With three North African Arab teams in the last eight of AFCON 2017, Maher Mezahi analyses Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco’s chances of progression and also looks back at their group stage fortunes.
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Following a sound dismissal of North African rivals, and tournament favourites, Algeria, Aymen Abdennour ignored the Tunisian press in the mixed zone before turning on his feel and dressing a journalist from Mosaique FM.
“You built the Algerian team up too much. If we compare one by one there’s no one that has had a better club career than me. At 20 years old I was playing at Parc des Princes. Be fair to our players, we are Tunisian, and we speak Tunisian, and we live in Tunisia. Be fair to my teammates.”
Abdennour’s declaration was exaggerated in the international press, and some ran with the headline that he claimed he was better than Riyad Mahrez. However, it conveyed that this Tunisian team had a chip on its shoulder and that the players were exceedingly motivated to prove their worth.
The Carthage Eagles can thank Henryk Kasperczak, who has accrued 30 matches at the Africa Cup of Nations, for an attractive transformation in style. As age took its toll on Hocine Ragued, and no evident successor appeared, Kasperczak changed Tunisia’s style of play.
Throughout World Cup Qualification, the Polish coach utilized a conservative 5-4-1, yet during pre-Cup of Nations friendlies, he enacted a switch to a 4-2-3-1 with two ball-playing holding midfielders.
The tactical switch stripped Tunisia of its defensive solidity, but bolstered numbers in attack, and that is why they have managed six goals in three matches.
With three naturally gifted attacking midfielders in Naim Sliti, Wahbi Khazri and Youssef Msakni playing behind a mobile striker, the 2004 champions are a serious contender to add a second star to their crest.
Ladies. Gents.— Gary Al-Smith (@garyalsmith) January 23, 2017
Yousef Msakni just did this for Tunisia.
I will never forgive him for going to the Gulf. Too good. ⚽💥 pic.twitter.com/6ehuPTFe4w
A Riyad Mahrez-led Algerian side were, for many, the Cup of Nations’ outright favourites. But constant instability on the touchline hampered preparations and would ultimately spell the undoing of this so-called golden generation.
Question marks about a refurbished backline dominated the headlines prior to the tournament. Those questions were accentuated after Algeria’s first match against Zimbabwe, as Khama Billiat repeatedly torched Mokhtar Belkhiter.
Algeria’s defence barely improved in their other two matches. Leekens’ side conceded two goals against both Tunisia and Senegal, and finished with the second worst defensive record in the Cup of Nations after Zimbabwe.
Coach Georges Leekens was dismissed just a day after his tournament ended. He took to the Federation website to state that he had resigned ‘out of friendship with the President’, but it was common knowledge that the Belgian had signed a rolling contract which was terminable after every month.
A thorough post-mortem will now be conducted, and the Federation of Algerian Football will hire its fifth manager in less than twelve months in an attempt to finally get it right before resuming their World Cup Qualifying campaign this summer.
Algeria out of AFCON, meaning Slimani and Mahrez can return to help Leicester's relegation battle and simultaneous Champions League glory.— Paddy Power (@paddypower) January 24, 2017
A most engrossing mind seems to have penned Hervé Renard’s script at the Africa Cup of Nations. After winning the tournament with minnows Zambia in 2012, then guiding Cote D’Ivoire’s golden generation to a most sought-after title, Renard seems to have resuscitated Moroccan football in the international arena.
The long road back was not easy, Renard hit back at critics in the country after his side’s victory against Cote D’Ivoire.
“I was waiting for this victory, so I could make this point,” he said.
“There are some former players that called this group ‘peanut vendors’ and what did they do in their careers?” He said dejectedly.
Though it remains true that Renard’s Atlas Lions have impressed in Gabon, critics claiming that this is not the most talented Moroccan side have a valid point.
Injuries claimed three key players before the tournament as Sofiane Boufal, Oussama Tannane and Nordin Amrabat stayed in Europe. The white-shirted witch doctor also left out Ajax Amsterdam maestro Hakim Ziyech for attitude problems.
Nevertheless the 48 year-old Savoyard has made the most of his limited resources, fitting the team into a tight 5-4-1, with pacey wingbacks, technical midfielders and bruising strikers.
With his group of 23, Renard has built a team that is difficult to beat and such units tend to advance deep into the Cup of Nations. Morocco will not be an exception to that rule.
In Egypt’s first match against Mali, Hector Cuper’s side looked drab, and Mohamed Salah was neutralized by a pockmarked pitch and an unforgiving Hamari Traore. Pundits immediately questioned Salah’s presence of mind and if he could answer the likes of Mahrez, Aubameyang and Mané who shot off to quick starts.
Salah and his Pharaohs duly responded in their second and third matches with important victories over Uganda and Ghana. The 24-year-old was integral to Abdellah El Said’s late winner against the Cranes, and put the Black Starts to the sword with a vicious free-kick that froze Razak Brimah.
After three matches, Egypt’s confidence is beginning to build. With veterans like Ahmed Fathi and Essam El-Hadary, who have already adorned their trophy cabinets with multiple continental titles, the most successful side in African football certainly have the know-how to navigate through these final three matches.
If Salah and co. can get past Hervé Renard and Morocco in the quarter-finals, they will be a firm favourite to win their record eigth Africa Cup of Nations.