AFCON 2021: Underdogs spring surprise as favourites struggle to impress

The knockout stage of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2021) is staring at us already, with Nigeria and Morocco joining host Cameroon in the last 16 after securing maximum points from their two group games.

The group stage fixtures came with surprises and upset from the underdogs. Who could have imagined that defending champion Algeria with its array of stars would still be struggling with one point after two games in Group E that has Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and

Sierra Leone?

Ghana, four-time AFCON champions, is yet to win a match in Group C that has Morocco, Gabon and Comoros, despite being tipped by pundits as one of the favourites to qualify from Group C before the tournament commenced.

These are just a few of the several shockers seen so far at AFCON 2021 and more upsets could happen in the knockout phase.

Amidst the upset and surprises and the ‘fall of the mighty’, the Super Eagles have shown class, finesse and significant improvement under Austine Eguavoen as they secure a last 16 ticket after two games without having to wait for the final group match before knowing their fate. It’s a remarkable improvement if you consider how the team has fared in the past where they have to wait till the end of the group fixtures to know their fate through permutations and sometimes as best losers.

Read also: AFCON 2021: MTN backs Amaju-led Super Eagles to reach final

The Super Eagles went into the tournament without losing any of their qualifiers, and it is not surprising that they presently sit atop the list of pundits’ favourites as AFCON 2021 champions.

Several hurdles face the Super Eagles as they progress into the last 16 to continue their quest for AFCON glory, but history also favours them. Even when past performances were not as superb as they’ve displayed at AFCON 2021; records show that Nigeria always ends their AFCON journey in the top 4, most times coming third.

As the Super Eagles take on Guinea Bissau on Wednesday, January 19, 2022, Eguavoen has admitted that their opponents are no pushovers. “If we let down our guard, we could be punished, and that would not be good for the team’s psychology. We will go for the three points,” he said.

Head-to-head statistics of the two teams confirm Eguavoen’s stance. Nigeria and Guinea Bissau have played a total of six games. Both teams have won two matches each and drew twice.

Nigeria has won four of its last five matches while Guinea Bissau has won two, drawn two and lost one.

Many, however, believe his team can secure the maximum nine points, a feat host Cameroon could not achieve after finishing atop Group A with seven points. Morocco, the other team, tipped as favourites like Nigeria has also been outstanding, securing maximum points from their first two matches.

As the Super Eagles face Guinea Bissau in their journey to the next round, in a match that decides who tops Group D, Egypt will also be slugging it out with Sudan as the two teams jostle for the three points that may secure a last 16 ticket for one of them. Equatorial Guinea also needs the three points to book a place in the last 16 while there’s nothing at stake for Nigeria other than to finish as group leaders.

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