When the draw for the 31st Africa Cup of Nations was made, Côte d'Ivoire and Algeria were among the seeds and favourites. But this weekend, when the quarter-finals commence, neither team will be present and nor will hosts Gabon, with all three having each fallen at the first hurdle. Still with hopes alive, meanwhile, are the likes of Burkina Faso, Congo DR, Egypt and Senegal, all of whom impressed en route to topping their respective sections.
Côte d'Ivoire arrived as defending champions but they began slowly in Group C, being held to a goalless draw by Togo. It was to prove a setback from which they would never recover.
Another draw in their second match against Congo DR left them facing a must-win encounter with a Morocco side coached by Herve Renard, the man who has won two of the last three Cup of Nations titles - including the 2015 crown with* Les Elephants*. And it was Renard's decision to bring on substitute Rachid Alioui for the injured Aziz Bouhaddouz late in the first half that proved decisive, as the Nimes striker scored the only goal of the game shortly after the break.
For Moroccan captain Mehdi Benatia, advancing to the knock-out stage represents only the beginning of their Cup of Nations adventure. “We are now about to achieve our dream," he said. "Two steps left for the final match. If we keep the same determination and energy, we will surely win the tournament.”
The Atlas Lions were joined in the second round by group rivals Congo DR, who topped the section with victories over Morocco and Togo and a draw against Côte d'Ivoire.
In Group B, Algeria - despite having a side filled with star players, including Leicester City duo Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez - endured a similarly disappointing start to the holders, requiring a late Mahrez equaliser to draw with minnows Zimbabwe. Defeat in their next game against North African rivals Tunisia left them needing three points against Senegal, and they again fell short.Although the Senegalese fielded a reserve side, having already made sure of their place in the next round,* Les Fennecs* could only scrape a draw and tumbled out of the tournament. Coach Georges Leekens promptly resigned.
Senegal were joined in progressing from Group B by Tunisia, who beat Zimbabwe 4-2 in their final match to make sure of their place in the last eight.
Heartbreak for the hosts
In Group A, hosts Gabon, who replaced coach Jorge Costa with Jose Antonio Camacho just a few weeks before the start of the tournament, emerged unbeaten.
Unfortunately for their passionate fans, they also failed to register a victory, and three draws against Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso and Cameroon were not sufficient to see them through. They duly became the first host nation since Tunisia in 1994 to be knocked out in the first round.
Guinea Bissau, whose opening 1-1 draw against Les Panthères had them dreaming of emulating Cape Verde's fairy tale run from 2013, fell short in their next two games and were beaten 2-1 and 2-0 by Cameroon and Burkina Faso respectively. That left their conquerors to battle it out for first place, and a 1-1 draw between the two sides meant that Les Étalons finished first ahead of the Indomitable Lions. It is only the third time in their history that the Burkinabe have survived the group stage and they will take some confidence from the fact that, on both previous occasions, they went on to win their quarter-final match.
Gabon's standout player was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored both his team's goals in the finals. "It's annoying because we've had a lot of chances," said the Borussia Dortmund star. "We're disappointed. We did not have the time to prepare, we started too late. I think we were stronger than the other teams in the group, but that's not enough. The preparation, the change of coach - all of that was not easy."
In Group D, the six matches produced just six goals, and the one scored by Mohamed Salah early in Egypt's final game against Ghana proved to be decisive. After beating Mali and Uganda in their previous matches, the Black Stars had already been guaranteed a place in the knock-out stage ahead of their final match, while the Pharaohs needed a point to be sure.
As it transpired, not only did Salah's goal give Egypt the win that saw them leapfrog Ghana, but Mali were also held to a 1-1 draw by Uganda - meaning the Pharaohs would have advanced regardless. “Our ambitions in the tournament are very high," Hector Cuper, Egypt's coach, declared afterwards. "We will do our best to make Egyptians happy and proud of their national team."