40 minutes). It took just one opened up channel, one vertical pass, one well-timed run and one feed across the pitch, and South Africa came down to the ground, too.
This is the Ivorian way; they are the last team standing whose percentage of long passes reaches 20%.
We’d better get used to it before they clinch the title this way.
Why they won’t
They are just… not good otherwise. They have lucked into this; significantly outscoring their xG and conceding less often than they should. And while they attempt a lot of dribbles (30 per game; 3rd most at this tournament), they also only complete around 57% of them (4th worst at this tournament). Their game is full of make-or-break stuff that relies heavily on luck.
Purely personnel-wise, it’s not great either. Their fullbacks are woefully inexperienced and always prone to be tortured (like they were by Djenepo et co. in the Round of 16), while their experienced, AFCON Golden Glove-winning goalkeeper routinely acts like he is woefully inexperienced, too. And their middle of the park still inspires little confidence, like it has literally non-stop since Yaya’s retirement.
On paper, it might make sense, but in reality it doesn’t. It’s a mix of everything, and a mixed bag, too. Dié provides some positional security, but that’s simply because he barely runs anymore; Kessié blows hot and cold; and Gbamin… I’m yet to figure out what’s the point of him, to be honest.
In other words, the midfield lacks a stand-out playmaker as well as a stand-out ball-winner (they commit the most fouls out of all quarter-finalists, 21 per 90 mins), and has looked anything but press-resistant so far in Egypt. Algeria should have this for lunch, in all theory.
Why they will
If Benin are the closest thing we’ve got to Cameroon 2017, Madagascar are the closest thing to Zambia 2012. They are this year’s fairytale, feel-good story playing an entertaining brand of football; though seeing their own and CAF president sharing a literal golden throne has been a bit of a downer.
Madagascar are also a free-scoring bunch which could count for a lot down the stretch at this low-scoring tournament. Their seven markers are the most any newcomer has collected since 1998 (Namibia, also 7), and any debutant who’s ever made it past the group stage with seven or more goals scored eventually made it all the way to the final (South Africa 1996; Libya 1982; Zambia 1974; Mali 1972). History strongly favours brave newcomers.
So enthusiasm should not be underestimated, especially against Tunisia whose poor transition to defence promises a lot of space for Andrea and Faneva to run into. Besides, they’ll now have their best playmaker who can stretch the field properly (Ilaimaharitra) back in the fold after suspension. And their fullbacks provide tremendous width as well as a threatening delivery.
Madagascar can totally pull off a semi-final. And after that, anything can happen…
Why they won’t
I’m just worried for their physical condition and a potential encounter with Senegal in the semi-final. Madagascar looked seriously knackered from around 75th minute of the Round of 16, and got absolutely bullied in the extra time. The Congolese definitely should’ve closed the game then, before it went to penalties. And with Senegal also featuring strong dribblers, just a notch above DRC quality-wise, I would honestly fear for an ugly debacle.
It’s fully understandable, to be fair. This is a fairly old side, and especially the defence is just full of players either A) starting in lower French divisions/Réunion top league, or B) sitting on the bench in the highest one; now dealing with Egyptian heat. It’s only natural that when the bodies wear down and the concentration levels drop late in the game, Madagascar suddenly look how we all had thought they’d look — not too good and very vulnerable.
The key for Madagascar will be to do the damage in the first half and then hold on. Can they, will they?
5. SOUTH AFRICA
Why they will
We have a long-running beef with South Africa here at SFG, but credit where it’s due — they came into their own against Egypt.
Bafana took their one big chance late in the game, having won a couple of neutral hearts in the process with some great commitment, passing moves and verticality that made sense. Hlanti at left-back put in one of the most impressive defensive shifts of the tournament and Mokotjo was an excellent box-to-box presence. Many players stepped up to the plate when it mattered, while Baxter significantly boosted his team’s chances by finally undressing Thembinkosi Lorch who’s capable of stretching defences like no one else (who had been tested out beforehand).
At the same time, and that must be rather satisfying for South Africans — it wasn’t necessarily a fluky performance. South African actual production has largely been on par with both the xG and xGC all tournament long, so they are not riding much of luck on either side of the pitch.
They are still elite shot suppressors (mostly just prone to balls over the top), can comfortably lean on Ronwen Williams who has looked solid in the goal, and have carved out a bit of a niche in blocking central passages for the opponent through some intense pressing without sacrificing their shape. Having tandems or even trios of club teammates spread all across the pitch apparently helps in acting like one unit. Who knew?
Why they won’t
They look significantly better between the two penalty boxes than inside them. Especially the attacking one. Bafana are fun and full of one-twos, dummies, you name it — but when it comes to shooting, they either rush it (54% of their shots were taken outside the box, which is… a lot.), scuff it, or overpower it. Even Percy Tau has been almost bafflingly poor in his shot selection and accuracy; the main issue across the board.
Considering their striker, Lebo Mothiba, has so far contributed more off the ball that on it, it’s really kind of hard to see where the goals are going to come from. And they (probably) can’t win 1-0 all the way down the stretch.
It simply feels like the Egypt game was a one-off where everything went according to plan. And yet still, Trézéguet should’ve comfortably bagged two goals.
So there you go. Have Bafana tricked us into rating them more than how they deserve to be rated at this point and all considered? Maybe. I still like their football and their balance, though. I just can’t see them pulling off any more upsets. Or more than one, at a stretch.
Why they will
To clarify straight off the bat — I don’t necessarily think Tunisia, as they’ve performed in Egypt, are a better team than South Africa. But I’m giving them the priority here for they find themselves in what seems like the more navigable side of the draw. Is that good enough a reason? I’ll let you decide that for yourself. You can shout at me in the mentions.
Meanwhile, much like Bafana, Tunisia may be peaking at the right time, too. I have no idea how it took him so long, but Giresse finally ditched the idea of having two central midfielders and a random collection of attacking midfielder/wingers/forwards in front of them, with Kechrida also positioned very high up to accentuate the criminal lack of balance.
It’s almost as if Giresse was purposefully winding us up, then he suddenly came up with some actual shape and doubled down on his good day in the office by inserting the somehow benched Khazri to torment Ghana late in the game.
Can Giresse pull this trick off again? I don’t think so. But Khenissi scored and the whole team survived the signature Tunisian collapse late in the game, so in my books, anything now sort of appears plausible. Sliti to pull the trigger once instead of dribbling his way into a wall? Sure, why not. Mouez Hassen for once getting his positioning right? By all means, I’m already on board.
Finally, we shan’t forget one thing: Giresse has already taken one awfully low-scoring team to bronze medals (Mali 2012); this is his jam.
Why they won’t
They are Tunisia. Come on. They always find a way. If there’s a team that can shoot themselves in the foot at any given moment, it’s arguably them. Just look at this year — first lead lost through an unbelievable spill, then a worse goalkeeper replaced the starter and found himself at the root cause of two more goals. That’s ridiculous and a bit hilarious; until it stops being hilarious and just starts being plain infuriating, frustrating.
This is a talented team, again, which seems to be held back by perpetual instability and lack of focus/consistency. Khazri and Msakni have been criticized throughout the tournament, yet they are still pretty much the only Tunisians capable of generating some constant danger. So how are we exactly supposed to be feeling good about this team? Heck, I am really not feeling my ranking now!
Why they will
*quickly counts England-based squad members*
YES! Five. Two more on loan. Plus Odion Ighalo with Watford in his heart. Now we are talking! That’s my job done here…
Why they won’t
Gernot Rohr is yet to leave the Gabon post in his mind and still coaches this team as if Nigeria were any underdogs, too. They are not, Gernot.
The fans most likely don’t want you to be fielding two (almost primarily) defensive-minded wingers, three centre backs (one of them being a right back here) and ideally doubling down on unimaginative central midfield by inserting Mikel as the (imaginary) no.10.
The fans most likely don’t want to see you being more concerned about how to counter and neutralize the opponent rather than how to hurt them by playing to your side’s strengths, Gernot.
Besides, Rohr’s preferred starting XI is not even as cautious and sturdy as he’d probably like it to be. After all, Nigeria have already registered an embarrassing loss and conceded four goals in total, while their starting goalkeeper seemingly makes most of his saves by complete accident.
In all their three previous Afcon triumphs, Nigeria went unbeaten with four goals conceded maximum. They are pressed against the wall (past) here.
Much comes down, again, to Rohr’s questionable squad management, as he’s somehow still convinced he’ll be getting some much-needed midfield cover from two almost-holding midfielders who, famously, always amount to one decent, proper holding midfielder. Unfortunately for Nigeria, they don’t in this case; especially when Ndidi and Etebo both try too hard on the ball, and too much of everything in general.
Ndidi looked better late in the game vs Cameroon, and Nigeria will need him to function in that relatively limited role for the rest of the tournament. Otherwise they are most likely finished.
Okay, now why they actually will
You can’t ever underestimate Nigeria’s knack for having a low-key good/great tournament. They showed strong mentality of born winners in reacting to Cameroon’s comeback by mounting a comeback of their own, and it’s now worth remembering that they’ve finished five of their last six Afcons with a win. Just once it occured in the final, but nonetheless — and I do rank them third after all.
One also can’t rule out the possibility of Nigerian stars now peaking at the right moment. Ighalo bagged a brace, having spent the second half of the group stages firmly pocketed by defenders of various pedigree, and Iwobi’s last touch in the penalty area for once wasn’t off and delivered the game-winner. These confidence boosters could be huge for the rest of the tournament. Will Ahmed Musa, of all people, get one of his own now, too?
Why they will
They tick most boxes of a perfect Afcon winner. They started a bit slow. They rely on a well-drilled, star-studded defence (though Kouyaté has been trying hard to ruin that for them). Their main man is heating up, since Sadio Mané is now poised to attack the Golden Boot despite refusing to get help from two penalties, and he can rely on a strong supporting cast of possible all-star team members like Badou N’Diaye or Ismaïla Sarr.
Senegal are direct and run at you fast. Once you stutter, you’ll get punished — as epitomized by the only goal Uganda conceded in the Round of 16. Gana Gueye is coming of age here a bit with his well-balanced, box-to-box efforts and Henri Saivet was a nice addition to the attacking line halfway through the tournament, being adept at pressing and offering very quick first two steps.
They are also very physically strong, both in the sense of stamina (remember they scored 4 of their 5 goals in the group stages and had their best moments vs Algeria only after the hour-mark, simply gradually taking over games) and pure strength, which may be a horrible stereotype in isolation, but coupled with tactical intelligence and clever body adjustments/footwork of guys like Sabaly or Koulibaly, it’s also been a clear advantage against all opponents so far.
Why they won’t
They have faced little adversity during the Aliou Cissé tenure, and when they did, they didn’t necessarily react well. Senegal grew increasingly frustrated in the 2017 quarter-final while missing big chances, and they grew increasingly frustrated by Algeria’s cynical fouling here in Egypt, too. Overall, Senegal have gone down 0-1 only five times under Cissé in all competitions, and they haven’t won any of those games (2x 0-1 at this AFCON and last year’s World Cup; and 3x 2-2, oddly enough, once even after going down 0-2 vs Madagascar in 2018 World Cup Qualifiers).
Algeria, and to some extent other opponents, have showed us that when Mané et co. are kicked around, their output may well be limited. Hardly ever to a flat zero, but you sure seem to be doing yourself a favour by getting cynical and acting borderline unsportsmanlike against Senegal, while you’re certainly not risking getting sufficiently punished by AFCON referees for it.
Yes, Senegal don’t lose points with weaker sides, and there’s a reason why they’ve won 9 out of 11 games since the World Cup. But are we sure they’ll be able to dig in once they are forced to do so in a challenging, nervy environment? There’s not enough evidence to support that notion, I’m afraid. Senegal should be a nailed-on semifinalist, but if it’s Tunisian famous shithousery what beckons for them there, ufff… Senegal won’t enjoy that at all.
Why they will
They are the most dominant of all quarter-finalists. And they managed to beat the second most dominant of all quarter-finalists. Is that enough?
Fine… there’s simply a lot to like about Algeria, from the way how they set up (and how they function like a team, with Mahrez being the undisputed leader of the side in all kinds of respects) to the way how they press and attack (and how they seem like a team when doing so). Algeria just make too much sense, generate too much excitement, and… oh… did I mention they are yet to concede a goal?
No wonder, with their CB partnership being a perfect mix of strength and heading ability (Benlamri) and silk and ball-playing ability (Mandi), they can even afford to basically have an extra attacker on the pitch in right back Atal, which is proving to be quite some difference-maker. He’s just always an outlet for central midfield where Feghouli has found himself in a deeper role and Bennacer is the star, a full package of an agile central midfielder.
Up front, Mahrez is creating and scoring, while Belaili has been a welcome goal-scoring winger especially next to Bounedjah, who’s surprisingly missing chances, but creates tons with his lay-offs and movement. There’s not a single glaring weakness in the line-up, there just isn’t. Not even on the bench, with Adam Ounas topping the goalscoring charts despite barely playing for 100 minutes. Facing Tanzania always helps, but still.
Why they won’t
They are just too good to be true. I am sorry to break it to you, but it’s hardly ever a good sign to peak this early at an AFCON.
It’s, of course, possible this is not even the true Algerian peak. And it is worth keeping in mind that they’d never won four straight at an AFCON since the last time they won it whole (1990). But I don’t know… Senegal looked very good in 2017 group stages, and we all know how that ended. Ivory Coast looked all set for a deep run in 2013, and then pufff, they were done in the quarter-final. Gabon danced through their group on home soil to the tune of 9 points in 2012 before folding in the quarter-final.
Since Ivory Coast that same year, we basically haven’t had a team who dominated initially and made it all the way to the final; to then lose anyway. Egypt 2010 remain the very last start-finish dominant side, and they were completing a freaking hat trick of AFCON triumphs back then. Can this Algeria, who arrived on the scene seemingly flawless and seemingly out of the blue, pull the same trick off? They just might. But I would be wary.
Besides, when we dig a little deeper, we do find a couple of weaker spots someone may eventually expose. Guédioura is there to be pressed; the weakest midfielder on the ball, and sometimes even too risky with his long balls under pressure. Both fullbacks are there to be exposed defensively, particularly in duels. And I still don’t have full confidence in Raïs M’Bolhi, as he’s so far had very little to deal with (one save per game on average).