Football Features

Afcon action you might have missed as Nigeria seal qualification and strikers suffer

By Chris Smith

Published: 17:25, 26 June 2019 | Updated: 13:30, 2 July 2019

Wednesday’s Africa Cup of Nations games were low-scoring affairs but there was still plenty of action in Egypt.

Nigeria and Egypt sealed their qualification to the knockout rounds of the 2019 Afcon with wins over Guinea and DR Congo, while Uganda and Zimbabwe couldn’t be separated in a 1-1 draw.

In the early kick-off, Nigeria dished out some rough treatment for Guinea’s Naby Keita in an effort to silence their most dangerous opponent and in what was an otherwise drab game, Kenneth Omeruo headed home from a corner as the game ebbed into the final quarter to hand Nigeria the win.

Later, we saw two miss of the tournament contenders in a frantic draw between Uganda and Zimbabwe before Egypt eased past DR Congo with a 2-0 victory.

Here are the eight main talking points from Wednesday’s three matches.

1. Kicking out Keita

Such was the lack of action and quality in this game, Nigeria’s treatment of Liverpool midfielder Keita is arguably the biggest talking point.

Despite his tough first season at Anfield, Keita remains the star man for his country and Guinea’s hopes of going deep at this tournament rest on him staying fit and finding form.

Keita came into the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations right at the end of his recovery from a groin injury and, such was his lack of match fitness, only managed 28 minutes of Guinea’s opening draw with Madagascar.

Keita started in their clash with Nigeria, though, with the Super Eagles affording the 24-year-old some rather robust treatment. Wilfred Ndidi, in particular, put in a couple of crunching tackles on his fellow Premier League midfielder, with hearts in the mouths of Liverpool fans with each one that went by.

Somehow, despite spending what felt like the majority of the match holding his shins and wincing in pain, Keita was able to see the game through until the 70th minute, when he was finally pulled out of the firing line. Jurgen Klopp and his fanbase can breathe a sigh of relief for a few days at least.

2. Nigeria stroll over the line

Despite Nigeria leaving it late against Burundi and Guinea drawing against Madagascar in their opening games, this was a clash between Group B’s top sides.

On paper, it had the makings of a classic with Nigeria looking to cement their place atop the group and Guinea looking to get back on track but in reality, both sides were more interested in not losing and we were served up a real damp squib of a game.

Guinea were limited to speculative shots from outside the area and while Nigeria weren’t much better off, they made their opposition pay for their approach when Kenneth Omeruo fired home a header in the 73rd minute.

That goal signs and seals the Super Eagles’ place in the knockout rounds with one game to spare, even if they’ve flattered to deceive in both games so far. Time to move up a gear.

3. Guinea in trouble

Looking at this group before the tournament, you’d have found it hard to argue against Nigeria and Guinea cruising through. Now, though, having been held to a shock draw against Madagascar and falling to defeat against the Super Eagles, Guinea are in serious trouble.

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They should beat Burundi in their final group game. But games aren’t won on paper, and goals aren’t scored just because they ‘should’ be. The pressure on that match is now huge and could get even bigger depending on Thursday’s clash between Madagascar and Burundi.

Furthermore, with Nigeria now through, there’s every chance Gernot Rohr will rest his star players with the knockout rounds in mind and if those who come in aren’t on top of their game, you wouldn’t put it past Madagascar pulling off another shock. If that happens, nothing Guinea do against Burundi will matter.

A lacklustre approach fuelled by a reliance on an unfit Keita has now put Guinea in serious trouble at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

4. Brilliant Billiat

When Uganda took an early lead it looked as if they would go on to take control of proceedings and possibly win convincingly. But Zimbabwe winger Khama Billiat had other ideas.

Billiat was easily the best player on the pitch, particularly in the first half. Everything went through the Kaizer Cheifs winger, who put a chance on a plate for Knowledge Musona only for his teammate to miss a great chances to equalise.

The breakthrough was made five minutes before half-time when Billiat drifted into a central area, latched onto a cross and cleverly poked the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper to level things up.

It was a deserved moment for the 28-year-old, who at times suffered from him teammates failing to be on his wavelength or overall level.

5. Two ‘miss of the tournament’ contenders

Billiat was at it again after the break. He was heavily involved in Zimbabwe’s best move of the second half that should have led to another goal but somehow didn’t.

After a slick sequence of passes combined with a slice of luck, the ball fell to Knowledge Musona inside the six-yard box. With an open goal at his mercy, Musona remarkably hit the crossbar when it was easier to score.

You would be hard-pressed to find a worse miss… until the 75th minute of this game. Uganda’s Patrick Kaddu gave Musona a run for his money with a equally baffling effort, volleying way over when a goal seemed inevitable.

Perhaps the 30-degree heat was getting to the players, but there are few excuses for misses this bad.

6. Zimbabwe keep hopes alive

Zimbabwe have just one point after their opening two matches but shouldn’t feel too disheartened. They were unfortunate to lose narrowly against Egypt and fought hard for a point on Wednesday.

Indeed, Sunday Chidzambwa’s men were the better team for much of their meeting with Uganda. As such, it is disappointing that Zimbabwe are likely to finish third in Group A, but they have a good chance of going through to the knockout rounds as one of the best-placed third sides.

It will be a shame if a player of Billiat’s standard isn’t given the opportunity to shine in the latter stages of the competition. However, it could be said that Zimbabwe only have themselves to blame for missing so many chances against Uganda.

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7. Salah gets off the mark

It was only a matter of time before Mohamed Salah made his mark at the tournament. His first goal had been hotly anticipated by a watching nation, and the Liverpool star didn’t disappoint.

Two minutes before half-time Salah found himself in a typical position, cutting inside from the right and squaring up an opponent. A couple of feints later and the ball was in the back of the DR Congo net; Salah had looked as if he would curl the ball into the far corner but instead sent it in at the near post.

It was a brilliant strike by a man destined to play a starring role at the 2o19 Afcon, and it helped Egypt on their way to a second group stage win, sending them through to the knockout rounds.

Salah may now be rested in the final group game against Uganda, although it’s unlikely with top spot in Group A still up for grabs.

8. DR Congo’s journey ends early

DR Congo came in third place at the 2015 Afcon before reaching the quarter-finals in 2017, but this year their journey has come to a disappointingly early end in the group stages.

Defeats to Uganda and Egypt have resigned DR Congo to an early exit. Their performances at the current tournament were a far cry from their glory days 50 years ago, when they won the competition in 1968 and 1974.

Since then, third place in 1998 and 2015 is the best they have been able to muster. Most disappointingly, they failed to find the net against Uganda or Egypt, something they will be hoping to make up for in their final game, possibly at the expense of Zimbabwe.