AFCON 2021: Best XI of the Group Stage

Following the conclusion of the Group Stage, we select a team of the most impressive performers.


Gambia’s remarkable win over Tunisia brought the Group Stage of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) to an end on Thursday night.

Despite a slow start, the tournament has gotten increasingly exciting, with upsets, narrative and goals aplenty. There have also been a number of elite performers, whose showings have illuminated the competition and served to highlight the quality that AFCON is capable of producing.

This selection will serve as an acknowledgement of the best performers of the Group Stage. Attention will be paid to both quality and quantity of performances, with the former given a special weighting. There will also be an attempt at tactical coherence, so do not expect strikers crowbarred into midfield simply to improve the star appeal of the selection.

This was the hardest position to pick, for two reasons.

The first is that there have been a number of truly eye-catching performances in the Group Stage so far, making it difficult to settle on one. The second is that, well, the jury is still out on whether Mohamed Kamara is that good of a goalkeeper in the first place.

However, fair is fair. His sweeping performance and starting position against Algeria was laden with risk, but it paid off in that it kept the reigning champions. Saving a Franck Kessie penalty is far from the easiest thing in the world to do.

Dynamic, aggressive, great on the ball both in tight and open spaces, intelligent, supreme final ball. What is there not to like about the Moroccan full-back.

Vahid Halilhodzic has installed a system that allows both Achraf Hakimi and Adam Masina get forward to stretch the pitch. Considering the conservatism of the midfield, the burden of creativity lies with the full-backs, and it is one which Hakimi carries comfortably.

He got forward to great effect against Comoros, and displayed his much improved defensive nous in dealing with Kamaldeen Sulemana in the opening match against Ghana, neutralising the Rennes livewire handily.

At 6ft 1in, ‘Pico’ is on the small side for a centre-back.

However, do not let that fool you. Cape Verde have been one of the more impressive defensive sides in the competition, and a large part of that is down to the influence of the Shamrock Rovers defender.

Stationed in the heart of the Blue Sharks’ back three, Pico has been a classy operator: unflappable in possession, near impeccable in his positioning and apt in the timing of his interventions. His thickset frame means he can get on and stay on opposing forwards as well, and while he is not lightning quick, his anticipation means he has rarely gotten drawn into a foot race.

The Moroccan has been having a superb season with Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League. He brought that form to AFCON, and makes it into this list despite only starting two of the Atlas Lions’ three matches.

Want proof of his ability? Watch how much less impervious Morocco were to opposition attacks when he was rested against Gabon.

Saiss is an uncompromising marker who uses his physical strength to great effect, and he shone in his manacling of Jordan Ayew in their opening Group C encounter. Also carries a perpetual threat in attacking set-piece situations, and his mobility and aggression complement Morocco’s pressing game extremely well.

If a player like Nouhou Tolo did not exist, Cameroon would have to invent him.

The central African nation has grown a reputation over the years for uncompromising defensive exponents, and Tolo is cut from the same cloth. The Seattle Sounders left-back wears his heart on his sleeve and has boundless energy.

He was outstanding in Cameroon’s opening day win over Burkina Faso, handling a dual position expertly and helping Cameroon cope with pressure from the Burkinabes late on in the game.

Strong in the tackle and tireless in his running, Tolo more than earns his place in this selection.

Pepe did not start Cote d’Ivoire’s first group match, but his 19-minute cameo suggested he was ready to catch fire.

Against Sierra Leone, he burst into flame, and by the time Algeria rolled around, Arsenal’s forgotten man was white-hot. The Elephants are a team that thrive in end-to-end, chaotic battles, and Pepe in particular has relished the space and freedom afforded him.

His goals, two so far, were typical Pepe – if there is one thing he knows well, it is that curled finish into the corner. However, his dribbling and ball-carrying have stood out as well, and going into the knockout stage, he could very well be Cote d’Ivoire’s chief attacking weapon.

Cote d’Ivoire’s matches at the AFCON so far have been basketball-style slugfests, and that places a tremendous strain on their midfield trio.

It is a responsibility Ibrahim Sangare has risen to admirably. A dynamic box-to-box player who often plays the deepest role at club level with PSV Eindhoven, the 24-year-old has been the driving force for the Ivorians in this tournament, even in the presence of more experienced colleagues.

His performance against Algeria may have included a goal, but it is his showing in the opener against Equatorial Guinea that stood out the most for its completeness and intent.

Mali may have won Group F, but they are simply not doing enough to turn their dominance into goals.

However, take out those final two actions, and the Eagles have been one of the more impressive sides in Cameroon. Their counterpressing is highly coordinated, and they can pin opponents back for minutes on end. The reason for that is the platform they have behind the ball, led by Amadou Haidara.

His intelligent positioning and reading of the game – remarkable traits considering he is still only 23 – help keep the pressure on the opposition, while mopping up any threats of a counterattack. It is little wonder then that, from open play, Mali have given away very little in terms of chances. Haidara’s performance against Tunisia, in particular, encapsulated perfectly what he does for Mohamed Magassouba’s side.

Probably the best player so far at the AFCON, Moses Simon is flourishing in a more expansive Nigeria team, and seems to be walking on air at the moment.

The Nantes man has scored once and assisted another, but what has stood out the most is his outrageous dribbling ability – no one has completed more in the competition. Better still, there is a purpose to it – only Wilfred Zaha and Mohamed Buya Turay have had more carries resulting in a shot.

Capable of going either on the inside or the outside, he gives the Nigeria attack an air of unpredictability, and is crucial to the Super Eagles wing-based build-up.

The tournament top scorer has been sharp as a rapier upfront for Cameroon. Al Nassr’s Vincent Aboubakar already has five goals in three matches, two of them penalties but hey, they all count.

As a focal point for an Indomitable Lions side that has yet to work all the facets of their attacking approach, Aboubakar’s ability to create his own space and get his shots away quickly from all distances makes him a valuable asset to the team. It also helps that he can combine in tight spaces, and carries a threat in the air to boot.

Simply put: a frighteningly complete centre-forward.

Gambia’s story at this AFCON has been nothing short of remarkable. The Scorpions came through Group F undefeated, and even more impressively scored in every game.

Their attacking system is not especially complicated: it is about utilising the pace of their forwards with direct play into the channels and in behind opposing defences. This requires those forwards to be able to produce moments of inspiration and composure in order for it to work, and Barrow is more than capable in those respects.

The Bologna man also hits a mean free kick (he has struck the woodwork twice), and has been involved in all of Gambia’s three goals: scoring once and assisting two others.


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