Predicting the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 Winner
*All data correct at the time of writing.
The numbers are so close between Nigeria and Morocco that we should probably consider them co-favourites for the Africa Cup of Nations, but finalists don’t split trophies and neither do we. Neither Nigeria nor Morocco lost during the AFCON 2021 qualifiers, but they did it in different ways. Morocco only conceded once, while Nigeria let in seven goals in six matches against Sierra Leone, Benin and Lesotho.
Still, the AFCON 2013 winners have an ever-so-slight pre-tournament edge as they attempt to spoil the festivities for their hosts and neighbors Cameroon. Alas, our AFCON 2021 (don’t call it AFCON 2022, no matter what the calendar might say) predictor’s pre-tournament rankings:
The Super Eagles will be without Watford striker Emmanuel Dennis and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, but there’s no shortage of European attacking talent in the Nigeria camp with La Liga and Villarreal standout Samuel Chukwueze, as well as their England-based players led by Kelechi Iheanacho.
Among all 24 sides, Nigeria have only the fourth-highest likelihood of winning their group because they’ve got seven-time champions Egypt and Mohamed Salah to deal with in Group D, but things improve from there with what could be a friendlier path to the trophy than other contenders. Their per cent likelihood of reaching the quarter-finals is third highest at 61.63%, while their semi-final (39.71) and final (25.20) chances are second. But things won’t be so straightforward if they aren’t able to advance ahead of Egypt and their Liverpool star. The Group D winner is matched with a third-place team from either B, E or F in the round of 16. Second place in Group D will have to play the winner of Group E, which is likely to be Algeria or Ivory Coast.
Morocco have the second-highest chance of finishing first in a group and the second-highest chance of winning the tournament. They also have a solid Round of 16 draw should they finish ahead of Ghana, Gabon and Comoros. The Group C winners draw the third-place team from either Group A, B or F. As a result, their 69.02% chance of reaching the quarter-finals is the highest of the 24 teams, as is their 25.30% chance of reaching the final.
The hosts have been waiting patiently for us to explain that underwhelming number attached to their name in the table above. It’s not a typo…
Cameroon have a 40.59% chance of winning Group A. That narrowly edges Burkina Faso (36.08%), and the two meet to kick off the tournament on Sunday. Cameroon have (somewhat) recent history with projected Group A third-place finishers Cape Verde. If you put any stock in AFCON qualifiers for an auto-qualified host nation, the five-time AFCON champions edged Cape Verde to win Group F by a point, but Cape Verde defeated Cameroon 3-1 on Matchday 5 after the two sides played to a scoreless draw all the way back in November 2019 for Matchday 2.
Cameroon also have an 84.85% chance of qualifying for the last 16, but the knockout phase could prove to be a difficult path for the Indomitable Lions.
The winner of Group A faces a third-place team from either C, D or E, which figures to be a winnable match. But it’s also important to note they could face Algeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco or Ghana if one of those happen to finish third. Their quarter-final match would most likely be Mali or Guinea, but it could also be against Senegal or Tunisia.
If Cameroon finish second, things get particularly difficult. In the last 16, they’d have to play the runners-up from Group C, which contains both Morocco and Ghana. If they were to advance beyond that, they’d have a quarter-final matchup most likely against the winner of Group D, which contains both Egypt and Nigeria.
With all of this taken into consideration, Cameroon have a 43.17% chance of reaching the quarter-finals, but their likelihood of reaching the semis plummets to 19.63%. Mali, for the sake of comparison, have a 20.23% chance of reaching the semis because their quarter-final path is, pre-tournament, projected to be easier. More on Mali shortly.
No one doubts Cameroon’s history at the tournament. They’ve won it five times, which is more than anyone not named Egypt. But if they’re to do it a sixth time, it’ll happen against the odds. A host, after all, hasn’t won the tournament or even reached a final since Egypt in 2006. That’s seven tournaments with disappointed local supporters.
Who has the Highest Chance of Winning Their Group?
Senegal should be in good shape in Group B. Premier League stars with Liverpool’s Sadio Mané up front and a Champions League-winning Chelsea goalkeeper in the back with Edouard Mendy can’t hurt, but their draw is also solid. They’ve got the highest likelihood of winning their group (61.57%) and the highest likelihood of emerging from the group stages with all nine points (25.59%). That’s in part because the 2019 runners-up don’t have quite as strong of a contender in their group as others do. Guinea (36.99% chance of finishing second in Group B) have a 2.28% chance of winning the tournament, which is the lowest of any projected second-place group finisher.
So where does it potentially go wrong for Senegal? They have the highest chance of reaching the knockout stages (94.56%). They also have the best chance of reaching the semi-finals (39.97%), but Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt all have better chances of reaching the final than Senegal. That’s because of the likelihood of a potentially difficult semi-final matchup against Egypt.
As for the team that ended Senegal’s AFCON title dreams last time around…
The Title Holders
Algeria won the 2019 version of the Africa Cup of Nations and there’s still probably a strong argument for the Desert Foxes as the best team in the tournament. In Group E, Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez & Co. have a slight advantage over Ivory Coast and the likes of Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe to take the top spot (45.45% to 44.93%). It’s just that that might not be an advantage at all.
Whether winning the group means anything is going to depend on what happens in groups D and F. Our model considers Algeria one of the favourites, but as we stated above, Group D contains both Nigeria and Egypt, two of the three teams most likely to win the tournament according to our model. The winner of Group E will take on the runners-up of Group D in the last 16. That’s not exactly a desired prize. The runners-up of Group E, however, will play the winners of Group F. That’s most likely to be Tunisia but could also be Mali.
Which brings us back to Mali’s comparatively high chances to progress in the tournament…
AFCON Dark Horses v1
There was a new apparent dark horse every day or two at Euro 2020, and that may again be the case with AFCON. Mali won their group in AFCON qualification and are one of 10 teams to qualify for the third round of CAF World Cup qualification. They did that without conceding in six matches, albeit against Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. Without debating the merits of Mali’s squad, at least part of the attraction here is the draw. Mali are in a group with Tunisia, Mauritania and Gambia. The runners-up of Group F will play the runners-up of Group B. As long as that doesn’t end up being Senegal, it has the potential to be a favourable last 16 situation to be in. If that plays out and Mali were to get through to the quarter-finals, they’d face the winner of Group A (Cameroon, Burkina FasoCape Verde, Ethiopia) or a third-place team.
That’s perhaps the easiest realistic path to the semi-finals. Sounds like the narrative we built around Denmark at Euros pre-tournament. Where did Denmark end up? The semis.
Now’s your chance to shower us with outrage, so let the debate begin, but let’s also point out how much fun this tournament could be due to that lack of a massive favourite and the relative strength of the top 12 teams. Back in June for Euro 2020, we only had six teams with higher than a 6% chance of winning the tournament. Italy were one of them, and they went on to lift the trophy. For AFCON, the predictor has eight teams with higher than a 7% chance of winning and 12 with higher than a 2% chance, while Euros had 10.
Those probabilities will of course change in the build-up to the tournament and evolve with each match played, and we’ll have them for you live, right here.
You’ve seen our (projected) results. Now, you may want to know how this is all worked out.
Stats Perform’s AFCON 2021 prediction model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) by using betting market odds and Stats Perform’s team rankings. The odds and rankings are based on historical and recent team performances.
The model considers the strength of opponents and the difficulty of the “path to the final” by using the match outcome probabilities with the composition of the groups and the seedings into the knockout stages. It then simulates the remainder of the tournament 40,000 times. By analysing the outcome of each of these simulations, the model returns the likelihood of progression for each team at each stage of the tournament to create our final predictions.
|Rank||Group||Team||% to Win AFCON|
|5||Group E||Ivory Coast||8.27%|
|11||Group A||Burkina Faso||2.45%|
|14||Group A||Cape Verde||0.36%|
|T-19||Group E||Equatorial Guinea||0.15%|
|21||Group E||Sierra Leone||0.11%|
Predictive modeling by Yadir Lakehal and the Stats Perform AI team. Design by Matt Sisneros. All numbers correct at the time of writing, but predictor percentages can change throughout the day, every day.
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