Minnows make their mark, Mane and Salah still in the mix - Afcon hits quarter-final stage

Tournament reaches last eight with Equatorial Guinea flying flag for underdogs but likes of Egypt, Morocco and Cameroon still teams to beat

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There is no shortage of souvenirs to take home from the Africa Cup of Nations for those countries who might have to wait longest for their next appearance at the tournament.

The more they replay Hellings 'Gabadinho' Mhango’s 40-metre missile of a goal on Malawian television, the more inspiring it will seem. Even if it was scored in a losing cause, the 2-1 defeat to Morocco, it sprinkled lasting real stardust onto Malawi’s first ever match in the knockout phase of an Afcon.

The Comoros meanwhile have returned to their islands - or in the cases of most of their players, their clubs across Europe - with scarcely credible stories about their debut Afcon after they were deprived of a goalkeeper for the most significant match in their history. The last-16 tie against Cameroon had seen all three keepers in their squad ruled out due to injury and positive Covid-19 tests, yet they managed to limit their hosts to a narrow 2-1 victory.

Comoros had to play with 10 men for 83 minutes following captain Nadjim Abdou’s red card. But they will always have Youssouf M’Changama’s goal, that set up a nervy last 10 minutes for Cameroon, and is a strong challenger to Mhango’s for the best strike of an Afcon featuring some bold long-range shooting.

M’Changama had volunteered to play in goal when it was confirmed Comoros would need to give an outfield player the gloves. Happily, Chaker Alhadur, the left-back, took the responsibility, leaving M’Changama free to unleash his stunning direct free-kick, from more than 30 metres distance, past Andre Onana.

‘Little’ Comoros had already eliminated Ghana at the group phase. Equatorial Guinea effectively ousted holders Algeria and now fly the flag for the unheralded and the underdogs in the quarter-finals where they will meet Senegal on Sunday.

No one would readily forecast a goal-fest in that tie. Equatorial Guinea have two goals from four matches, the latest two goalless hours against Mali, a tie settled via sudden-death penalty shoot-out. Senegal managed one goal - deep into stoppage time of their opening match against Zimbabwe - in three group-stage matches, and scored their two against Cape Verde on Tuesday only once their opponents had had two players sent off.

But the outlook for Senegal, who look the strongest candidates to etch a new name on the trophy, has been cheered by Sadio Mane reporting no long-term effects of the head injury he sustained against Cape Verde. With Mane, scorer of two of his country’s three goals in Cameroon, up front and Edouard Mendy keeping goal, Senegal have the key compass points of a succesful campaign well covered.

The same would have been said of Egypt ahead of this Afcon. Mane’s Liverpool colleague, Mohamed Salah put them into the last eight with the fifth successful spot-kick of their penalty shoot-out against Ivory Coast in Douala; a Salah goal broke their barren start - 160 minutes goalless - to the group phase and there can be no doubting his determination to gild a brilliant season with his club with a first major title with his country.

But Egypt may have to rely on their second-choice goalkeeper, Mohamed Abou ‘Gabaski’ Gabal, to advance further. Mohamed El Shenawy, one of the continent’s best keepers, gave way, injured, to Gabaski late in the 0-0 draw with the Ivorians.

The understudy made a fine save in open play, and kept out Eric Bailly’s weak penalty in the shoot-out but Egypt manager Carlos Queiroz would much prefer to have his trusted first-choice available for Sunday’s all-North Africa meeting with Morocco.

Queiroz was concerned about the seriousness of El Shenawy’s muscle problem after Egypt had progressed on Wednesday night, adding to his vexed mood. He criticised the Egyptian media: “The players deserve more respect from local analysts for their performance,” he said, anticipating the reaction to a night when several goalscoring chances had been squandered.

Morocco, for whom Achraf Hakimi is coming into form, will likely be less forgiving of Egyptian misses than Ivory Coast were.

Morocco-Egypt is the heavyweight quarter-final, Saturday’s joust between Burkina Faso and Tunisia perhaps the most intriguingly balanced. The David versus Goliath encounter takes place in Douala, where a poor playing surface has tripped up some of the finest players at the tournament. The Gambia, Afcon debutants, take on Cameroon, who have the look of favourites as long as skipper Vincent Aboubaker remains such a potent threat.

Expect the mantra that has become this Afcon’s theme - “there are no small teams in Africa” - to be repeated again and again ahead of that quarter-final. Gambia were minnows when they arrived at the tournament. Less than three weeks later, they are more than useful middleweights.

Updated: January 28, 2022, 5:08 AM
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