They were therefore right to be wary. For several years, coaches from major football countries such as Algeria, Senegal and Morocco have constantly reminded us that there are no longer “small teams” on the continent. With a fiery and unapologetic game, they have shone since the start of the African Cup of Nations (CAN).

Three “small teams” particularly surprised with their offensive audacity which, so far, is paying off. Thus, Monday January 22, a few hours before the start of the last day of the group phase, Cape Verde, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, although modest on the scoresheet, are at the top of their group (on the six in the tournament). And that’s not all: of the twenty-four competing nations, only one is already qualified and certain to finish at the top of its group whatever the results – for the round of 16: the Cape Verdean selection (again ), nicknamed the Blue Sharks, who beat Ghana (1-2) and Mozambique (3-0) before facing the less flamboyant Egypt on Monday at 9 p.m.

On the favorites side, with two victories – against Gambia (3-0) and Cameroon (3-1) – Senegal, defending champion, is the only team certain to advance to the next round. Morocco, semi-finalist of the World Cup in Qatar, leader of its group with 4 points, will have to at least draw on Wednesday 24th against Zambia, a tenacious selection, to advance to the next round.

For others, the situation is a little more complicated. Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory Coast – the host country – are third in their group, in a tie, sometimes unfavorable, to hope to reach the round of 16. In this competition, only the first two in each group as well as the four best third-placed teams qualify for the final phase of the CAN. The suspense remains.

Ivory Coast must pull itself together

Elephants first. Despite a victory at the opening of “their” African Cup against Guinea-Bissau (2-0) on January 13, they, five days later, seemed lost and physically overwhelmed against Nigeria (0-1). This defeat was a blow to the morale of French coach Jean-Louis Gasset’s men, recognizing that they “took a day to digest the match”.

Among the best third-placed teams, with 3 points and a positive goal difference (2), the Ivorians still have “their destiny in their hands,” recalled Mr. Gasset. “If we win, we will qualify,” underlined the coach who will be able to count on the long-awaited return of striker Sébastien Haller. To achieve this, the Elephants will have to get rid of the revolving Equatorial Guinea who drew against the Super Eagles (1-1) and defeated Guinea-Bissau (4-2) with a hat-trick from Emilio Nsue, 34 years old .

The Nzalang Nacional is not convenient. Difficult to master, in clear progress in recent years, this team will not hesitate to manhandle the host country on the lawn of the Alassane Ouattara stadium in Ebimpé, supposed to be the showcase of Ivorian football. An elimination would certainly “spoil” the party in a country which spent 1.37 billion euros to prepare for the event.

Algeria is also in bad shape. The 2019 African champions no longer seem to be feared by their opponents but scare themselves in the game. Lacking rhythm, speed, the Fennecs did no better than two draws against Angola (1-1 ) and Burkina Faso (2-2), a score snatched in the last seconds.

Cameroon disorganized and not very decisive

With 2 points, Algeria will face Mauritania on Tuesday 23, and nothing is decided for them. Even if the Mourabitounes lost their two matches, Amir Abdou’s men showed more desire and intend to overthrow the Fennecs to try to finish third. “We are not here to distribute points to Algeria,” he assured. “I would have spared myself from suffering like that,” whispered coach Djamel Belmadi, who has a series of disappointments with his selection: elimination in the first round of the CAN in 2022 and the 2022 World Cup play-off lost at the last second against Cameroon .

Speaking of desire, one team is sorely lacking: Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions, diminished by the absence of their injured captain Vincent Aboubakar, are disorganized and not very decisive. One everywhere against Guinea and a heavy defeat against other, more biting Lions from Senegal (3-1). “I still think, and I know, that we are going to go to the second round,” proclaimed Rigobert Song.

The coach is in trouble with his public and Cameroonian journalists. His record, since he was at the head of this nation (in 2022) – which has won the African Cup of Nations five times – is considered very unsatisfactory: eight defeats, as many draws for only five victories. . With one point on the clock, the team will challenge Gambia on Tuesday 23 who, with two failures, can aim for third place by beating them.

A victory is what Ghana and Egypt, third and second in their group respectively, are desperately looking for. The Black Stars will meet the combative Mozambique team who can steal a third place or even second if the Pharaohs – who lost their guide, Mohamed Salah, to injury – lose to Cape Verde. For this last day, everything remains open. Like Tunisia, last in its group, which is playing for its survival, Wednesday 24, against South Africa, more realistic and well on its way to continuing the competition.