AFCON 2021: What to expect as the Round of 16 kicks off

Attention at the AFCON will shift to the knockouts stages of the competition after almost two weeks of Group Stage action.

AFCON

While defending champions Algeria might have fallen along the way following an abysmal run in Group E of the 2021 African Cup of Nations (AFCON), the 16 remaining teams at the competition will fancy their chances of being Africa's most respected team.

But what fate lies in store for these sides who hope to get through the first test in the knockout stages?

After losing to Cameroon in their group stage opener, the Burkinabes went on to put up an impressive display against Cape Verde and Ethiopia in Group A.

A second-place finish that saw three goals scored in the process shows that Burkina Faso are not a side to sit back. Against Gabon, they will hope that their attacking instincts pay off against the Gabonese's struggling defence.

Although their defence shipped as many as three goals in two of their Group C games, Gabon's attack scored a total of four. On attack, their alertness could be a handy asset against a Burkina Faso who are themselves attack-minded. But should the Panthers fail to pay attention to their leaky defence, they could be too heartbroken to tell the tale at full-time.

The Super Eagles were easily the best team of the Group Stage, rounding off Group C in style by grabbing all nine points to top the group. In the round of 16, they come up against a Tunisian side that have failed to impress, save for their 4-0 win over minnows Mauritania. With a constantly threatening attack and a defensive line that is confident both on and off the ball, Nigeria should score against Tunisia.

Should the Nigerians find it easy against Mondher Kebaier's side, it would be because Tunisia tends to lose focus. The two losses in Group F came in games against Mali and Gambia in which they were dominant. Sadly, their lack of concentration led to their fall.

While it might be an issue in their game against a Nigerian side that loves to capitalise on lapses of concentration, Tunisia should dominate parts of this game.

A win against Malawi, a draw against Senegal, and a surprise defeat against Zimbabwe saw Guinea finish as runners-up in Group B.

Against Gambia, they get a mixed taste of what they saw in Senegal defensively, and against Zimbabwe in attack.

While they showed their ability to dominate the smaller teams, their inability to hold them off when being pressured could be a problem against a Gambian side that are even more unrelenting than Zimbabwe and Malawi combined.

Gambia has shown that they are specialists in stinging stronger opposition. A shock win over Tunisia in their last group game came after they beat Mauritania and drew with Mali, seeing them finish second in Group F.

In Guinea, they face stronger opposition and should look to do the needful (in their books) -- scoring first while defending with their lives. The debutants have a running record of not losing a game in which they scored first, and Guinea could offer themselves as willing victims.

Hosts Cameron had an impressive run in Group A, scoring more goals than any other team in the Group Stage (seven). Although they might be a high-scoring side, their failure in keeping in a clean sheet in either of their group stage games might be a problem against Comoros in the round of 16. Cameroon however should focus on their superpower, scoring more than they should concede.

Coming third in Group C could be Comoros' best achievement at this AFCON. A shock 3-2 win over Ghana in their final group game came after defeats to Gabon and Morocco. While they might have shown flashes of brilliance against Ghana and would want to repeat it against Cameroon, it could be exposed as a fluke if they go attacking the hosts in the Round of 16.

Senegal finished first in Group B, but after a win over Zimbabwe and draws with Guinea and Malawi. The tournament favourites may have had an underwhelming display in attack, scoring only once, but their solid defending has seen them remain the only side yet to concede a goal in the competition.

Against Cape Verde, they could preserve their defensive record. But with the knowledge that the knockouts demand more intent in attack, the Teranga Lions should attack more than they usually do.

Cape Verde's only win in the competition has so far come in their opening game in Group A against Ethiopia. Since then, it's been a case of luck never being on their side. Sadly, they are likely to experience likewise in their display with Senegal: play for goals, but get unlucky in finding them while conceding in the process.

Morocco come up against Malawi in the Round of 16 in a game that promises goals.

While Morocco might have done well for themselves by scoring five to top Group C, they showed in their draw with Gabon that their defence might not be as water-tight. Playing Malawi means Morocco will not just focus on scoring but defending aggressively. Should they fail the test of defending, any goals they score against Malawi might be a waste.

Although considered the underdog compared to Morocco, Malawi will not see themselves as such. Their underdog status in their final Group C game was motivation enough to force Senegal to a draw and before that, come from behind to defeat Zimbabwe.

Ivory Coast finished as the winners of Group E with two wins and a draw. Aside from their opening day win over Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants failed to keep a clean sheet against Sierra Leone and Algeria -- conceding late into the game on both occasions. Should Ivory Coast attack aggressively and score handsomely before Egypt pull any tricks against them in the round of 16, they might just be home and dry early.

For Egypt, the main aim will be to prevent the Ivorians from either dominating or scoring. Their ability to keep clean sheets (against Guinea-Bissau and Sudan in Group D) gives them a massive competitive edge over Ivory Coast. But their challenge will be converting the few chances they might get.

In a game of a great attack versus a great defence, penalty shootouts might be needed to break the deadlock should Egypt's defence succeed in neutralizing Ivory Coast's attack.

At least a goal in every one of their Group F game showed how potent Mali can be in the attack. That potency, however, might look to wear off against an Equatorial Guinea side that conceded just once in their entire group stage affair.

Mali are more experienced than that though. Having conceded just a goal themselves they understand that the path to victory is not just in attacking Equatorial Guinea in a bid to score, but in defending their goal too. To their advantage, they make scoring easier for themselves by doing it from the spot.

Equatorial Guinea's defence might be brilliant, but against Mali, they must not only think about preventing goals, but avoiding gifting them penalty kicks. Having gotten away with a win after conceding a penalty to Sierra Leone in their final Group E game, Equatorial Guinea might not be as lucky should they try such with a clinical Mali. For them, counterattacking will be the order of the day, but that ability to give a 100% in defending could just be the deciding factor.

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