Can Ivory Coast Light up Slow-Starting AFCON?

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This year's Africa Cup of Nations got underway on Sunday, but how are the main protagonists shaping during the early stages of the competition?

Africa Cup of Nations opening ceremony.

The Africa Cup of Nations has not exactly got off to a blistering start with low-scoring games and some matches so far being fairly devoid of entertainment. We have already had some surprising results, though, and on Wednesday night the talented Ivory Coast begin their campaign.

It was predicted by some savvy pundits before a ball had been kicked in Cameroon that this might be a tournament which would be slow to build, with a low goal count being a feature.

However, there’s no doubting some of the quality players on show, meaning the event has to kick into life sooner rather than later.

Cagey Start

So far, we have seen some cagey opening group games with a pattern emerging in the scorelines. Aside from the opening match, which hosts Cameroon won 2-1 against Burkina Faso, all the games have either ended 1-0 or 0-0.

The fact that six of the nine games played so far have been settled by a single goal either suggests we’re in for one of the most competitive international tournaments ever, or some of the better teams are holding back slightly early on.

It’s nothing new to see tight opening group games at a major international tournament and the drama will surely come when places in the last 16 are up for grabs later in the month.

Senegal and Others Underwhelm

Of the teams who have already played, favourites Senegal underwhelmed and needed an injury-time penalty from star forward Sadio Mane to edge them past Zimbabwe, Guinea similarly squeaked past Malawi, while Mo Salah’s Egypt were beaten by a quietly-impressive Nigeria thanks to Kelechi Iheanacho’s fine strike.

There’s also been narrow wins for Morocco over Ghana, Gabon against debutants Comoros and Cape Verde, who got the better of Ethiopia.

Probably the shock result so far has been reigning champions Algeria being held to a goalless stalemate by Sierra Leone on Tuesday as Riyad Mahrez and co failed to ignite, but there remains plenty of time for the big names to come to the party.

Elephants in the Room

We remain very much in the early, settling, stages but Ivory Coast could bring the action to life later when the two-time AFCON champions take on Equatorial Guinea in their first game in Group E at 7pm. It’s no surprise to see Ivory Coast on offer at 4/11 to start with a victory in this clash.

Boasting plenty of well-known stars who play their football in Europe, like Villarreal’s Serge Aurier, Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, Willy Boly of Wolves and Burnley’s Maxwel Cornet, The Elephants look well-equipped to go far in the tournament.

Add to those aforementioned names the likes of dynamic Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha, Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe, AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie and prolific Ajax striker Sebastien Haller, and you have a squad that stands out from some of the more average-looking ones assembled in Cameroon.

With no country yet to lay down a real marker, this could be Ivory Coast’s chance to set the bar and, based on their squad depth and quality, they look good value at 15/2 to win the tournament.

More Low-scoring Games?

Wednesday’s other two games are in Group F when, first up, Tunisia take on Mali at 1pm. Following the trend of low-scoring matches seems wise with under 1.5 goals backable at 1/1.

A Mali victory also appeals at 43/20 as they come into the tournament having won their last four games, although a note of caution must be sounded as they have not actually been seen in action since the middle of November.

Two of the lesser-known nations, Mauritania and Gambia, then square off at 4pm. Again, going for under 1.5 goals in the Group F opener is tempting at 5/4, especially when you consider Gambia have drawn a blank in their previous two games and Mauritania have only found the back of the net three times across their last four fixtures.

*All odds correct at time of writing

A sports journalist for over 15 years, Aidan has been part of written and audio coverage on a wide-ranging number of events. Having played and coached at amateur level, he offers in-depth insight and opinion into the world of football in particular.
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