Winners and Losers from AFCON 2015 Group Stage
Following the drawing of lots between Guinea and Mali on Thursday afternoon at the Malabo Hilton, the identities of the eight Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finalists are known.
While the AFCON group stage was punctuated by quality and drama, there has been a sense of disappointment here in Equatorial Guinea at the inability of many sides to find top form.
Several big teams have disappointed, with one or two paying the price with a first-round exit. Simultaneously, however, a handful of sides have overachieved, with a number of unlikely faces among Africa’s final eight.
This feature celebrates the winners and shames the losers from the 2015 Cup of Nations group stage.
Winners: Ivory Coast
Herve Renard’s Elephants were, at best, unconvincing during qualification and only sneaked into the tournament following a 0-0 draw with already qualified Cameroon in their final match.
Towards the end of the qualification campaign, the new coach managed to improve the Elephants’ notoriously porous back line, but their confidence was dented by their disappointing early showings at the AFCON.
The red card received by Gervinho in the opener against Guinea, after lashing out at Naby Keita, threatened to be a terminal dent to the Elephants’ aspirations.
However, in their final match, the crunch clash with Cameroon, the Elephants flourished and ran out 1-0 winners, with Max Gradel and Serge Aurier particularly impressive. They topped Group D and now face Algeria in the quarter-finals.
While Cameroon looked like a different class from the Ivory Coast during qualifiers, the roles were reversed during the tournament proper.
The Indomitable Lions, like several other teams at this tournament, are crying out for a controlling, creative central midfielder—someone not too dissimilar to Alex Song—and they struggled to get a handle on their matches without one.
Defeat to the Elephants in Malabo sends them out of the competition without a victory and almost certainly draws the curtain down on Volker Finke’s reign as coach, even if captain Stephane Mbia insists that there is much more to come from this talented young side.
Winners: Equatorial Guinea
Ever since their opener against the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea have set about confounding the critics.
The team are not the complete package by any stretch of the imagination, but they have contributed rare attacking flair and a zest for chancy offensive play in this tournament.
Their opening goal against Congo was one of the tournament highlights to date, both for Kike’s terrific skill in the buildup and for the joyous reaction of the crowd, while the fans’ reaction to their unlikely victory over Gabon was truly unforgettable.
Equatorial Guinea, despite changing their manager a fortnight before the tournament, despite a squad that contained numerous young and uncapped players, have qualified for the quarter-finals in their second consecutive Cup of Nations.
Losers: Burkina Faso
Many—including myself—tipped Burkina Faso to be tournament dark horses.
With a stable defence, a talented, mutually complementary midfield and a varied selection of attacking options, the Stallions looked capable of returning to the final again following their excellent showing in 2013.
Paul Put’s side, however, barely got into second gear. They were undone by Gabon in the opener, were muted against the hosts in the second match and again looked lethargic and listless in the final match against Congo.
Unlike the other teams in their group, Burkina Faso boasted stability, talent across the board and considerable Cup of Nations experience—not that you’d know it, though, having watched them.
Finally, we close with Guinea.
It’s true that the Syli Nationale are fortunate to have progressed to the last eight. Both Mali and Cape Verde drew all three of their matches and were eliminated in the first round, while Guinea escaped into the knockout stages after pipping the Eagles following a drawing of lots at the Hilton Malabo.
No one will begrudge them their fortune.
Michel Dussuyer’s side were unlikely qualifiers for the tournament, having been forced to play all of their home qualifiers on neutral soil in Morocco due to the Ebola epidemic.
"We qualified outside of Guinea. We played all our home games in Morocco," Minister of Youth Moustapha Naite told me after the draw. "No one expected us to be here. I'm certain this could be a really good sign. We have a team that can do it because they've proven that in the first three games. We can go all the way."
All quotes in this feature were gathered by Ed Dove in Malabo.