Defending champion Algeria lost 1-0 to Equatorial Guinea in one of the biggest-ever upsets at the African Cup of Nations, with a defender who was playing in the fifth tier in Spain last year scoring the goal that beat Riyad Mahrez and his superstar teammates.
Esteban Obiang arrived at the back post to connect with a corner in the 70th minute for Equatorial Guinea’s winner, ending a four-year unbeaten run for the African champion and leaving its title defense in Cameroon in pieces.
Algeria fans dropped their heads and cried in the Japoma Stadium in Douala.
Algeria launched attack after desperate attack on the Equatorial Guinea goal in the last 10 minutes but Mahrez and his team couldn’t find a way past 20-year-old goalkeeper Jesús Owono.
Algeria had two goals correctly disallowed for offside, one in the first half and one in that frantic search for an equalizer.
After being surprisingly held 0-0 by Sierra Leone in its first game, Algeria is bottom of Group E going into a final group game against former champion Ivory Coast.
It seemed the African Cup couldn’t possibly throw up any more surprises Sunday after minnows Sierra Leone and Gambia had secured draws dripping with drama.
Sierra Leone capitalized on a terrible goalkeeper error deep in injury time for a 2-2 draw against two-time champion Ivory Coast in the other Group E game.
Gambia converted a 90th-minute penalty for a 1-1 draw with Mali that left tournament debutant Gambia incredibly at the top of Group F ahead of former champion Tunisia and Mali with just one more round of group games to play.
Gambia and Mali both scored penalties that were awarded after VAR checks. Ibrahima Koné converted for Mali in the 79th minute. But Gambia, which had earlier hit the post and the crossbar with free kicks, saved a point through Mussa Barrow in the last minute.
In the other game in that group, Tunisia recovered convincingly from its highly contentious loss to Mali to beat Mauritania as expected, and provide the only game that went according to expectations. Tunisia won 4-0, was 2-0 up after eight minutes, and captain Wahbi Khazri scored a double in a match that might have attracted more attention on any other day.
Previously best known for being the smallest country in mainland Africa, Gambia is unbeaten in its first two games at a major tournament, having won against Mauritania in its opener.
In a disastrous finish for Ivory Coast against Sierra Leone, goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangaré landed awkwardly while trying to gather a header back from one of his defenders that was going out for a corner, and the ball slipped out of his grasp, allowing Alhaji Kamara to score Sierra Leone’s equalizer in the 93rd minute.
Sierra Leone is making its first appearance at the African Cup in 26 years and has now drawn against two heavyweights in Algeria and Ivory Coast to be unbeaten on its return to the big time after more than two decades.
Having been seconds away from victory, Ivory Coast clung on to avoid defeat amid chaos at the end when Sangaré was taken off on a stretcher after hurting himself giving the goal away. Defender Serge Aurier had to stand in as goalkeeper for the remaining minute as Ivory Coast had used all its substitutions.
Ivory Coast imploded despite controlling the late stages and having worked so hard to get itself into a winning position.
Franck Kessié of AC Milan missed a penalty for Ivory Coast in the 12th minute, or rather saw it saved brilliantly by Sierra Leone ‘keeper Mohamed Kamara, the hero of the draw against mighty Algeria.
Ajax forward Sébastien Haller did eventually put Ivory Coast ahead in the 25th.
But Musa Kamara smashed an equalizer into the net for Sierra Leone in the 55th, and Ivory Coast had to battle again.
Nicolas Pépé seemed to have won it with his smoothly taken goal only for Sangaré’s blunder to change it all at the end.
Ivory Coast would have been in the knockout stages if it had held on for the win. It sill leads the group but must now face Algeria in their final group game with both of their fates hanging in the balance in a group they were both expected to cruise through.
After the first week of the African Cup, Algeria and Ivory Coast aren’t the only big teams fretting ahead of the final group games, which start Monday.
Four-time champion Ghana is currently not even one of the best third-place teams, and Tunisia isn’t guaranteed a knockout place. Senegal and Egypt also have work to do to ensure Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah aren’t on early planes out of Cameroon.