AFCON 2023: Takeaways from a wildly exciting group stage

The non-stop storylines at AFCON 2023 have seen Osimhen and the Super Eagles misfire, Emilio Nsue thrive, Ivory Coast suffer, Ghana and Algeria accept ignominious exits and first-time wins for Mauritania and Namibia (Credit: Imago images)

AFCON 2023: Takeaways from a wildly exciting group stage

Seye Omidiora 05:26 - 25.01.2024

Reviewing the Africa Cup of Nations group phase that shattered misconceptions about the continental showpiece.

We can all breathe now. The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations group stage has undoubtedly been drama-laden, with the spectacle arguably hitting new heights in Cote d’Ivoire.

Anyone who suggested pre-tournament that the host nation would rely on other results from Groups B to F to decide their fate would have been laughed out of the room, and any insinuation that 2019 champions Algeria would exit at the group stage for the second Cup of Nations edition in succession may have been ridiculed.

The Fennecs went into AFCON 2023 undefeated since November 2022 — a friendly defeat by Sweden — and unbeaten in competitive fixtures since Cameroon put paid to their World Cup prospects in March 2022. 

Nevertheless, Djamel Belmadi’s men failed to win another game at the continental showpiece to continue a barren run since defeating Senegal 1-0 in the 2019 final, a run that reads three losses and as many draws at AFCONs 2021 and 2023.

A lot has happened since the January 13 tournament opener between Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau in Ebimpe. It feels fitting to get into it.

More goals at AFCON 2023

This is the undoubted standout at the climax of the group phase, with the goals scored heading into the Round of 16 (89), almost outdoing the total from the 2021 showpiece (100) and 2019 (102).

The average number of goals netted at AFCON 2023 (2.47) is higher than the mean heading into the knockout rounds at the previous five tournaments — 2021 (1.89 goals per game), 2019 (1.89), 2017 (2.17), 2015 (1.88) and 2013 (2.04).

Eighty-nine goals after the group phase at the ongoing competition is a breakthrough for the 24-team tournament, with the opening 36 games at the expanded AFCONs 2019 and 2021 witnessing 68 goals each. While it remains to be seen if this is an outlier, the current numbers underscore this year’s exciting Cup of Nations.

Ivory Coast: A blundering host nation

Jean-Louis Gasset’s Ivory Coast may have dispatched Guinea-Bissau with relative ease in their opening fixture, but what has since followed has been a horror show. 

Surprised by Nigeria’s switch to a back five in the second game, the Elephants resorted to speculative shots from distance when invention failed them and never looked like pegging back the three-time African champions and just collapsed in their final game to suffer a humbling 4-0 beatdown by Equatorial Guinea.

The upshot of the heaviest defeat ever suffered by a host nation at the finals saw Gasset jettisoned before the Elephants knew their qualification fate on Wednesday, with Emerse Fae in charge for the rest of the Cup of Nations.

Given that the knockouts are a different kettle of fish, the decision felt emotional and borne out of frustration over the hammering at the hands of the Nzalang Nacional. It remains to be seen if that call turns out to be the fillip needed by the home side in the first knockout round, but you feel Gasset should have been allowed to see the tournament through.

Super Eagles: Osimhen’s mixed AFCON 2023 typifies broader concerns

Two of Nigeria’s three group-stage goals came from a penalty and an own goal against Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau, respectively, but it does not tell the complete story. Jose Peseiro’s men have had chances to find the back of the net more often but have been profligate, with Victor Osimhen culpable in every game the Super Eagles have played at the Cup of Nations.

Osimhen’s profligate finishing is validated by the data provided by Opta, highlighting the underperformance in front of goal, with the Napoli striker scoring once from expected goals (xG) of 2.72. For context, Egypt’s Mostafa Mohamed has netted three times from his xG tally of 1.61, while the eliminated Baghdad Bounedjah (three goals) netted one more goal than expected, going by the underlying numbers.

Victor Osimhen
Osimhen fluffed his lines in Nigeria's win against Guinea-Bissau at AFCON 2023 (Photo Credit: CAF/X)

Even their manager has voiced concerns about the side’s poor conversion, warning it could be fatal in the knockouts.

No side in the group stage outdid Nigeria’s big chances (13) or expected goals (xG) tally (6.1), but the side seeking their fourth African title have relied on their backline for qualification.

None of the qualified sides outdid the Super Eagles’ two clean sheets or expected goals conceded (1.27), and that defensive organisation bodes well for tournament football despite non-stop doubts about Peseiro’s management of this group.

Nsue’s brilliance has lifted Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea began AFCON 2023 undefeated since a 4-0 thrashing by Tunisia in mid-2022 but did not foresee ending atop Group A. However, Juan Micha’s men have thrived in only their fourth Cup of Nations, keen to continue a record that has seen them make the quarter-finals every time they participate at the continental showpiece.

The Nzalang Nacional, who topped Group A, owe much of their success to Emilio Nsue, whose five goals have outdone everyone else at the finals. 

Emilio Nsue
Emilio Nsue scored twice as Equatorial Guinea beat Ivory Coast (Credit: IMAGO)

In a competition that Mohamed Salah, Osimhen or Sadio Mane were tipped to dominate, the 34-year-old has instead topped the scoring charts, notching a hat-trick in Equatorial Guinea’s 4-2 win over Guinea-Bissau to become the first player at the Cup of Nations to score three times in a game since Morocco's Soufiane Alloudi against Namibia in 2008. 

The experienced man has netted five times from as many shots on target, with his xG tally of 2.53 underscoring the top scorer's excellence in front of goal heading into the knockout stages.

Equatorial had previously neither advanced as group winners at the finals nor netted more than three group-stage goals, but both barriers were shattered this time. Just how far can the Nzalang Nacional push this year?

Cape Verde have secured results in different ways

Like Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde had never topped their group in previous editions since their first participation but did this time at Egypt and Ghana’s expense.

The Blue Sharks broadly dominated their win over the Black Stars despite the marginal 2-1 win and finished amazingly in their 3-0 win over Mozambique, with Bebe and Ryan Mendes scoring long-distance scorchers before soaking up pressure in the dramatic 2-2 draw with Egypt in their final game in Group B.

Bubista’s men responded brilliantly to falling behind against the Pharaohs, and late goals against Ghana and the seven-time champions suggest they cannot be discounted when chasing a result if the stakes are higher.

Dire Ghana suffer consecutive ignominious exits

Not even Mohammed Kudus could inspire the Black Stars, who were eliminated early again after a group phase exit two years ago.

The West Ham United man did try after missing the West African nation’s first game against Cape Verde, twice finishing well in the 2-2 draw with Egypt, but Ghana paid the price for their inability to hold on to advantageous situations: losing to Cape Verde at the death in their opening game, twice being pegged back by Egypt and contriving to throw away a two-goal advantage in second-half stoppage time against Mozambique in Monday’s dispiriting 2-2 draw.

AFCON 2023
Garry Rodriguez scored as Cape Verde defeated Ghana with a stoppage-time winner to take the lead in Group B.

The upshot of the Black Stars’ AFCON 2023 exit means they have secured zero wins from their last six games at the continental showpiece and one in three tournaments — a 2-0 victory over Guinea-Bissau at the 2019 finals.

Chris Hughton has been relieved of his duties following the four-time champions’ latest disappointment, even if it seems inconsequential for a nation whose decline may not be solved by simply changing the guy at the helm.

Without Salah, Egypt advanced by the skin of their teeth

The controversy over Salah’s injury threatened to derail Egypt’s AFCON 2023 campaign, but Rui Vitoria’s men progressed after a wild final round of games in Group B.

The seven-time winners found a late leveller against Mozambique to avoid an embarrassing opening defeat, twice fought back against Ghana and nearly threw qualification away after Mohamed put them 2-1 up late on against Cape Verde (it ended 2-2), only for the Black Stars to contrive to lose a 2-0 lead in their game.

Despite looking good in spells, Egypt were constantly punished for mistakes, and greater consistency is required in the knockouts if the runners-up in two of the last three editions are to have another shot at an eighth crown.

AFCON 2023
Egypt made it through to the round of 16 despite Mohamed Salah's injury (Credit: Imago Images)

Cameroon’s Onana drama has overshadowed the Indomitable Lions’ shocking AFCON

Cameroon were criticised for reinstating Andre Onana into the side for their 3-1 defeat by Senegal due to the Manchester United goalkeeper’s late arrival in Cote d’Ivoire. But it has distracted observers from the limitations of Rigobert Song’s men.

The Indomitable Lions resorted to crossing from wide positions against a shorthanded Guinea (36 crosses), and little changed against Senegal (22) and The Gambia (28). While Song’s men deserve credit for a late comeback to beat Gambia on Tuesday, the 2017 champions face an uphill task in the knockouts against teams displaying greater coherence.

Amir Abdou’s Mauritania

Comoros had never won a game at AFCON until Amir Abdou. Neither had Mauritania until Abdou was at the helm. On both occasions, historic sides were defeated — Comoros defeated Ghana 3-2 at AFCON 2021, while Mauritania held firm against Algeria to secure a hard-fought 1-0 success over the 2019 champions.

AFCON 2023
Amir Abdou has guided another Africa minnow to the knockout stage. (Photo Credit: CAF/X)

Abdou’s men were unfortunate to lose their tournament opener against Burkina Faso, impressing observers with their organisation without the ball and controlled aggression to regain possession. The latter eventually cost them against the Stallions as they conceded a late penalty, but the Lions of Chinguetti recovered to show a more adventurous side in the 3-2 loss to Angola before the nervy 1-0 win to eliminate Algeria.

Despite Mauritania’s relative inexperience at this level — they are participating in their third finals — Abdou’s adeptness at coaching a compact side gives them a fighting chance.

Namibia’s historic moment

Like Mauritania, Namibia secured its first Cup of Nations victory at the finals, deservedly defeating Tunisia in their opening game.

Deon Hotto’s 88th-minute winner against the Eagles of Carthage was the only goal scored by the Brave Warriors in a rather uninspiring Group E, but that opened the door for Collin Benjamin’s side to play a fourth game at the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time.

With a Round of 16 clash against an Angola side without a knockout appearance since hosting the tournament in 2010, Namibia should be confident in securing a last-eight berth at AFCON 2023.

Morocco have intermittently shown their potential as protagonists

The question facing Morocco before AFCON focused on their competence against teams utilising a defensive approach, and the Atlas Lions have demonstrated that in wins over Tanzania and Zambia.

While their first against the Taifa Stars came from a set piece and the subsequent two materialised after a second-half sending-off, Walid Regragui’s men showed positive signs out of possession and sustained pressure in spells to underscore why observers tipped them as pre-tournament favourites.

Sterner tests await the underachieving Atlas Lions in the knockout stages, but Regragui’s men should back themselves to finally claim the continental crown that has eluded them since 1976.

VAR’s undoubted success

While much has been made about video replays since its advent and how detrimental it is to the game, AFCON 2023 has underlined one thing: the issue was never the technology but its utilisation.

The decision-making process has been uncomplicated and more effective, with clarity behind refereeing calls undeniable.

While a debatable penalty was awarded to DR Congo against Morocco and Zaidu Sanusi’s goal for Nigeria against Guinea-Bissau was questionably chalked off, video replays have not felt like an inconvenience at the continental showpiece. Have the European leagues absorbed a thing or two?

What comes next?

Despite the encounter between tournament hosts Ivory Coast and current African champions Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria renewing hostilities at the Cup of Nations is the biggest clash in the Round of 16. The Super Eagles have landed on the favourable side of the draw on paper, even if they may contend with competition favourites Morocco for a place in the decider.

A repeat of the 2021 final between the Lions of Teranga and Egypt may be on the cards in the last four, but it remains to be seen if both sides make it that far.

AFCON 2023 has had everything: from high-scoring encounters to unforeseen giant-killing and first-time victors. There's more where that came from. Catch your breath before it restarts in 48 hours.