DOUALA, Cameroon (AP) — Mohamed Salah was kept in check as Egypt lost 1-0 to Nigeria on a superb goal by Kelechi Iheanacho in their first game at the African Cup of Nations on Tuesday.
Riyad Mahrez also had a tough day as he and his Algeria teammates missed several goal-scoring chances to open their title defense with a surprising 0-0 draw with minnow Sierra Leone, which is playing in its first major tournament in 26 years.
The results threw some of the pre-tournament predictions out the window as early as Day 3 at the African Cup in Cameroon. If there was a team to watch at the tournament it was Algeria, on a run of 40 games unbeaten since 2018. And if there was a player to watch it was Liverpool’s Salah, the Premier League’s leading scorer who has a claim to being the best in the world right now.
Might be time for a bit of a re-think.
It is early in the tournament, though. The top two teams in each group progress automatically to the knockout stages and there’s the best part of a tournament still to play.
Pelé squandered a penalty for Guinea-Bissau in a 0-0 draw with Sudan in the day’s last game. Pelé’s full name is Judilson Mamadu Tuncará Gomes, who is a midfielder with French club Monaco.
As Algeria missed chance after chance in its Group E opener in Douala, coach Djamel Belmadi became increasingly angry on the sidelines. When Algeria spurned its last opportunity in the last act deep in injury time, the 2019 African Cup-winning coach dropped to his knees and slammed his hands on the ground.
Sierra Leone is playing in its first African Cup since 1996. But Algeria found no way past Sierra Leone goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara, who celebrated the result as if it was a tournament win. Sierra Leone squad players sprinted from the bench onto the field at the end to join his celebrations.
For just one day, a 22-year-old goalkeeper who plays for East End Lions in Freetown, Sierra Leone had the better of Manchester City’s Mahrez and the rest of Algeria’s powerful forward line.
Algeria had countless openings. Yacine Brahimi hit two shots right at Kamara in quick succession at the start of the second half. Algeria substitute Sofiane Bendebka couldn’t get his effort on target with Kamara on the ground after making another save in the 67th minute.
Mahrez was denied when Kamara brilliantly got his fingertips to a low shot that was destined for the bottom corner in the last 10 minutes.
Algeria put Sierra Leone under siege for most of the second half, but when striker Baghdad Bounedjah, another substitute, headed weakly and straight into Kamara’s arms for the final miss, Belmadi’s frustration erupted.
Nigeria was meant to be a team in crisis after firing coach Gernot Rohr last month and installing Augustine Eguavoen as his replacement on an interim basis. Nigeria also is without top striker Victor Osimhen of Napoli and two other key forwards for the tournament.
Iheanacho, who’s been warming the bench at Leicester in recent months, seized his chance against Egypt in an early meeting of two of the tournament heavyweights to start Group D. He controlled a headed pass to him and, all in one move, fired a swift shot into the top right corner for Nigeria’s winner in the 30th minute.
Salah had one real opportunity for Egypt late in the game, but Nigeria goalkeeper Maduka Okoye came out and blocked Salah’s shot with his left leg.
Eguavoen said the game plan was relatively simple: “Try to keep Salah off the ball and play high-pressure football at the other end.”
The other Group D game between Guinea-Bissau and Sudan finished with a frantic last 10 minutes.
Sudan goalkeeper Ali Abu Eshrein gave away a late penalty when he rushed out to challenge Steve Ambri and the pair collided. Eshrein had a strong argument that he’d played the ball but referee Issa Sy of Senegal didn’t use VAR to check his decision.
Guinea-Bissau’s Pelé had the 82nd-minute penalty saved by Eshrein and Piqueti hit the crossbar with a follow-up shot.
Two minutes later, Eshrein raced out of his goal again snatching at a cross and his defense had to clear a shot off the line to bail him out.