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Africa Cup of Nations W2W4: Heavy hitters face early exits in round of 16

The knockout rounds for the African Cup of Nations are set. Find out which match-ups are ESPN FC experts are most excited for.

With the group stage now over, the Africa Cup of Nations moves on to the real drama of the tournament: the knockout rounds. Nick Ames assesses some of the biggest storylines facing nations as they enter the round of 16, kicking off on Friday.

Morocco and Senegal look to seal last-eight showdown

On early evidence, Morocco against Senegal would make a worthy final for this competition. But if they come through highly winnable last-16 ties, they will meet in the quarterfinals and all eyes will be on just how they are shaping up, with plenty of reasons to be both positive and cautious so far.

Senegal face Uganda on Friday, feeling buoyant after an ultimately comfortable 3-0 win over Kenya. The most important facet of that victory was Sadio Mane's explosion into form: He may have missed a penalty in the first half, but successfully converted another later on and finished another chance clinically from open play, too. Fit-again Ismaila Sarr was also on target and, after creaking against South Africa, they look good enough to glide past a decent Uganda side whose preparation has been overshadowed by a dispute over bonus payments.

As for Morocco, their win over Ivory Coast was arguably the slickest performance of the first round. But they left it late against both Namibia and South Africa; Herve Renard's side could do with a more comfortable time of things against Benin, who finished third in Group F after three draws, if they are to maintain their early billing as the team everyone else needs to beat this summer.

- Africa Cup of Nations: All you need to know
- Full Africa Cup of Nations fixtures schedule

Egypt need to step up a gear

You would be hard pressed to find a single Egyptian who is happy with their Africa Cup of Nations performances so far. Yes, they have won three times without conceding a goal, but they were fortunate -- especially in their final group-stage game against Uganda -- to escape unscathed. Nobody is under any illusions that, without Mohamed Salah to dig them out of trouble and the occasional flash of brilliance from Trezeguet, this would be a serious contender for the crown.

"Their prayers are the only reason they are winning," said one Cairo taxi driver on Tuesday. It is actually not a million miles from the truth: the strength of support they take from the hostile, passionate home stands counts as an extra man sometimes and seems to have helped Egypt through a number of tricky moments so far.

They certainly stayed behind their side in the Uganda match despite the players' support for Amr Warda, who was originally cut from the squad amid sexual harassment allegations but will return for the round-of-16 meeting with South Africa on Saturday. Salah was influential in securing his return and, despite the team's success so far, the saga has overshadowed much of his and their work. Against an unremarkable Bafana Bafana, can they produce a display that really gets people talking?

Heavy hitters battle to avoid early exit

Nigeria and Cameroon have contested three Africa Cup of Nations finals, but one of them will be going home soon. These powerhouses meet in Alexandria on Saturday and both have only themselves to blame for landing such a fiendish tie. Nigeria should have disposed of Madagascar, even with a raft of changes from Gernot Rohr, but were stunned by the outsiders and lost top spot in Group B. Cameroon laboured in a goalless draw with Benin on Tuesday, slipping from the summit of Group F, and it means whoever comes out on top here will have done it the hard way.

Pierre Kunde Malong reacts during Cameroon's Africa Cup of Nations group-stage match against Benin.
Defending African Cup of Nations champions Cameroon could be headed for an early exit in this year's tournament.

Nigeria's players held a special meeting on Monday to pull themselves together after that shock against Madagascar, with concerns that a few personal grievances were obstructing the collective effort. Should their mentality be right then they should have too much for the holders, who boast a star managerial duo in Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf but sorely lack the quality Indomitable Lions teams have shown in previous years.

Yet the one sure thing, for anyone who has followed the Super Eagles' fortunes, is that things rarely come easily. They have won seven of this special fixture's past 10 meetings, going back two decades, but it is not hard to see things going to the wire this time around.

Zaha looks to make headlines with Ivory Coast

Back in England, Wilfried Zaha's name is leading the Premier League transfer-window narrative, with Arsenal angering Crystal Palace by tabling a £40 million bid and his brother claiming he wants away. A Cup of Nations campaign with Ivory Coast seems a million miles from that but, after making just one substitute appearance in the Elephants' first two games, he could be seen walking around with a face like thunder.

Things were very different in a resounding 4-1 win over Namibia, which saw Zaha recalled to the starting lineup and scoring a crisply taken goal. More of the winger's best form would improve his side's chances against Mali, a lively young team who possess plenty of attacking thrust themselves. Monday's game in Suez has the ingredients to be a cracker and, for now, Zaha is adamant he wants to make headlines with the national team.

"The only thing that's on my mind now is trying to win this cup," he said after downing Namibia, looking altogether cheerier. "I'm fixated on how far we go in the tournament"

When Zaha is at his best, Ivory Coast are better, too. Whether it suits him or not, perhaps a stellar performance when it matters on this exalted stage might strengthen Palace's claim to an £80m fee for their talisman.

Madagascar carry underdogs' hopes

Suddenly, those with an interest in this competition are charged with learning tongue-twisting names like Carolus Andriamatsinoro and Lalaina Nomenjanahary. They were Madagascar's scorers in the stunning 2-0 win over Nigeria and all eyes will now be on just how long Nicolas Dupuis' side can continue this remarkable success story.

They offered nothing of note in the first half of their opening match against Guinea but have been brilliant ever since, attacking with vigour and pressing intensely. It means they will feel confident of overcoming a DR Congo side who finally shook off their early cobwebs by thrashing Zimbabwe on Sunday. Florent Ibenge's team have performed well in previous editions of this competition but look vulnerable this time around, as their early defeat to Uganda proved.

If the Africa Cup of Nations debutantes do not get carried away then perhaps, in their first appearance at this level, Madagascar's players will continue their journey from virtual unknowns to the verge of stardom.

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