- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

OYEM, Gabon (AP) - Two days, two surprise results at the African Cup of Nations as Algeria was held to a 2-2 draw by Zimbabwe on Sunday despite a double from Riyad Mahrez.

Not only was Algeria held, it needed Mahrez’s long-range shot in the 82nd minute, which slipped past Zimbabwe goalkeeper Tatenda Mkuruva. That saved Algeria from opening its group campaign with an unexpected loss in the far eastern city of Franceville.

The African Cup has served up two warnings to the so-called bigger teams already, with tournament debutant Guinea-Bissau scoring a 90th-minute equalizer in the opening game on Saturday to surprise host Gabon with a 1-1 draw on the coast in Libreville.

“There are no small teams in this competition, no little countries you can ignore,” said Ivory Coast midfielder Franck Kessie.

The Ivorians, the defending champions at this tournament, have clearly seen the warning signs ahead of their opener against Togo way up in Gabon’s northern jungle town of Oyem on Monday.

The first of Sunday’s two Group B games in Franceville, in the deep interior, was pulsating just about from the beginning.

Mahrez, the Leicester forward and African player of the year, sent in a curling shot from a tight angle for 1-0, Zimbabwe rallied to lead 2-1 just over 15 minutes later, and Mahrez struck at the end to deny the Zimbabweans what would have been a memorable victory.

Zimbabwe hasn’t played at the African Cup in over a decade, had its buildup marred by a player strike over unpaid wages and bonuses, and then had to play its opening game in a makeshift team uniform after kits for the tournament didn’t arrive out in Franceville in time for the game. The unfamiliar shirts and shorts didn’t seem to bother the Zimbabweans.

Mahrez gave Algeria a 13th-minute lead with his left-foot curler from just inside the area but Kuda Mahachi made it 1-1 just four minutes after Mahrez’s opening goal, and Nyasha Mushekwi’s penalty on 30 minutes put Zimbabwe ahead.

Algeria surged forward in the last 10 minutes, Mahrez made it 2-2, and Slimani badly missed with a header from right in front of goal that would have given Algeria a late victory.

Algeria has been tipped to go far at this African Cup, spearheaded by the slick attacking threats of Leicester’s Mahrez and Islam Slimani, and Porto’s Yacine Brahimi.

Zimbabwe is supposedly the weakest of the four teams in Group B, which saw Senegal avoid any upset later Sunday when it beat Tunisia 2-0.

Senegal has never won the African Cup but is one of the tournament favorites with a perfect qualifying record and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane up front.

Senegal went ahead after only 10 minutes with Mane scoring from the penalty spot after Cheikhou Kouyate appeared to be chopped down. As Mane went to strike the ball, Tunisia goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi stepped to his left and Mane calmly sent the ball low into the other corner.

Kara Mbodji doubled the lead after a half-hour with a powerful header from the middle of the area off a corner. Mathlouthi got his right hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out.

Senegal went top of Group B while Tunisia, which wasted several chances, is bottom.

On Monday, Ivory Coast has much to deal with in Oyem when it opens Group C against Togo, including the threat of another upset by Togo and also a hastily built stadium and a newly laid field, both of which appear to have lost their races against time to be fully ready for the African Cup.

The Stade d’Oyem is at the end of a thin road that snakes up and out of the town, and is surrounded by dense jungle canopy on both sides. At the arena, workers were still installing electrics inside the venue, and construction debris was strewn around the outside of the stadium late into Sunday, a day ahead of its first game.

The field especially caught the attention of Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer when he inspected, with Dussuyer turning to a Confederation of African Football official and saying: “There are areas over there where it’s totally uneven.”


Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP



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