AFCON 2023: Team of the Group Stage

The tournament has clearly over-delivered; from the drama to the quality on the pitch, from the mindblowing goals to the upsets
January 25, 2023
Written By
Astorre Cerebróne
In this Article

The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has produced possibly the greatest group stage of all time. It is shaping up to be the most memorable tournament ever as well. The tournament has clearly over-delivered; from the drama to the quality on the pitch, from the mindblowing goals to the upsets. A big reason why it has been so enjoyable is the quality of the performances of the players, who have shown just how good they can be. There have been many across positions, so this was a difficult XI to compile. That said, here is our Group Stage XI:

GK – Stanley Nwabali (Nigeria)

Before the start of the tournament, Nigeria’s goalkeeping department was widely regarded as a key weakness, as it had been the team’s most problematic position for some time. Many were even still unsure about who would be in goal or if there would be one stable starter. Stanley Nwabali was eventually chosen by coach Jose Peseiro, and he has repaid the faith with his performances, allaying all fears. His 8 saves have helped to produce 2 clean sheets in 3 games, as Nigeria’s approach has invited some pressure, helping his country qualify with relative ease. It has been particularly crucial because Nigeria’s attack has misfired so far, with only 3 goals scored, including a penalty and an own goal.

Unruly Rating: 8/10

LB – Krépin Diatta (Senegal)

Krépin has been one of Senegal’s standout performances, completely dominating their right side. Naturally, he is supposed to be on the right side for this XI, but some liberties had to be taken because it would have been criminal to exclude either him or Hakimi. Defensively, he has been monstrous, a key reason why Senegal has only conceded one goal, the joint-best record so far. No opposing player has been able to get past him with a dribble so far, a big deal for a fullback. Going forward, he has also been very good as well, even providing an assist for Abdoulaye Seck. He has been one of the best fullbacks at the tournament so far. If Senegal will reach their ambitions of back-to-back triumphs, he will be key.

Unruly Rating: 8/10

CB – Logan Costa (Cape Verde)

Cape Verde shocked the continent when they defeated 4-time champions, Ghana, in their opening game. Paired with the experienced Roberto ‘Pico’ Lopes in defence, Costa was excellent, keeping the Ghanaians at bay. While Cape Verde’s 7 goals were well spread across, scored by 7 different players, the work of their defence contributed immensely to their good form. It meant they qualified for the next round after two games, in which they conceded only a goal. The third game against Egypt saw some rotation, as they were group winners regardless. Costa still delivered a great performance, in the face of an Egyptian onslaught all game long, making them labor as they desperately sought qualification.

Unruly Rating: 8/10

CB – Calvin Bassey (Nigeria)

Defence has been the best thing about the Nigerian team so far in this tournament. Nobody has embodied that excellence quite like Calvin Bassey, who has been a rock at the back. He has played multiple roles and delivered every single time. Against Cote d’Ivoire especially, he was easily the difference, putting in a man-of-the-match performance to render the hosts ineffective. Through the group stage, the team conceded only 1 goal, with Bassey being possibly their best player. Others like Ola Aina & Ekong have shone in defence too, but Bassey has ultimately been the man, a silent leader, and a standout performer.

Unruly Rating: 8.5/10

RB – Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)

Achraf Hakimi is comfortably one of the world’s best footballers, and a top 5 player in his position. In a tournament where superstars typically struggle, and an edition where many have struggled so far, he has stepped up. Morocco conceded only one goal in their 3 games, with him holding his own defensively. In attack, he has been unstoppable, delivering a goal and an Assist in successive games. He has also created a big chance in every game; with four created, more than any other player has managed in the competition. Morocco will be hoping his brilliant form continues in the knockout stage, where the stakes are highest.

Unruly Rating: 9/10

CM – Jose Machin (Equatorial Guinea)

While Hakimi has created a big chance in every game, Jose Machin has taken it further by assisting in every game. No other player in the competition has managed that. Equatorial Guinea have been imperious, stamping their authority and winning their group with ease. Their 4-0 victory over Cote d’Ivoire was a particular highlight, the result that made everyone finally take notice. In the middle of the park is Machin, the engineer who serves as the link to the attack. In the hole, he has been magnificent, ensuring that they never commit too many players forward while remaining dangerous and unplayable. Tournament top scorer, Emilio Nsue, has benefitted immensely from Machin’s work, with 2 of his five goals assisted by his creative midfielder.

Unruly Rating: 8/10

CM – Azzedine Ounahi (Morocco)

The majestic Azzedine Ounahi has continued where he left off at the 2022 World Cup, with a memorable start to this campaign that could prove to be historic for Morocco. His goal in the first game embodied what he is about; magical feet and the ability to get everyone on their feet. So far, he has completed all 8 of his attempted dribbles, showing his immense ball retention ability. He has been at the center of everything good that Morocco has done and continues to show how important he is to the side. More will be expected of him in the knockout stages, and there is no doubt that he will carry on this form to propel his country forward. He could be an early contender for player of the tournament.

Unruly Rating: 9/10

RM – Aboubakary Koita (Mauritania)

Mauritania was not expected to get out of their group, especially because it contained 2019 champions Algeria, and 2022 semi-finalists Burkina Faso and Angola. Also because they had never won a game at this tournament. This team, however, did not come here to be a statistic. They earned their first-ever win, knocking out Algeria and making it to the round of 16. In Aboubakary Koita, they have a star. It is not only because he scored a belter against Angola. It is also because he has been a real livewire in every game, driving his team forward. His dribbling ability has been a particular highlight. He completed a tournament-high 7 dribbles out of 7 attempts against Angola, and no player has completed more dribbles than his 11 in total. His country will need more of the same when they go up against Cape Verde in the next round.

Unruly Rating: 8.5/10

LM – Sadio Mané (Senegal)

Senegal’s flawless run so far has been heavily influenced by Sadio Mané. The team is incredible and a delight to watch as a unit, but Mané’s leadership and excellence take things to a new level every game. What has been most striking is the fact he is not playing with the ego of a superstar but like a cog in the team’s wheels. What is clear, though, is that he is much more than that to them. So far, he has produced something in every game; an assist in the first, a goal in the second, and an assist in the third. Beyond those contributions, he has also been key in orchestrating attacks, coming deep when necessary, and driving his troops forward. Senegal’s ambitions still rest firmly on his shoulders, the guy they will look to whenever they find themselves in need of inspiration.

Unruly Rating: 8.5/10

CF – Emilio Nsue (Equatorial Guinea)

Emilio Nsue has been the standout performer of the tournament, and the big headliner. He became the first player to score a hattrick at AFCON since Soufiane Alloudi in 2008 when he breached the Guinea-Bissau defense three times. His brace against hosts Cote d’Ivoire also made him the first to score 5 goals in the group stage, from open play, since Samuel Eto’o in 2006. Nsue has been a dominant presence, the man leading from the front as Equatorial Guinea has stomped on their opponents. They have outscored every team at the tournament, and haven’t been behind once. The main reason is how clinical Nsue has been in front of goal; he is still yet to miss a big chance after 3 games played. He is the current top scorer and the favorite for the Golden Boot. Nobody saw that coming, as everybody tipped the Salahs and the Osimhens to be frontrunners. The fact that Nsue currently plays in the 3rd tier of Spanish football makes it more fascinating. His exploits will be remembered for a long time.

Unruly Rating: 10/10

CF – Mostafa Mohamed (Egypt)

Egypt was supposed to be the team dependent on Mohamed Salah, a team to be carried on his shoulders. Unfortunately, he got injured in game two, in the middle of their game against Ghana. Regardless, the team refused to buckle, battling through until they ensured qualification for the round of 16. A major reason why is the form of Mostafa Mohamed, the only player to score in all three games so far. His goals have proven vital for Egypt, who drew all their games, 2-2. He scored the goal that earned them a point against Ghana and then produced a late goal against Cape Verde, which ultimately took them through to the round of 16. Every time they have needed someone to step up, Mostafa has answered emphatically. He has been as valuable to his side as any other player in the tournament. With Salah still out, a lot rests on his shoulders as Egypt looks to finally end their trophy drought.

Unruly Rating: 8/10

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