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Five Aside

The big shake up

Set aside the 'potato field', as Claude Le Roy so eloquently described the playing surface at Accra's national stadium, as well as the accreditation nightmare suffered by many journalists and, four breathless days into the tournament, the African Cup of Nations is living up to the hype.

Off the field, from colourful fans through eccentric goalkeeping to inspired celebrations, much of what was expected has been delivered. Between the white lines, however, many of the pre-tournament storylines have, thus far, failed to play out as forecast. The only thing predictable, it seems, is this tournament's unpredictability.

In the opening game, Ghana were indebted to an early contender for goal of the tournament for their Group A win over Guinea. Despite their absence of top-line strikers, Sulley Muntari's heroics in the long grass on Sunday mean the Black Stars favourites' tag remains.

However, Ghana's was a workmanlike win, unimpressive when compared to emphatic victories by two nations from the north of the African continent. Geography, history suggests, is often a key factor in deciding who takes home the trophy at this bi-annual event. Ghana are seeking to become the third straight home team to prevail but early evidence suggests that Morocco and Egypt are intent on bucking that trend.

Egypt came into the tournament as defending champions and yet little was expected of Hassan Shehata's side. How, though, the Pharaohs announced themselves in Group C, playing with a chip on their shoulder to demolish Cameroon, whose pre-tournament favorites tag has been replaced by one that says 'must do better'. Fortunately for them, in a group that also features Sudan and Zambia, the Indomitable Lions have chances to re-establish themselves.

For Egypt, Mohammed Zidan announced himself as an early candidate for the tournament's top scorer crown with two altogether different, yet equally impressive, goals. However, the Hamburg striker's brace was outshone by the exploits of Morocco's Soufiane Alloudi, who found the net three times in the first 28 minutes of the Lions of the Atlas' 5-1 Group C mauling of Namibia, who looked every bit like a nation playing at this level for just the second time.

Before it began, the most mouth-watering tie of the opening matches was undoubtedly Ivory Coast versus Nigeria. However, as is so often the case, the game failed to live up to its star billing. In fairness to both teams, stifling 35°C heat made a lively tempo difficult to maintain but, overall, this was a match that neither side would have chosen to kick off their campaign.

A moment of magic, hardly in-keeping with the rest of this uninspiring game, saw Ivory Coast take the honours. Salomon Kalou's own nomination for the tournament's best goal secured the points and the Elephants look set to control Group B.

Nigeria, by contrast, are a team with issues. Under a coach, Berti Vogts, who spoke out prior to the tournament about his exasperation with the way Nigerian football is run, this was a disjointed display that will do much to encourage Mali's belief that their qualification from Group B is possible.

Nigeria's forward line, boasting Kanu, Yakubu, Obafemi Martins and John Utaka, was starved of consistent service, as a lack of cohesion permeated through a Super Eagles' side devoid of the attacking flair with which it has traditionally been associated. Furthermore, critical comments about his teammates following the game from John Obi Mikel will have done little to boost morale.

In Group D, Senegal, one of the darlings of African football in the early part of this decade, looked set to announce themselves to the rest of the tournament with a win, only for another northern upstart, Tunisia, to peg them back.

Two years ago, Senegal scraped into the quarterfinals despite losing two of their three group games and their failure to dispose of their first opponent in Ghana suggests that, once again, the Lions of Teranga may fall just short of what it takes to go all the way. However, perhaps it is too early to make such statements, especially as Group D is wide open following South Africa's draw with Angola.

Thus, with each team having played one game, what is certain is that this is a tournament, which could be won by a number of its participants. But the knockout stages are the time to evaluate who will be celebrating in Accra on 10 February. For now, for the unfancied teams especially, enjoyment and entertainment appear to be the key motivation.

In the opening eight games of the tournament, 23 goals were scored. In the 2006 World Cup, the same number of games featured 18 goals, one more strike than was yielded in the opening eight ties of Euro 2004.

Certainly, some questionable goalkeeping and playing surfaces, not to mention a ball that does some funny things when airborne are a number of factors, which can be pointed to for this offensive output.

However, perhaps the most pleasing reason for the attacking play stems from the collective desires of many teams to attack, which is often fueled by individuals keen to impress the many watching scouts in the hope of securing a big-money transfer. Even more impressive is that it is some of the underdogs that are barking loudest at their opponent's goal.

Who would have predicted that, four days into the 26th Cup of Nations, Morocco would have scored more goals than Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria combined? Or that Hosni Abd Rabo would have two goals while messrs Drogba, Yakubu and Diouf have none? Or, and this is almost as pleasing as the attacking play, not a single red card has been shown?

The referees have let the players play and all who have observed - journalists apart, perhaps - have reaped the viewing benefits. Long may it continue.

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