The big names suffered a humbling on their maiden voyages in the Africa Cup of Nations. Goal.com's Peter Staunton reflects on Monday's action...Three matches into the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations and only one team has gained three solid points. That team is not the Eagles of Mali, nor is it Cote d'Ivoire or Algeria. The big guns have found it increasingly difficult to roll out the heavy artillery in this edition of the tournament and Malawi are the sole game winners to this point.
The hosts Angola and now Burkina Faso and the Flames themselves have all bloodied the noses of supposedly superior opposition. Indeed, Monday's encounters, one of which took place in Cabinda without incident, illustrated the point that the continent's outstanding teams on paper will not simply roll up to the AFCON and kick sand in the faces of the minnows.
And with good reasons too. Algeria and latterly, Cote d'Ivoire, cannot chalk their deficiencies in their respective first group matches down to 'off-days'. Individual talent is no match for the strength of the collective; Malawi and Burkina Faso both executed a gameplan expertly and trusted their systems rather than their stars to accrue rewards.
In the afternoon game, played in front of merely hundreds of spectators in Luanda, Kinnah Phiri set his side out to not only blockade Algeria and their wealth of European-based players. The coach sought to maximise the Flames' own resources and to take advantage of Algeria's inability to cope at the back without the former Inter defender, Antar Yahia, and their regular goalkeeper, Lounes Gaouaoui, sidelined with appendicitis.
Malawi were by far the better unit, out-pointing their illustrious foes all over the field - from their well-drilled backline, through their combative midfield, to their talented and ruthless attack.
Algeria, instead, had the demeanour of a student sitting an exam for which he hadn't studied. Just giving the ball to the likes of Karim Ziani and Rafik Saifi was never going to work for Rabah Saadane's side, who had patently underestimated the Flames.
Malawi, led diligently by their skipper, Peter Mponda, did not allow the Desert Foxes to play through them and were rewarded for their tactical adherence with their greatest scalp at an African Nations Cup.
Granted, two of their three goals had a lot to do with the incompetence of the goalkeeper, Chaouchi, but they came at crucial times. Russel Mwafulirwa showed no mercy with the opener while Elvis Kafoteka's header would have needed five keepers to stop it. The less said about Chaouchi's contribution to Davi Banda's sealer, the better.
Nonetheless, the Flames struck while the iron was hot, at times when many teams would have been counting the cost of missed chances. With the likes of Joseph Kamwendo in the ranks too, Malawi could be the true surprise package of this year's cup. For Algeria, this will be a lesson learned in taking opponents lightly, and it is clear that the Fennecs have a lot of cramming to do before the summer tests in South Africa.
Speaking of ruing missed opportunities, that is exactly what the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire will be doing today. Only one more group match to go, against fellow tournament hot-shots, the Black Stars of Ghana, and the favourites are quickly in trouble.
Despite the presence of Didier Drogba, the World Cup-bound side could not find a way past the intransigence of Burkina Faso.
Marshalled by the strapping duo of Mamadou Tall and Bakary Kone, and given spice by the hassling abilities of Saidou Panandetiguiri, the Stallions comfortably repelled whatever Cote d'Ivoire could throw at them and were not overly reliant on their goalkeeper, Daouda Diakite, to keep them in the match.
That said, Cote d'Ivoire had ample possession but could not turn that into consistent attempts on goal nor fluid attacking play. The playmaking of Gervinho was rewarded with little or no outlet while the finishing capabilities of Baky Kone left a lot to be desired and could prompt a start for Salomon Kalou against Ghana.
Paulo Duarte, once under pressure as coach of the Stallions when he combined the job with his role as coach of Le Mans, had a gameplan here and his charges stuck to it. Moumouni Dagano will scarcely have a more quiet evening in his career in front of goal but the self sacrifice was well worth it. The Al Khor front-man had a thankless task, ploughing the lone furrow, but he did provide a point of reference for the Burkinabe breakouts.
Hamburg's Jonathan Pitroipa, Marseille's Charles Kabore and Florent Rouamba of Sheriff all had magnificent games for the underdogs in midfield, rarely allowing the exalted trio of Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora and Chiek Tiote the time and space they needed to play through the centre.
Cote d'Ivoire will still fancy their chances of making it through the group stage but like Algeria before them, the Elephants gave observers a lesson in not believing the hype. It's not going to be the best 11 players that wins the Cup of Nations, it will be the best team. The sentiment among African football fans is that Cote d'Ivoire are among the most over-rated sides in the competition and are too reliant on their star names to drag them on. On this evidence, that argument has some vindication.
Once the likes of Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana and Cameroon take to the field then Vahid Halilhodzic might realise that his amply talented group have a lot of work to do in order to live up to their favourites tag.
Peter Staunton, Goal.com