Former France international Christian Karembeu has declared Les Bleus the favourite for this year's World Cup after the draw was announced.

France are trying to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their crown but will have history working against them as the last three teams to attempt that feat have all fallen in the group stage.

After drawing Group D, France will have fixtures against Denmark, Tunisia and the eventual playoff winner out of Australia, UAE and Peru.

Karembeu, who was part of the France side who prevailed on home soil in 1998, believes they have earned the title of favourite this time around.

"[France] are the [World Cup] favourites, which is a topic I have spoken about a lot," he told reporters in Qatar.

"We have a young team with a lot of quality, not to mention the head coach [Didier Deschamps] – I have to say that, otherwise he will yell at me. 

"We have a Federation that works, allowing us to be focused on that objective of winning the World Cup."

Fellow former World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff was less emphatic about his prediction, instead pointing towards the interesting timing of the event, which begins in November.

"A draw in itself doesn't mean anything," he said.

"Yes, the World Cup is starting so you prepare, and you know when you are going to play, but there is no good or bad draw. Especially at this time of the year when all the teams are going to be competitive. 

"That's where [this] World Cup will be different from the others.

"All the great players and all the teams are going to get to a point in the season where they are going to be competitive. 

"It's not the end of the season, where it's long and there are a lot of big games. It's almost the beginning of the season. 

"It's going to be very interesting."

Former France international Christian Karembeu has declared Les Bleus the favourite for this year's World Cup after the draw was announced.

France is trying to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their crown, but will have history working against them as the last three teams to try have all fallen in the group stage.

After drawing Group D, France will have fixtures against Denmark, Tunisia and the eventual playoff winner out of Australia, UAE and Peru.

Karembeu said he thinks France has earned the title of favourite this time around.

"[France] are the [World Cup] favourites, which is a topic I have spoken about a lot," he told reporters in Qatar.

"We have a young team with a lot of quality, not to mention the head coach [Didier Deschamps] – I have to say that, otherwise he will yell at me. 

"We have a Federation that works, allowing us to be focused on that objective of winning the World Cup."

Fellow former French international Youri Djorkaeff was less emphatic about his prediction, but instead pointed towards the interesting timing of the event.

"A draw in itself doesn't mean anything," he said.

"Yes, the World Cup is starting so you prepare, and you know when you are going to play, but there is no good or bad draw. Especially at this time of the year when all the teams are going to be competitive. 

"That's where [this] World Cup will be different from the others.

"All the great players and all the teams are going to get to a point in the season where they are going to be competitive. 

"It's not the end of the season, where it's long and there are a lot of big games. It's almost the beginning of the season. 

"It's going to be very interesting."

Furious Nigeria supporters stormed the pitch at the National Stadium in Lagos after rivals Ghana sealed a World Cup spot at the expense of the Super Eagles.

Arsenal's Thomas Partey opened the scoring in the 10th minute for Ghana, before William Troost-Ekong levelled from the penalty spot for the hosts midway through the first half.

Nigeria could not find a crucial second goal, however, with Otto Addo's Ghana side holding on for the 1-1 draw, to progress to Qatar 2022 via away goals after a 0-0 draw in the first leg.

The result sparked ugly scenes inside the stadium, with videos on social media showing supporters leaving their seats and smashing equipment at the side of the pitch.

There was heartbreak for Mohamed Salah and Egypt after they suffered another dramatic penalty shoot-out defeat to Senegal.

Hosts Senegan recovered from a 1-0 first-leg deficit to beat Egypt by the same margin at the Abdoulaye Wade Stadium, before Salah, with dozens of laser pens seemingly pointing at his face, fired Egypt's first penalty of the shoot-out over the bar.

Mostafa Mohamed later failed with the visitors' fourth kick, allowing Salah’s Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane to slam his penalty past Mohamed El Shenawy and seal Senegal's progress, in a repeat of February's Africa Cup of Nations final triumph.

"We try our best but today was not enough," he wrote. "To all my players and my staff, [I give] my recognition and humble thank you.

"You will be always in my heart. It was my privilege to work and be helped by such dedicated and capable professionals and wonderful friends."

There was stunning late drama in Bilda as Karl Toko Ekambi scored late in extra time to seal a 2-1 win for visitors Cameroon against Algeria, the Indomitable Lions progressing to Qatar via away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw.

Algeria thought they had sealed a place at the World Cup when Ahmed Touba cancelled out Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting's opener with two minutes remaining in extra time, but there was just enough time left for Ekambi to seal the most dramatic of victories.

Morocco also booked their place in Friday's World Cup draw with an emphatic 4-1 win over Democratic Republic of Congo. A brace from Azzedine Ounahi, as well as goals from Tarik Tissoudali and Achraf Hakimi, sealed a 5-2 aggregate win over DR Congo, who scored a late consolation through Ben Malango.

Meanwhile, a 0-0 draw for Tunisia against Mali was enough to see the former seal their own place in Qatar after they managed a 1-0 win in the first leg.

Dango Ouattara scored and was later sent off as Burkina Faso advanced to the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals with a 1-0 win over Tunisia. 

Ouattara's first international goal means Kamou Malo's men will now face Senegal or Equatorial Guinea, who meet on Sunday, in Wednesday's last-four tie, although the Lorient forward will be absent after receiving a red card for a heavy aerial challenge. 

Wahbi Khazri went close with a free-kick as Tunisia dominated much of the first half, yet it was Burkina Faso who went in at the interval ahead.

Ouattara latched onto Ibrahim Toure's pass, checked back inside two Tunisia defenders and fired a left-footed strike past Bechir Ben Said three minutes into stoppage time. 

Tunisia thought they would be given the chance to restore parity late on when referee Joshua Bondo was encouraged to check the pitchside monitor by VAR following Soumaila Ouattara's challenge on Khazri in the penalty area, but the official stuck with his initial decision. 

He agreed with VAR soon after, though, dishing out a red card to Ouattara after he had caught Ali Maaloul in the face with an elbow. Despite their numerical disadvantage in the closing eight minutes, a resolute Burkina Faso held on to book their spot in the last four. 

The Africa Cup of Nations has reached the quarter-final stage and Saturday's matches promise the chance of history.

Host nation Cameroon will meet Gambia in the competition for the first time, their second successive game against tournament debutants, something they last experienced way back in 1972.

Tunisia meet Burkina Faso in the later match looking to end a fairly rotten recent record at this stage of the AFCON, although history favours their opponents.

Two of Egypt, Morocco, Senegal and Equatorial Guinea will lie in wait for winners...

 

Gambia v Cameroon (16:00 GMT)

Cameroon have enjoyed facing AFCON debutants of late: including their 2-1 win over Comoros in the last round, they have won three consecutive matches against such opposition, which is more than they managed in their first six such games.

Gambia, who surprised Guinea in the last 16, are bidding to become the first team to reach the semi-finals in their first Africa Cup of Nations since eventual winners South Africa did so back in 1996.

Unbeaten in their past eight matches in all competitions, Cameroon have progressed from two of their most recent three AFCON quarter-finals, having gone through on penalties against Senegal most recently in 2017. Defeat to Gambia, the smallest nation on the African mainland and one who had never before reached a major tournament, would go down as one of the competition's greatest upsets.

Yet for Musa Barrow, whose goal sent them into the last eight, there is little pressure.

"Everyone is happy back home," he told AFP. "It is a small nation. We love football. People learn football from the street so coming to this AFCON, reaching this stage is a big improvement, and it is going to take the Gambian name to higher heights.

"We have nothing to lose, but they are the host nation. If they lose it is going to be a big disaster for them."

One to watch: Vincent Aboubakar (Cameroon)

Gambia will need little incentive to keep an eye on Cameroon's captain and most dangerous striker, but Aboubakar is chasing not just a place in the semi-finals here.

Not only has he scored in each of his past six games in the competition, but he could also become the first player in AFCON history to net in a team's first five matches at a single edition of the tournament.

 

Burkina Faso v Tunisia (19:00 GMT)

Tunisia might be favourites - they are ranked 30 places higher in the world than Burkina Faso - but, in the previous two meetings at the AFCON in 1998 and 2017, it was the Stallions who progressed at the quarter-final stage.

In fact, Burkina Faso have gone through from each of their three last-eight matches in this competition, a record only Mali can better (they have won each of their five previous quarter-finals).

No team has made it to this stage more often since its introduction in 1992 than Tunisia, who are 11-time quarter-finalists now, but this has not been a happy round for Mondher Kebaier's side: they have been eliminated from five of their past six such matches.

Still, after knocking out Nigeria in the last 16 despite COVID-19 cases badly depleting their squad, perhaps this will be their year.

One to watch: Youssef Msakni (Tunisia)

Msakni's winner against Nigeria saw him become the first Tunisia player to score in five different editions of the AFCON. There are only four players to score in six: Cameroon great Samuel Eto'o, Zambia's Kalusha Bwalya, and Ghana forwards Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew.

 

Youssef Msakni sent a COVID-hit Tunisia into the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals with a 1-0 victory over Nigeria, who finished the game with 10 men. 

Tunisia scraped through the group stage and were without head coach Mondher Kebaier and a number of players for the last-16 clash on Sunday after an outbreak of coronavirus in their camp. 

However, they still managed to book a date with Burkina Faso, who overcame Gabon on penalties earlier in the day, in the next round. 

Montassar Talbi had the only shot on target in a dour first half in Garoua, but Msakni's low drive skidded off the turf and into the top-right corner off Maduka Okoye's glove within two minutes of the restart. 

Nigeria were reduced to 10 men in the 66th minute when substitute Alex Iwobi – who had only been on the pitch for seven minutes – had a booking upgraded to a straight red card after referee Maguette Ndiaye reviewed video footage of his tackle on Msakni 

The Super Eagles upped their game as they chased an equaliser, but Moses Simon was unable to beat Bechir Ben Said and Umar Sadiq missed the target in stoppage time as they exited the tournament.

By Sunday evening in Cameroon, the first two quarter-finalists at the Africa Cup of Nations will be known.

Burkina Faso should start as slight favourites against Gabon, chiefly due to their win when the teams met ahead of the tournament.

Nigeria will then be expected to overcome a Tunisia side who qualified for the last-16 stage via the back door.

Burkina Faso v Gabon (16:00 GMT)

Burkina Faso rather scrambled through the group stage, losing their opener to the hosts before winning 1-0 against Cape Verde and drawing 1-1 with Ethiopia.

They were runners-up in 2013 and finished third in 2017, so this is far from uncharted territory and a 3-0 win over Gabon in a warm-up game for this tournament at the start of January may be a guide of what to expect from this tussle in Limbe.

Midfielder Adama Guira is urging caution though, telling the Sidwaya newspaper: "A lot of things have changed on the Gabonese side after this friendly match. Their last outing against Morocco attests to this. They are a very good team."

Gabon were unbeaten in the group stage, despite the disruption of losing captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and midfielder Mario Lemina after brushes with COVID-19. A win over the Comoros was consolidated by draws with Ghana and Morocco.

That pre-tournament loss to the Stallions might be a factor, but Gabon are unbeaten in their previous two AFCON meetings with Sunday's opponents – both having taken place in the group stages (2-0 in 2015 and 1-1 in 2017).

One to watch: Guelor Kanga (Gabon)

Red Star Belgrade attacking midfielder Kanga has been a livewire for Gabon so far in the tournament, with a team-high eight shots and five chances created (one assist). It earned him a place among the substitutes in the tournament's official best team of the group stage.

 

Nigeria v Tunisia (19:00 GMT)

Nigeria have two players in the group stage's best XI, with centre-back William Troost-Ekong and forward Moses Simon both earning plaudits for their early performances.

Augustine Eguavoen's team were the only side with a 100 per cent winning record in the groups, and now they tackle a Tunisia outfit who only edged through as one of the best third-placed teams, having lost twice already.

These sides are meeting for the sixth time at the Africa Cup of Nations and Tunisia's only successful AFCON meeting with Nigeria came in 2004, when they progressed via penalties in the semi-finals, going on to win the competition.

Nigeria have won 12 of their last 14 AFCON games (L2), and they start this game as hot favourites.

Nigeria have had more different scorers (6) than any other team so far at this year's tournament, with Kelechi Iheanacho, Simon, Simon Chukwueze, Taiwo Awoniyi, Troost-Ekong and Umar Sadiq each scoring once.

One to watch: Kelechi Iheanacho

The Leicester City striker has one goal and one assist so far, creating a team-high six chances. Such evidence points to him being a likely menace to the Tunisian defence.

 

A superb 93rd minute strike from Ablie Jallow gave Gambia a dramatic 1-0 win against Tunisia, though both teams had already been guaranteed a place in the last 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations regardless.

Gambia ended the game being leapfrogged for top spot in Group F by Mali on goal difference, who beat Mauritania 2-0, and they will play Guinea in the round of 16, while third placed Tunisia will face Nigeria.

A relatively uneventful game in the main saw plenty of chances but few of note, with Tunisia's Ali Abdi going closest in the early stages as he cut inside from the left and saw his deflected shot fly just wide of the near post.

Ellyes Skhiri fired wide of the far stick with a well-hit effort on 41 minutes but shortly after Tunisia had a penalty when Seifeddine Jaziri was tripped by Pa Modou. Tunisia had missed their first two spot kicks of this tournament, which became three when Jaziri saw his penalty saved well down to his right by Baboucarr Gaye.

When the half-time whistle came, ill-tempered reactions by both teams as they headed off the pitch led to referee Fernando Guerrero Ramirez producing a red card to Tunisia's substitute goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha.

Gambia showed a bit more intent in the second half with Jallow firing wide before Musa Barrow hit the woodwork with a fierce free-kick, but it took until the closing seconds of stoppage time for the deadlock to be broken as Jallow took down a cross from the left and fired the ball hard and high past Bechir Ben Said to win it for the Scorpions.

Algeria could become the second major casualty of the Africa Cup of Nations as the group stages are concluded on Thursday.

The defending champions head into their final – and arguably toughest – Group E match in a desperate position after failing to impress in their first two outings.

Thursday will also bring an end to Group F, where Algeria's neighbours Tunisia have plenty of work to do as well.

Ivory Coast v Algeria (16:00 GMT)

With one point from two matches, Algeria head into matchday three bottom of Group E and staring into the abyss of elimination.

Only a victory against group leaders Ivory Coast will be enough to take them into the knockouts, otherwise they will fall at the first hurdle for the third time in five AFCON tournaments.

Ivory Coast will be hoping to gain a measure of revenge for their 2019 quarter-final penalty shoot-out defeat to the Fennec Foxes, with the Elephants heading into the game unbeaten in five AFCON games.

They too have something to play for, with top spot still up for grabs.

One to watch: Youcef Belaili (Algeria)

You certainly cannot fault the effort of winger Belaili, given his eight shots is three more than any of his team-mates and he has also tallied the most touches in the opposition's box (11), but there is little getting away from the fact Algeria in general need to sharpen up in front of goal if they are to avoid following Ghana into shock elimination.

 

Sierra Leone v Equatorial Guinea (16:00 GMT)

Before the tournament started, few would have given this pair much hope of finishing in the top two, yet either could grasp that opportunity on Thursday.

Equatorial Guinea are second and hold a one-point advantage, meaning a draw may well be enough to get them through at least as one of the best third-placed teams.

But Sierra Leone drew 2-2 with Ivory Coast last time out following a goalless stalemate with Algeria – the results showed they are not to be taken lightly.

Equatorial Guinea will be favourites, however, and they have only ever lost two of their eight AFCON group games.

One to watch: Mohamed Nbalie Kamara (Sierra Leone)

Kamara has been one of the standout goalkeepers at the tournament so far. His 12 saves are the most of anyone, and those stops have seen him record a 'goals prevented' record of 2.1, the second-best record among keepers at the AFCON.

 

Gambia v Tunisia (19:00 GMT)

Although Tunisia could potentially sneak through as one of the best third-place teams with their current haul of three points, it would be a disappointing group stage total for a side that came into the tournament with high expectations.

Yet the Carthage Eagles' situation is slightly complicated by the fact they recorded seven new positive COVID-19 cases in the build-up, with key players Wahbi Khazri and Ali Maaloul among them.

That will be a boost to Gambia, however, with the Scorpions aiming to become only the third AFCON debutants this century to go unbeaten in the group stage.

But Tunisia have not lost to an AFCON debutant since the 1996 final.

One to watch: Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)

Manchester United youngster Hannibal has been used sparingly in this tournament, playing just 45 minutes so far. Yet, his tally of two chances created is only bettered by Khazri and Maaloul (both on three), and given Tunisia's COVID-19 issues, a first start may be on the cards.

 

Mali v Mauritania (19:00 GMT)

A wonderful chance presents itself here for Mali, as they target topping Group F.

If they better Gambia's result against Tunisia, that is exactly what they will achieve, as well as extending their longest ever group stage unbeaten run to seven matches.

Anything other than a Mali win would be a significant surprise given Mauritania are bottom of the group and pointless, their five goals conceded second-worse to Ethiopia, who have played a game more.

One to watch: Ibrahima Kone (Mali)

Kone has played a prominent role in Mali's solid start to the tournament, scoring a penalty in each of their two matches. If he nets against Mauritania, he will be the first Malian to tally get three goals in a single AFCON edition since former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita in 2013.

 

Wahbi Khazri scored twice as Tunisia boosted their hopes of progressing to the Africa Cup of Nations knockout stages with a commanding 4-0 win over Mauritania.

The Saint-Etienne forward struck in each half, while Hamza Mathlouthi and Seifeddine Jaziri were also on target as the Eagles of Carthage secured their first points in Group F.

After defeat in their opener against Mali, Tunisia were aiming to avoid losing four successive Africa Cup of Nations matches for the first time in their history.

However, they made the perfect start; striking twice inside the opening 10 minutes at Stade Municipal de Limbe. First, Mathlouthi drilled in his first international goal, while Khazri slotted home soon after.

Any faint hopes Mauritania had of getting back into the game were dashed in the 64th minute, when Khazri brilliantly dummied Ali Maaloul's ball before finishing the return pass from Ghaylene Chaalali.

He then turned provider two minutes later with a perfectly timed throughball for Jaziri to neatly finish.

Youssef Msakni squandered the chance to make it five in the dying moments. His penalty came back off the post, meaning Tunisia have now missed their last three spot-kicks in the competition.

Sunday's action at the Africa Cup of Nations will see two former winners go in search of much-needed points.

Algeria, champions in 1990 and three years ago, were held to a surprise draw by Sierra Leone on matchday one and sit second in Group E.

North African neighbours Tunisia, who won the tournament back in 2004, started their campaign with a 1-0 defeat to 10-man Mali and are in desperate need of a result against Mauritania.

Mali will take on Gambia, while the Ivory Coast will look to consolidate top spot in their group when they meet Sierra Leone.

 

Gambia v Mali

Gambia are bidding to become the first debutants to win their opening two matches at the Africa Cup of Nations since Equatorial Guinea did so in 2012.

That said, Mali are on a run of three wins in five AFCON games – as many as in their previous 15 in the competition – and are looking for consecutive victories to start the group for the first time since 2004.

In what will be a first meeting of these sides in this tournament, the advice is to keep your eye on the action in the second half: in the past 12 years, Mali have scored 21 of their 31 goals in this competition after half-time, a figure second only to Ivory Coast (25).

One to watch: Hamari Traore

Rennes captain Traore made nine final-third entries against Tunisia, the most of any player, as he proved a dangerous outlet. He could be a major threat.

 

Tunisia v Mauritania

Tunisia's shock loss to Mali was their third in a row at the AFCON, something they last suffered in 2004. They have never before lost four consecutive matches at this tournament.

The 2004 champions are also enduring a four-game winless run in the group stage and were held to a goalless draw by Mauritania in 2019 in their only previous meeting in this competition.

Mauritania, still without a victory at the Africa Cup of Nations, will at least hope to end a three-game run without a goal.

One to watch: Wahbi Khazri

Khazri missed a crucial 77th-minute penalty against Mali during a frustrating performance. The Saint-Etienne forward will be more determined that anyone to make amends.

 

Ivory Coast v Sierra Leone

Ivory Coast are seeking a third consecutive win in the AFCON group stages, something they last managed between January 2010 and January 2013.

History is on their side against Sierra Leone: they won the only previous meeting at this competition 4-0 back in 1994, in which Joel Tiehi scored a hat-trick - something no Ivory Coast player has managed since in the AFCON.

Sierra Leone have not scored in five of their previous six games at this event, only managing to do so against Burkina Faso in 1996, but they do have a man in good form at these finals...

One to watch: Mohamed Nbalie Kamara

Having studied Algeria's Riyad Mahrez by watching Manchester City footage, Sierra Leone goalkeeper became a national hero for his performance in their opening game. He even won praise from the country's president, Julius Maada Bio, who delivered a personal message of thanks on social media.

Algeria v Equatorial Guinea

The third-highest-ranked African side were frustrated on matchday one, and there will be a determination to put things right.

They do at least boast an impressive defensive record, having gone unbeaten in nine matches in this tournament and kept six clean sheets in their most recent eight games.

Equatorial Guinea have won just one AFCON match since getting two victories on their tournament debut in 2012. Still, they were unbeaten in five games before these finals and beat Tunisia in World Cup qualifying towards the end of last year.

One to watch: Youcef Belaili

Belaili created six opportunities on matchday one, taking his tally to 18 in the competition overall. That is double the amount of chances created by any other Algeria player since his debut three years ago.

 

Africa Cup of Nations chiefs have launched an investigation into why referee Janny Sikazwe blew for full-time twice before 90 minutes was up in Tunisia's match against Mali.

Tunisia head coach Mondher Kebaier described Sikazwe's officiating of Wednesday's game as "inexplicable".

Mali were leading the Group F match 1-0 through a Ibrahima Kone penalty when the Zambian official blew for full-time in the 85th minute.

Kebaier realised his error and play resumed for another four minutes, during which time Mali forward El Bilal Toure was dismissed, before blowing again with 13 seconds of the 90 minutes to go.

That was despite there being a number of stoppages in the second half, including a couple of lengthy VAR checks for Kone's penalty and one that Wahbi Khazri missed for Tunisia.

Tunisia officials stormed onto the field to protest and later refused to send their team back to the field when it was decided to play on for the final stages.

Now the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has confirmed it is probing the circumstances of the farcical and controversial scenes, which grabbed global attention.

It has been reported that Sikazwe was taken to hospital after the game, with the effects of heatstroke and dehydration having caused him to lose focus.

"In relation to the TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations match between Tunisia and Mali played in Limbe on 12 January 2022, CAF is gathering all the necessary reports from the officials at the match," a CAF statement read.

"CAF is forwarding these documents to the competent bodies of CAF. At this stage, CAF is not in a position to make further comment until the responsible bodies indicate the way forward."

 

Tunisia head coach Mondher Kebaier hit out at referee Janny Sikazwe's "inexplicable" decision to bring an early end to Wednesday's Africa Cup of Nations clash with Mali.

Mali were leading the Group F match 1-0 through a Ibrahima Kone penalty when the Zimbabwean official blew for full-time in the 85th minute.

Kebaier realised his error and play resumed for another four minutes, during which time Mali forward El Bilal Toure was dismissed, before blowing again with 13 seconds to go.

That was despite a number of stoppages in the second half, including a couple of lengthy VAR checks for Kone's penalty and one that Wahbi Khazri missed for Tunisia.

Tunisia officials stormed onto the field to protest, arguing that not only should the remaining seconds have been played, but time should also have been added on at the end.

In incredible scenes, Mali coach Mohamed Magassouba was speaking at his post-match news conference when word emerged that the game would restart.

Around 40 minutes after the game was supposed to have concluded, Mali's players made their way back on the field, but Tunisia's players did not re-emerge from the tunnel.

Tunisia boss Kebaier later explained that his players were not in a position to play the remaining minutes and suggested an appeal will be lodged.

"It's a difficult situation to deal with," he told reporters. "The referee also blew with five minutes left in the first half.

"Then he blew after 89 minutes in the second, denying us practically seven or eight minutes of added time.

"His decision is inexplicable. I can't understand how he made his decision and we will see what happens now."

Asked about events after the game, Kebaier added: "He blew for full-time and asked us to go to the dressing room. The players were in their ice baths when asked to come out.

"In 30 years in this business I have never seen anything like it."

The controversial end to the match meant kick-off in the later game between Mauritania and Gambia at the same ground was pushed back by 45 minutes.

Should the result stand, Mali will be in a strong position to advance into the knockout stages of the competition for the second tournament running.

Giving his side's view on the drama, Mali boss Magassouba said: "These are administrative questions. We were told to go back on the pitch because the game was not finished.

"Unfortunately the opposition team did not want to come back out and the final whistle was blown."

Wahbi Khazri had a second-half penalty saved as Tunisia fell to a contentious 1-0 loss against Mali in their Africa Cup of Nations opener in which referee Janny Sikazwe was at the centre of controversy.

Sikazwe awarded both sides a penalty in the second half and dismissed Mali forward El Bilal Toure before blowing for full-time early to spark angry scenes at Stade Limbe.

After a low-key first half that saw neither side go particularly close, Ibrahima Kone converted past debutant keeper Bechir Ben Said from 12 yards after Ellyes Skhiri blocked Boubakar Kouyate's shot with his hand.

Tunisia, the fourth-highest ranked African side, toiled without truly being able to test Ibrahim Mounkoro in the Group F clash between the sides expected to advance in the top two spots ahead of Gambia and Mauritania.

But the 2004 tournament winners were given a lifeline 16 minutes from time as Sikazwe again pointed to the spot when Khazri's cross hit Moussa Djenepo on the hand, only for the Saint-Etienne striker's penalty to be saved by Mounkoro.

After the referee initially blew for full-time in the 85th minute, play resumed and Mali substitute Toure was shown a straight red card for catching Dylan Bronn, before Sikazwe again brought play to a halt 10 seconds early despite a raft of substitutions and a cooling break.

Wednesday sees the last remaining Africa Cup of Nations group get under way, with Tunisia and Ivory Coast set to be the biggest draws.

Both countries have designs on going deep into the tournament and will be eager to make positive starts to ensure they are not playing catch-up.

While Tunisia and Ivory Coast have racked up 44 AFCON qualifications between then, Gambia will be making their bow.

 

Tunisia v Mali (13:00 GMT)

Africa's second-highest ranked nation, Tunisia, are appearing in a 15th successive AFCON this year, setting a new record.

But they have only been beyond the last eight once (in 2019) since winning the tournament as hosts in 2004. The Carthage Eagles are, some might say, frequent under-achievers at this level.

Yet they head into the tournament in reasonably good shape having reached the final of last month's Arab Cup, only losing to AFCON champions Algeria after extra-time.

Mondher Kebaier will be expecting first opponents Mali to represent their toughest challenge in Group F, with the Eagles having never lost their AFCON opener (W6 D5).

One to watch: Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)

Manchester United midfielder Hannibal started all six of Tunisia's games as they reached the final of the Arab Cup. He may not feature quite as prominently in a full-strength squad, but he possesses the kind of off-the-cuff abilities that could help unlock stubborn defences. Expect him to draw a lot of fouls, such is his natural talent.

Mauritania v Gambia (16:00)

Gambia, along with the Comoros, are one of two nations debuting at the AFCON this year and will be eager to produce a positive showing.

In theory, they begin with arguably the most winnable of their three Group F games, with Mauritania coach Didier Gomes Da Rosa likening the match to a "semi-final".

His counterpart Tom Saintfiet has a better-travelled squad, however, his selection made up mostly of Europe-based players – Sampdoria, Gent, Spezia, Real Valladolid and even Roma are among the clubs represented.

The west-African nation may be the lowest-ranked team in the competition (150th), but they reached Cameroon as the only side to come through both the preliminary and group stages of qualifying, shocking Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola to top the table.

One to watch: Musa Barrow (Gambia)

Barrow is one of six Gambia players to ply his trade in Italy, though the 23-year-old is the most polished. The left winger also has an end product, with his 24 non-penalty Serie A goal involvements since the start of last season a highly respectable effort that is bettered by only 15 players.

 

Equatorial Guinea v Ivory Coast (19:00)

Ivory Coast might have gone all the way back in 2019 were it not for their somewhat surprising penalties elimination by Algeria in the last eight.

They are among the favourites once again and will have a shot at revenge when they meet Algeria in Group E, a clash that will likely determine who finishes top.

But first they tussle with an Equatorial Guinea side competing for the first time as a non-host nation, having been knocked out by Ivory Coast in the last eight 10 years ago and then reaching the semis in 2015.

Juan Micha's side will do well to see off the Elephants here, though, with Ivory Coast suffering just two defeats in their previous 20 AFCON group games.

One to watch: Sebastien Haller (Ivory Coast)

Ajax striker Haller is having an incredible season at club level, boasting a goals haul of 22 across between the Eredivisie and Champions League already. In fact, his 10 strikes in Europe made him the quickest player to reach double figures for career goals in the Champions League (six games), and he matched Cristiano Ronaldo's record of scoring in every single game in a single group stage.

 

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