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Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt progress: 5 things we learned from round 16 of Africa Cup of Nations

The second round of the African Cup of Nations was a good one for Arab teams and below are five things learned by Arab News.

1. Gabaski should share Salah’s headlines as Egypt squeeze through

Egypt have now scored only two goals in 390 minutes of football in the tournament but find themselves in the last eight after a 5-4 penalty shootout win over Ivory Coast after 120 minutes ended 0-0.

This was no snoozefest, however, but a close and tense contest between two teams who both had chances. Ivory Coast grew stronger in the last quarter of the 90 minutes and the game seemed to shift in their favor just before the end of normal time as Egypt’s goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy went down injured.

It was telling that Carlos Queiroz obviously did not want to make the substitution but on came Mohamed Abou Gabal, also known as “Gabaski,” and it was almost inevitable that the Zamalek goalkeeper, who had barely played for the national team despite being 32, would star or flop. He made the only save of the shootout, and it was a fantastic stop from Manchester United’s Eric Bailly. Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah came to take the last spot kick with the coolness and skill that fans have come to expect, but at least some of the headlines should be about Egypt’s number two.

2. Hakimi shining brightest of Eurostars so far

The Atlas Lions have moved quietly into the last eight and that is the way they will like it. The reward for strolling through the group stage was a second-round tie against Malawi, a team ranked 101 places lower by FIFA, all the way down at 129, and they won 2-1.

The Flames gave Morocco a scare, however, and took the lead after just seven minutes with a spectacular long-range strike. It was a bolt of lightning from nowhere and it woke the North Africans well and truly up, though it took them a while to get going.

Well before the break, however, Morocco had found their stride and were starting to create chances, and it was no surprise when they levelled on the stroke of half-time. They picked up at the start of the second half where they had finished and kept their focus on concentration, and were rewarded with a great free-kick winner from Achraf Hakimi.

The Paris Saint-Germain star had an excellent game and caused all kinds of problems down the right side. Of all the big Euro-based stars in the tournament, Hakimi has probably been the best so far, and if he continues to shine then Morocco can go all the way.

3. Tunisia come alive against Nigeria

Tunisia defeated Nigeria 1-0 but there was much more to it than that. Nigeria had been the best performer in the group stage and, to put it politely, Tunisia were not and only made it by being one of the best third-placed teams. With the Super Eagles winning all three of their games and the Carthage Eagles winning just one, Nigeria were strong favorites, especially as the North Africans had been hit hard by a COVID-19 outbreak and were missing a number of players as well as their coach.

Yet Tunisia won. They had not impressed at all previously but found a solid performance from somewhere to book a winnable quarter-final against Burkina Faso. The 2004 champions have already shown they can dig deep when needed, and if they can find a little more fluency going forward then they could go all the way. Much depends on what condition the players who caught COVID-19 are in. If they have fully recovered then Tunisia will have a fresh squad going into the pointy end of the tournament.

4. Despite ending, Comoros can be proud

Football rightly retreats into insignificance when there is a human tragedy such as the eight people who died in a stadium stampede after Cameroon had defeated Comoros 2-1.

During the tournament, however, the islanders showed that they can be a force to be reckoned with. In their first appearance at this stage, they have met some real powerhouses of African football — Ghana, Morocco, Gabon and Cameroon — and they have not looked out of place at all.

Going into the second round clash with the host, Comoros were expected to be thrashed, especially after a COVID-19 outbreak meant that the debutants were without a recognized goalkeeper and fullback Chaker Alhadhur had to put on the gloves. Then, after just seven minutes, the influential Nadjim Abdou was sent off. Despite all the problems, Comoros took the 1990 World Cup quarter-finalists all the way and ended up losing by a single goal.

5. Algeria will still be kicking themselves

Nobody will need reminding that the defending champions exited the tournament by finishing bottom of their group with just one point and one goal. There have been the expected comments from the stars of the team such as Riyad Mahrez that they will come back stronger from the experience and focus on qualifying for the World Cup in March and then doing well in Qatar, assuming they get past Cameroon.

If any fans in the country can bring themselves to watch the Algeria-less AFCON then they will surely be thinking that this is a tournament there for the taking. There has not yet been a team to really stand out so far with everyone looking like they can beat everyone else. In short, had Algeria shown a fairly small percentage of their potential then they would still be very much in the running and the team to beat. The standards of yet have not been anything to write home about though as Algeria are also home, there is little they can do about it.