The final round of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) last 16 was nerve-racking, to say the least. There were no surprises in the first fixture as Mali edged Burkina Faso.
However, the headline result came in the subsequent match-up as South Africa dumped Morocco out of the tournament in dramatic fashion, sending shockwaves throughout San Pedro and beyond.
Courtesy of their exploits at the 2022 World Cup, the Atlas Lions shouldered huge expectations coming into the competition and were predicted to end their AFCON voodoo.
However, their wait for the continent’s holy grail will trickle beyond the five-decade threshold ahead of hosting the tournament in 2025.
Mali 2-1 Burkina Faso
Mali maintained their unbeaten run in the 2023 AFCON to advance into the quarter-finals for the first time since 2013 following a 2-1 victory over Burkina Faso.
Looking to stamp their authority in the opening stages of the first half, Mali flew out of the blocks and needed only three minutes to take the lead.
RB Leipzig ace Amadou Haidara smashed the woodwork with a thumping header from Hamari Traore’s cross. But Mali were not to be denied as Edmond Tapsoba inadvertently clipped the rebound into his own net.
The Bayer Leverkusen centre-half came close to making up for his howler just moments later, but he was denied by Mali stopper Djigui Diarra, who also kept out efforts from Issoufou Dayo and Bertrand Traore.
The early goal forced Burkina Faso out of their shell, and we were treated to an entertaining end-to-end contest.
Burkina Faso’s Herve Koffi responded to Diarra’s stops with heroics of his own, beating away a fierce effort from Lassine Sinayoko at his near post before a dribbling effort from Kamory Doumbia crept just wide.
Tapsoba’s own goal separated both sides at half-time, but Mali started the second half in identical fashion as the first, and this time, they needed just two minutes to grab a two-goal cushion.
Sinayoko timed his run to perfection to beat Burkina Faso’s offside trap before racing through on goal to slot home through Diarra’s legs.
The Stallions were handed a route back into the game when a VAR review penalised Boubakar Kouyate for a handball, and Bertrand Traore stepped up to convert his third spot-kick of the tournament.
With their lead under threat, Mali resorted to a defensive approach, limiting their opponents to rare goalscoring opportunities.
There was a heart-in-mouth moment in the 90th minute as Dayo thought he had snatched a last-gasp equaliser for Burkina Faso, but euphoria turned into despair as he was flagged offside.
The Eagles have soared into the last eight, setting up a much-anticipated clash against tournament hosts Ivory Coast, who dumped out reigning champions Senegal on Monday.
Morocco 0-2 South Africa
There have been several giant killings in this edition of the AFCON, and Morocco were the latest victim of the rampaging underdogs.
The highest-ranking nation and odds-on favourites to win the competition were dumped out by South Africa, who rallied to an emphatic 2-0 victory in San Pedro.
With the odds firmly stacked against them, it was unsurprising to see Bafana Bafana set up to keep the Moroccans at bay, so Walid Regragui’s side saw plenty of the ball in the opening stages.
However, chances were at a premium for both sides in a naturally tense first-half contest, emphasised by Teboho Mokoena’s hopeful 40-yard effort that was comfortably saved by Yassine Bounou.
Both managers knew something had to give in the second half, and Morocco came flying out of the blocks with Azzedine Ounahi blazing over before Oussama El Azzouzi saw his penalty claims waived.
While Azzouzi protested a foul, South Africa poured forward in the opposite direction on the counter-attack and Evidence Makgopa timed his run to perfection to beat the offside trap before finishing past Bono.
Regragui and Morocco found themselves in uncharted territory after going behind for the first time in the tournament. But the game was still within their grasp, and they were handed a golden chance to draw level.
With time running out, the pre-tournament favourites were awarded a penalty when Ayoub El Kaabi’s effort from close range struck the outstretched hand of Mothobi Mvala.
Mvala knew nothing about it, but he was brandished a yellow nonetheless with Paris Saint-Germain wing-back Achraf Hakimi shouldering the burden of pulling his nation back into the game.
Hakimi had to wait an age before dispatching his spot-kick, and the pressure ultimately proved too much to handle as he crashed a fierce effort against the crossbar in the 85th minute.
To make matters worse for Morocco, Manchester United loanee Sofyan Amrabat was sent off for a last-man tackle as the prospect of ending their 48-year wait for an AFCON title faded into despair.
Mokoena added insult to injury deep into stoppage time, curling home a remarkable free-kick into the top left corner to seal South Africa’s place in the quarter-finals.
Bafana Bafana have now booked their place in the last eight for the third time in their lady four appearances, setting up an exciting clash against Cape Verde.
With the elimination of yet another heavyweight, the underdogs can dare more than ever to believe that they could etch their name into AFCON folklore by lifting the continent’s holy grail.
Nigeria and Ivory Coast are the only nations to have won multiple AFCON titles still in the tournament. But after witnessing the demise of their fellow heavyweights, they’ll do well to watch their back in their quest for additional silverware.
The stage is set for the quarter-finals, which is scheduled to commence on February 2, and we expect the tournament’s trademark blend of intensity, excitement and unpredictability to manifest once again.
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