Eight matches, 12 goals and just three winners. The 2013 Africa Cup of Nations has hardly gotten off to a flyer.
In football terms, South Africa is exactly as we left it following the 2010 World Cup—the action often lacking in quality and zest; off the pitch, poor weather and a seeming lack of enthusiasm has left many grounds well under half-filled—the buzz of the vuvuzelas barely registering at times.
And yet, there have been some memorable moments. While Day One of the competition produced a pair of dour, 0-0 draws, Day Two saw Ghana and Congo DR combine for four goals in a thrilling match in Port Elizabeth. Adane Girma sent more than 3,000 visiting Ethiopia fans into raptures with his equalizer against Zambia on Monday, and on Tuesday—the final day of the opening round of fixtures—Youssef Msakni scored a wundergoal on the stroke of 90 minutes to give Tunisia an important, if not entirely deserved, win against regional rivals Algeria.
Following is the Best XI from this Cup of Nations’ first match-day, and while some of the players selected will quite likely go on to have exceptional tournaments, an overall lack of high-level football means there’s plenty of wiggle-room in this All-Star team over the next couple weeks.
GK: Lamá, Angola
The only player from Saturday’s matches to make this team, the 31-year-old goalkeeper was solid in backstopping a usually high-octane Angola side that struggled to create anything offensively against Morocco. If the Sable Antelopes are to make a push for the quarterfinals they’ll have to be less reliant on him in upcoming matches against South Africa and Cape Verde.
RB: Aymen Abdennour, Tunisia
For 90 minutes Tunisia was completely outplayed by North African rivals Algeria. But one of the bright spots for the Carthage Eagles was right-back Aymen Abdennour, who was mostly faultless despite being on the back-foot much of the night in Rustenburg.
CB: Stoppila Sunzu, Zambia
Sunzu seems to thrive in big games. The TP Mazembe defender scored the winning penalty of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations final against Ivory Coast, and on Monday he held firm as 10-man Ethiopia pushed for a winner against a Zambia side that came out flat in Nelspruit.
CB: Bakary Koné, Burkina Faso
Koné has lost his starting job at Ligue 1 side Lyon and arrived in South Africa in desperate need of playing time to regain some form. And while he wasn’t spectacular against Nigeria, he was solid enough to help unfancied Burkina Faso limit Nigeria to just a single goal in Monday’s 1-1 draw.
LB: Kwadwo Asamoah, Ghana
The Juventus winger has had a tremendous season so far at club level and carried that form into the Cup of Nations, despite playing out of position at left-back. His goal for Ghana five minutes after the restart gave his side a temporary two-goal lead, although Dieumerci Mbokani bagged the eventual equalizer for Congo DR from the spot in the 68th minute following a goal from Trésor Mputu.
MF: Yaya Touré, Ivory Coast
The Manchester City midfielder opened the scoring after just eight minutes against Togo and had a hand in Gervinho’s winner with only two minutes left in normal time. He could very well end up being one of the stars of this competition.
MF: Seydou Keita, Mali
Mali were well on top of Niger on Sunday in Port Elizabeth, and the man who kept the midfield ticking was the former Barcelona and current Dalian Aerbin playmaker. Deservedly, it was he who finally found the back of the net in the 84th minute with a daisy-cutter from distance that evaded the goalkeeper.
MF: Youssef Msakni, Tunisia
Msakni’s winner against Algeria was the finest goal of the first round of matches. After running onto the ball on the edge of the attacking third, the 22-year-old Lekhwiya (Qatar) attacker let rip a cannon with his right foot that dipped just inside the top right-hand corner of the Algeria goal in the 90th minute of play.
FW: Gervinho, Ivory Coast
The Arsenal forward earned an assist on Yaya Touré’s early opener against Togo and then scored the winner in the 88th minute after Yaya’s free-kick and a goalkeeper error let him in close, but at a difficult angle. He was Ivory Coast’s best defender on Tuesday—a bee in Togo’s bonnet.
FW: Dieumerci Mbokani, Congo DR
Congo DR trailed Ghana by a pair of goals when Mbokani played in Trésor Mputu with an exceptional pass in the 53rd minute. And a quarter-hour later he, himself, equalized from the penalty spot after being hauled down inside the area by Jerry Akaminko.
FW: Saladin Said, Ethiopia
The Wadi Degla (Egypt) forward was the most consistently dangerous attacker in Monday’s first match—and that’s saying something, given Ethiopia’s opponent was none other than reigning African champions Zambia. Even after the Walya Antelopes were reduced to 10 men Said refused to let up, working the channels out wide and playing in crosses the shaky Zambian defense struggled to deal with. Finally, in the 65th minute, his ball from the right was met by teammate Adane Girma and turned into goal for one of the truly impressive moments of this Cup of Nations’ first match-day.