There was a genuine moment of fear in the first week of the Africa Cup of Nations that the tournament was going to be something of a let-down.
This year’s extravaganza in Cameroon seemed to have more eyes on it that usual from the watching world, with wider interest coming from Europe in particular to see the ever-growing number of African players at European clubs going back home to represent their nations.
There was also cynicism and flat-out disrespect that comes from the competition’s audacity to interrupt the European season, with more than a few people wanting to see the whole event fail as a means of justifying why it is considered an unnecessary inconvenience.
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For those people, they would have felt vindicated in their beliefs when 13 of the first 15 matches in the tournament ended up finishing either 1-0 or 0-0, with very few of these games offering much in the way of memorable moments.
Thankfully, things have improved on both the goal front, the incident front and, crucially, the shock factor and element of surprise that can seemingly occur in every fixture at present.

Big guns fail to fire

The biggest element of surprise so far has arguably come from seeing teams expected to go the distance somehow conspiring to fall at the early hurdles.
Algeria strolled into the tournament not just as defending champions having won the last edition in Egypt in 2019, but also boasting a lengthy unbeaten run stretching back 34 matches before they kicked off their opener against Sierra Leone.
A 0-0 draw followed in one of those uneventful early matches mentioned above, but the Algeria camp might not have been too concerned knowing a win against Equatorial Guinea would probably be enough to advance to the last 16.
However, not only did the holders fail to win this match, they actually fell to an unexpected defeat courtesy of Esteban Obiang’s second half strike.
Needing a win against Ivory Coast, Algeria were soundly beaten and the Desert Foxes were sent packing with their tails very much between their legs.

Algeria's forward Riyad Mahrez reacts after Ivory Coast's forward Nicolas Pepe (not seen) scored Ivory Coast's third goal during the Group E Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 football match between Ivory Coast and Algeria at Stade de Japoma in Douala

Image credit: Getty Images

Underdogs overachieve

Algeria were of course not the only first round big name casualty as Ghana’s Black Stars, one the continents biggest sides both historically and in recent memory, were beaten by Morocco and drew with Gabon, again needing a win in their final group game.
They came up against a Comoros side playing in their first ever AFCON tournament and who hadn’t scored a goal in their opening two group stage defeats but somehow ended up on the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline which may prove to be one of the biggest shocks in competition’s history.
In Nigeria, the early exits of Ghana and Algeria would have been welcome news and given their own impeccable group stage record, the Super Eagles would have now fancied themselves to go all the way.
That was until they came up against an inspired Tunisia side who, although ravaged by Covid, were able to knock out the Nigerians as the shocks continue.
Aside from Comoros making history, other would-be minnows such as Malawi and Gambia – the lowest FIFA-ranked team in the competition – also made it to through to the second round.
They join Algeria’s conquerors Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso in the last 16 as other names you perhaps wouldn’t include in the upper echelon on African football. The idea of one of these sides potentially winning the whole thing isn’t particularly far-fetched at this stage.

New heroes upstage established stars

Further unpredictability in the competition doesn’t just come from teams not having it all their own way but also players too.
While Egypt remain in the tournament giving a chance to showcase his obvious talent, Mohamed Salah has toiled so far with his sole strike against Guinea-Bissau proving to be the outlier when taking his overall performance into account.
Equally, his Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane has just one goal – from the penalty spot – to show for his efforts as his Senegal team dragged themselves through their group in unconvincing fashion.
Riyad Mahrez also underwhelmed for Algeria, Thomas Partey had a tournament to forget for Ghana and the Nigerian contingent including the likes of Kelechi Ineahancho and Wilfred Ndidi won’t be looking back on their exit with too much fondness.
Like any international tournament, there has been an opportunity for a number of breakout stars who perhaps may not have been on the radar beforehand.
Cameroon's Vincent Aboubakar is currently the competition’s top scorer at the time of writing, and while at 30 and playing in Saudi Arabia he is unlikely to be a transfer priority for a top side, he is still showing he has enough in the tank to keep performing at a decent level.
Elsewhere, Ivory Coast’s Ibrahim Sangare of PSV has been one of the standout midfielders in the competition while the previously unheralded Ablie Jarrow of surprise package Gambia is likely to see his value for French side increase in the near future.
The competition this year seems to have given a new lease of life to Arsenal outcast Nicolas Pepe and Southampton cast-off Soufiane Boufal who have both impressed for their respective nations.

Ivory Coast's midfielder Franck Kessie (2nd R) celebrates with Ivory Coast's midfielder Ibrahim Sangare (R) and Ivory Coast's forward Nicolas Pepe (2nd L) after scoring his team's first goal during the Group E Africa Cup of Nations

Image credit: Getty Images

Incidents light up the tournament for better or worse

The tournament is not without its fair share of noteworthy controversies and while we are at pains to point out this these incidents are by no means Africa-specific, their simple occurrence makes them necessary to discuss.
Referee Janny Sikazwe will unfortunately find himself forever the subject of some ridicule following his error in twice blowing for full time early in the Mali v Tunisia match he took change of, while there has of course been VAR controversy as Guinea-Bissau’s Mama Balde and Ghana’s Andre Ayew will tell you.
The former had his stunning equaliser against Egypt chalked off for an apparent foul while the Black Stars’ captain was dismissed harshly against Comoros – both at the behest of the video officials.
Goalkeeping blunders are part of the game wherever you go but Ivory Coast’s Badra Ali Sangre’s fumble to gift Sierra Leone a draw will live in AFCON infamy – as in fact will Alex Iwobi’s now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t cameo after being sent off within four minutes of coming on as a substitute against Tunisia.
At the time of writing, another major talking point is set to draw attention to the tournament with Comoros, another team littered with Covid cases, set to play their last-16 encounter with Cameroon without a recognised goalkeeper.
And speaking of goalkeepers, it's unlikely you'll see a better celebration than this from Burkina Faso's Herve Koffi outside of the of the tournament.
Ultimately, for the doubters and critics who seem to be against or dismissive of the Africa Cup of Nations taking place, there is more than enough evidence for its value in the footballing world.
The group stages provided more than enough of that as the knockouts get underway, there is still plenty more to come.
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