Four of Africa’s top players failed to make it to the Africa Cup of Nations final, but the start of Sunday’s knockout rounds at least gave Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah a chance to perform on their home continent.
The Liverpool duo were among the top three in the last four African Player of the Year awards, establishing themselves as the continent’s best players and the main attraction of the Cameroonian final.
The other players were Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was sent back to London for health reasons, and Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez, the Algeria captain, who crashed out of favour.
Senegal’s Mane and Egypt captain Salah scored in the group stage as their countries progressed, but their own form has been disappointing for the fans who came to watch them.
Mane picked up a stoppage-time penalty at the end of their first Group B game for a contentious win over Zimbabwe and also played two full games without impact.
Admittedly, Senegal has been plagued by COVID-19 problems, with only goalkeeper Edouard Mendy winning the FIFA award on Monday, with captain Kalidou Koulibaly in the group Returned in the final game against Malawi.
But in Tuesday’s last-16 tie against the Cape Verde Islands, Mane has a chance to live up to expectations in a potential one-sided encounter.
Salah will need to step up his performance if Egypt is to have any chance against Ivory Coast in Douala on Wednesday.
The second round was a tough match for Egypt, who looked unremarkable under Salah’s influence.
The Egyptian made it clear last week that he is desperate for a Cup of Nations success.
“In my 10-year career with Egypt, I haven’t won any major tournaments, and I hope this time around,” he said.
Aubameyang’s Gabon will also play in the round of 16 against Burkina Faso on Sunday, but without him. He tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Cameroon before showing signs of heart damage before being released back to Arsenal for more testing.
Mahrez went home with Algeria after finishing bottom of Group E, suffering an embarrassing defeat in tiny Equatorial Guinea.
“We’re not at the right level. I take and take all the responsibility. It’s part of football. We won, we lost. We gave everything. We can’t do anything more. Hopefully we can come back stronger, “He said.