When the draw for the 31st Africa Cup of Nations was made, Côte d’Ivoire and Algeria were among the seeds and favourites. But this weekend, when the quarter-finals commence, neither team will be present and nor will hosts Gabon, with all three having each fallen at the first hurdle. Still with hopes alive, meanwhile, are the likes of Burkina Faso, Congo DR, Egypt and Senegal, all of whom impressed en route to topping their respective sections.
Côte d’Ivoire arrived as defending champions but they began slowly in Group C, being held to a goalless draw by Togo. It was to prove a setback from which they would never recover.
Another draw in their second match against Congo DR left them facing a must-win encounter with a Morocco side coached by Herve Renard, the man who has won two of the last three Cup of Nations titles – including the 2015 crown with Les Elephants. And it was Renard’s decision to bring on substitute Rachid Alioui for the injured Aziz Bouhaddouz late in the first half that proved decisive, as the Nimes striker scored the only goal of the game shortly after the break.
For Moroccan captain Mehdi Benatia, advancing to the knock-out stage represents only the beginning of their Cup of Nations adventure. “We are now about to achieve our dream,” he said. “Two steps left for the final match. If we keep the same determination and energy, we will surely win the tournament.”
The Atlas Lions were joined in the second round by group rivals Congo DR, who topped the section with victories over Morocco and Togo and a draw against Côte d’Ivoire.
In Group B, Algeria – despite having a side filled with star players, including Leicester City duo Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez – endured a similarly disappointing start to the holders, requiring a late Mahrez equaliser to draw with minnows Zimbabwe. Defeat in their next game against North African rivals Tunisia left them needing three points against Senegal, and they again fell short.Although the Senegalese fielded a reserve side, having already made sure of their place in the next round, Les Fennecs could only scrape a draw and tumbled out of the tournament. Coach Georges Leekens promptly resigned.
Senegal were joined in progressing from Group B by Tunisia, who beat Zimbabwe 4-2 in their final match to make sure of their place in the last eight