Madagascar upset Nigeria and even upstaged Mohamed Salah at the African Cup of Nations on Sunday.
Madagascar made it an African Cup debut to remember by beating three-time champion Nigeria 2-0 to win its group and qualify for the last 16.
The exploits of the underdog Madagascans at their first major tournament claimed the headlines despite Salah scoring his second goal of the cup for Egypt. Salah’s left-foot free kick was the first goal in a 2-0 win over Uganda and it helped ensure the host nation and favorite for the title heads to the knockout stage with three wins from three games.
Salah lit up Cairo International Stadium again by whipping his free kick over the wall and inside the near post in the 36th minute. Egypt captain Ahmed el-Mohamady added a second 10 minutes later. Those two also scored when Egypt beat Congo 2-0 in its last game.
Egypt won Group A ahead of Uganda. Madagascar topped Group B, relegating Nigeria to second. Egypt and Nigeria had already qualified before their last group games. Uganda and Madagascar sealed their spots in the round of 16 on Sunday and Guinea and Congo will wait to see if they are among the four best third-place teams who will also go through.
The African Cup increased from 16 to 24 teams this year.
In Alexandria, Madagascar pounced on a defensive error for its first goal against an uninspired Nigeria and got lucky for its second but won’t care one bit as t created one of the biggest surprises in African Cup history.
Previously, Madagascan soccer’s biggest claim to fame was that the current head of African football hails from the Indian Ocean island. The Madagascan team, mostly made up of players plying their trade in the lower leagues in France, have their own stories to tell now.
Lalaina Nomenjanahary took advantage of the error by defender Leon Balogun to intercept a pass, skip around goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa and put Madagascar ahead in the 13th minute. Carolus Andrea increased the disbelief with a deflected free kick early in the second half to make it 2-0, sending the Madagascans into ecstasy. Nigeria midfielder Wilfred Ndidi gave away the free kick and was the player to get the last touch as Andrea’s effort deflected off the defensive wall and looped into the goal with Ezenwa wrong-footed.
Reserve players leaped over the advertising boards and coach Nicolas Dupuis sprinted from the dugout to join the celebrations on the field. At the final whistle, players dumped bottles of water over Dupuis as if they’d won the whole tournament.
The defeat was a reality check for Nigeria, the 2013 champion that was picked as one of the pre-tournament favorites this year alongside Egypt and Senegal. Nigeria struggled to beat Burundi, another tournament first-timer, 1-0 in its opening game and also needed a late goal in a 1-0 win over Guinea.
In Group B’s other game on Sunday, Guinea beat 10-man Burundi 2-0 to clinch third in the group. Burundi had central defender Christophe Nduwarugira sent off in the 12th minute for a professional foul and Mohamed Yattara scored both goals for Guinea.
Salah has delivered on the field so far at the African Cup but off it he’s been unpopular with some Egyptians — perhaps for the first time ever — for his position in the scandal surrounding his teammate Amr Warda.
Warda was thrown off Egypt’s squad for allegedly sexually harassing women on social media only to be forgiven and called back days later. Salah had suggested that Warda be given a second chance, infuriating some who didn’t think Warda earned any sympathy for his behavior.
Salah’s free kick against Uganda came against the run of play after Uganda had threatened Egypt’s goal. The Liverpool striker got dip and curl, all at pace, to catch goalkeeper Denis Onyango out. El-Mohamady’s goal came after a cross flashed across the goalmouth and fell to him. He smacked it straight back into the far corner.
In the race for third place in that group, Zimbabwe self-destructed defensively in a 4-0 loss to Congo to give the Congolese the chance to go through.
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