- Associated Press - Thursday, January 19, 2017

LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) - Senegal was Africa’s top-ranked team on paper coming into the African Cup of Nations. It’s No. 1 on the field, too, after overpowering Zimbabwe to be first into the quarterfinals.

Can defending champion Ivory Coast, underwhelming in its first test, respond on Friday? Some things to know as we approach the halfway stage of the group games at the African Cup:

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TOURNAMENT HAS A FAVORITE

World rankings are an unreliable indicator and often irrelevant when it comes to the Cup of Nations. See Ivory Coast’s constant struggle to win the title when it was No. 1 in Africa. Free of that burden two years ago, the Ivorians triumphed. Meanwhile Algeria, No. 1 last time, battled to make it out the group and lost in the quarterfinals. But Senegal suggested the FIFA rankings might be on the money this year by dismantling Zimbabwe in an overpowering opening spell in Franceville. It’s maybe the favorite for the title at a tournament that was pretty wide open at the start. Sadio Mande scored his second goal in two games to start the 2-0 victory and homegrown coach and former player Aliou Cisse pointed his fingers up to the sky at the final whistle. Onwards and upwards for the Senegalese.

IVORY COAST PLAYS CATCHUP

Ivory Coast was lethargic in the sweltering heat of Oyem up in the far north of Gabon in its first game, a 0-0 draw with Togo. On Friday, it faces a Congo team that beat Morocco in its opener and plays an exciting and unpredictable brand, often operating at breakneck speed.

“They are very aggressive, very physical, and they are dangerous because they have some lively attackers,” Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer said.

WHAT’S UP WITH THE GOALKEEPERS?

Tunisia goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi limped off right at the end of the 2-1 win over Algeria on Thursday, the latest goalie to ne hurt. Algeria was already playing with its second-choice ‘keeper and Egypt has just one of its three goalkeepers fit, 44-year-old veteran Essam el-Hadary.

Other injuries are starting to bite for the teams: Congo’s chances against Ivory Coast have been diminished after coach Florent Ibenge confirmed the absence of defenders Gabriel Zakuani and Fabrice Nsakala. Host Gabon has lost influential midfielder Mario Lemina of Juventus for the rest of the tournament with a back injury. Ghana has sent defender Baba Rahman home with a knee problem.

ALGERIA ON THE EDGE - NOT THE ONLY ONE

Algeria is facing elimination after a draw and a loss, but it’s not the only one of the teams that were tipped to do well with problems. Ivory Coast could find itself in deep trouble deep in the jungles of Oyem if it doesn’t beat Congo. Egypt’s goalkeeping worries hang over it on its return to the Cup of Nations for the first time in seven years. Uganda, an underdog with little to lose, waits on Saturday. And host Gabon, whose early elimination would really put a dampener on the tournament, faces a must-win game against Cameroon on Sunday.

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

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