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World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31561034 Unforgettable moments Unforgettable+moments World

The group stage of the African Cup of Nations wrapped up in Rustenburg and Nelspruit Wednesday. Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria remain on course for the finals as the knockout rounds begin this Saturday. We take a look back at the best moments so far from this electrifying tournament.

REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - Action Images/Reuters
World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31561895 Worst referee – Daniel Bennett (Togo v Tunisia) Worst+referee+%26ndash%3B+Daniel+Bennett+%28Togo+v+Tunisia%29 World

When the South African referee Daniel Bennett blew the final whistle, not a single player from either side went to shake his hand. People who watch South African league football regularly say he’s usually reliable but in the final game in Group D, he was atrocious. This was a refereeing performance for the ages, one of the worst ever in international football. Let’s start with the goals: Togo’s was offside; Tunisia’s came from an extremely soft penalty. He turned down a clear penalty for each side. He denied Togo three decent shouts for penalties and gave Tunisia a second penalty for an obvious dive (it was missed). He even managed to book the 6’5” Dare Nibomba for a foul committed by the 5’10” Serge Akakpo. Essentially if he could get it wrong he did; if Bennett appears again at this tournament, something has gone severely awry with the assessment process.

Thomas Mukoya - Action Images/Reuters
World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31561894 Greatest calm under pressure – Victor Moses Greatest+calm+under+pressure+%26ndash%3B+Victor+Moses World

When Victor Moses was brought down in the box by Alulu Girma with 10 minutes of Nigeria’s game against Ethiopia remaining, the Super Eagles were drawing 0-0 and facing early elimination by dint of having a worse disciplinary record than Zambia, with whom they had an equal record in five other criteria. Moses had the hopes of 162 million Nigerians weighing on him but he converted calmly. Ten minutes later, having been fouled in the box again, he scored again to take Nigeria through in second place behind Burkina Faso.

Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images - Getty Images
World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31561893 Best save – Mamadou Samassa Best+save+%26ndash%3B+Mamadou+Samassa World

Mali needed a draw against DR Congo to reach the quarter-final and it got it thanks to two Mamadou Samassas. Firstly Mamadou Samassa, the Chievo forward, cancelled out Dieumerci Mbokani’s second-minute penalty, and then his younger cousin and namesake, who plays in goal for Guingamp, made a superb low save to his left to push Tresor Mputu’s 68th-minute effort round the post. That was just about DRC’s only meaningful effort of the half, but the save was no less valuable for that.

World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31561892 Unluckiest coach – Vahid Halilhodzic (Algeria) Unluckiest+coach+%26ndash%3B+Vahid+Halilhodzic+%28Algeria%29 World

Last time Halilhodzic was at a Cup of Nations was in Angola in 2010 when he was manager of Cote d’Ivoire. Then, he saw his side lose a quarterfinal to Algeria despite taking the lead in the 89th minute and, ludicrously, was sacked before the World Cup, allowing the opportunistic Lothario Sven-Goran Eriksson to take charge. This time, he led Algeria, the team ranked second on the continent. It played neat, attractive football against Tunisia, somehow failed to score, and conceded to a brilliant last-minute strike from Youssef M’Sakhni. Against Togo, Algeria had 20 shots to 4 and won 18 corners to 2, yet lost 2-0. It even missed a penalty in its final game, against Cote d’Ivoire, then went 2-0 up before conceding twice to go home winless.

World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31561890 Best riposte – Asamoah Gyan Best+riposte+%26ndash%3B+Asamoah+Gyan+ World

He’d looked rusty in the opening two games. He missed a sitter against DR Congo. He’s refusing to take penalties because his mother, who died in November, told him not to. There was a sense that Asmaoah Gyan might have lost his edge since leaving Sunderland of the Premier League for Al Ain of the UAE. Niger may not be the toughest opponent, having lost four of its previous five Cup of Nations finals matches, but it is defensively sound, having conceded just one in its first two games. Gyan destroyed them, his pace and power and his touch, yielding a goal from Albert Adomah’s cross early on and then laying on a second for the highly promising Christian Atsu. Gyan remains a formidable striker and that gives Ghana genuine hope of ending its 31-year Cup of Nations drought.

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World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31566234 Best press conference - Lucio Antunes (Cape Verde) Best+press+conference+-+Lucio+Antunes+%28Cape+Verde%29 World

Cape Verde has a population of 501,000, which meant, when it qualified for its first Cup of Nations finals this year, it became the smallest country ever to reach this stage. After its dramatic victory over Angola, scoring twice in the last nine minutes to overturn a 1-0 deficit, it is now also the smallest nation to reach the last eight of the tournament. Its players celebrated by taking over the dais at the front of the press conference, bouncing gleefully up and down, before the coach, Lucio Antunes, took his place behind the desk. He’s taken time off from his day-job as an air-traffic controller to lead the side in South Africa and decided the best way for him to sum up his jubilation was to break out into a rendition of The Biography of a Crioullo, a local ballad. “It’s a traditional song,” he said. "I dedicate it to all the people at home. We achieved our objective, we knew it was going to be difficult but we kept at it.”

World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31561035 Worst pitch – Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit Worst+pitch+%26ndash%3B+Mbombela+Stadium%2C+Nelspruit World

Unusually heavy rain apparently caused a fungal infection that killed swathes of grass, which is why the pitch in Nelspruit is essentially compacted sand. It’s impossible to say whether the heavy ground led to the thigh injury suffered by the Burkina Faso forward Alain Traore, but what is certainly true is that matches at the Mbombela rapidly sank into safety-first attrition. Herve Renard, the Zambia coach, was relatively restrained in his criticism, but his side, whose game is based on rapid counters, were hampered by the sluggish surface. “Those people that watch the game in Europe,” said Emmanuel Adebayor after Togo’s draw with Tunisia, “they will be sending texts to me tonight asking me, ‘are you playing in the bush or what?’ It’s a disgrace to our continent; we can do better.”

REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - Action Images/Reuters
World 2018 43 African Cup of Nations - group stage best moments 31560901 Best finish – Siyabonga Sangweni Best+finish+%26ndash%3B+Siyabonga+Sangweni World

Gordon Igesund didn’t have a particularly good answer as to what Siyabonga Sangweni, a center back, was doing loitering by the edge of the box with four minutes remaining of South Africa’s game against Morocco. Bafana Bafana were 2-1 down, which meant it would go out if Cape Verde, which had just leveled against Angola in the other game in the group, got another (as it eventually did). But Igesund didn’t much care: Sangweni, who had fired in a neat volley to set South Africa on its way against Angola in the previous game, swept the ball in a perfect arc between goalkeeper’s hand and post to give South Africa the point it needed to reach the quarter-final. When Cape Verde scored its injury-time winner it was poor Morocco, once again undone by its own neuroses, once again lured into negativity by its own lack of self-belief, which went out.

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