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Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations: What to expect from the three Olympic qualifiers

Africa's representatives for the men's football competition at the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan were decided this weekend, with the conclusion of the Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations, which provides the three qualifiers for the tournament.

Egypt clinched the title -- their first success in the tournament -- by defeating Ivory Coast in extra-time in the final at Cairo International Stadium, with South Africa to join the pair in Japan after defeating Ghana on penalties in the third-place playoff.

Ghana's Black Meteors launched stirring late comebacks to take both their semifinal against the Ivorians and the third-place playoff against South Africa to penalties, but ultimately their wait for a first Olympic berth since 2004 continues.

What did we learn about Egypt, Ivory Coast and South Africa during the U-23 Africa Cup of Nations, and how are they shaping up with eight months to go until the tournament?

Egypt

How did they qualify?

Egypt claimed the Under-23 Afcon title by winning all five of their matches, even if they required extra-time to defeat Ivory Coast in the final.

They didn't have things entirely their own way, however, and they required two goals inside the final 10 minutes to turn around a 2-1 deficit against Ghana in their second group game to triumph 3-2.

A late double from the impressive Abdel Rahman Magdy also secured a 3-0 victory against South Africa in the semis -- testament to the hosts' fitness -- and skipper Ramadan Sobhi netted an 116th-minute winner to down the Ivorians in the final.

What's their Olympic pedigree?

Egypt might not have won the Under-23 Nations Cup previously, but they've been to the Olympics before -- finishing fourth in 1928 and 1964.

The North Africans have qualified 14 times for the tournament -- more than any other African side -- although they withdrew from the Games in Melbourne in 1956 and in Moscow 24 years later.

At London in 2012, an exciting team spearheaded by the great Mohamed Aboutrika and a young Mohamed Salah reached the quarterfinals -- giving Brazil a run for their money in the process -- before falling to Japan in a disappointing 3-0 defeat.

Who's the star man?

Sobhi arguably moved to English football too soon after thriving during the early stages of his career with Al-Ahly.

He struggled to make his mark with Stoke City and Huddersfield Town -- despite occasional flashes of brilliance -- and duly returned to Al-Ahly on loan earlier this year.

In this context, his star turn at the Under-23 Afcon represents another chapter in the rehabilitation of a mesmerising wideman who reached the final of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations with the Pharaohs and was part of their World Cup squad last year.

He was influential during the under-23 tournament, with goals against Ghana in the group, South Africa in the semi, and, notably, the extra-time winner in the final against the Elephants.

Who's their main goal threat?

The aforementioned Magdy excelled in the semifinal triumph, but Mostafa Mohamed, 21, is the attacker most likely to strike fear into the heart of defences in Japan. Mostafa ended the under-23 tournament with four goals -- all scored in the group stage -- and he boasts the presence and tenacity to be a consistent menace for opposition backlines.

Crucially, he's already making an impact for Egyptian domestic giants Zamalek, for whom he has also netted four times in the CAF Champions League this year, and he could add to his handful of senior Egypt caps between now and the Olympics. What did they say?

"It was so important to make all those people happy. Three months ago [at the senior Afcon], they left the stadium unhappy. Today it was another story." - Egypt coach Shakwy Gharib told BeIN Sports, as Egypt's under-23 team clinched the title at Cairo International Stadium, where the senior side had flopped at the Afcon proper this summer.

Ivory Coast

How did they qualify?

The Elephants weren't entirely convincing in reaching the final in Cairo, and there's much work to be done if they're to impress in Japan.

In their opener, against a poor Nigeria team, the underdogs had Eaglets defender Olisah Ndah to thank for conceding a penalty that opened the door for Silas Gnaka to net the winner from the spot.

They were defeated by South Africa in their second fixture before rallying in the second half against Zambia to advance, but that progress was overshadowed by a cruciate ligament injury to Genoa forward Christian Kouame, who now faces a long road back to recovery.

They looked brighter offensively in the knockout stages, but key midfielder Ibrahim Sangare was recalled by Toulouse and they conceded late goals against both Ghana and Egypt to miss out on the title.

What's their Olympic pedigree?

Tokyo 2020 will represent only the Elephants' second appearance at the men's tournament at the Olympics.

An Ivorian team containing the likes of Gervinho, Sol Bamba and Salomon Kalou reached the 2008 Games in Beijing, bouncing back from an opening defeat by Lionel Messi's Argentina to defeat Serbia and Australia to reach the knockouts. They were bested by Nigeria in the quarterfinals, with Peter Odemwingie and Victor Obinna firing the goals to take the Golden Eaglets into the final four.

Who's the star man?

Kouadio-Yves Dabila is one of several defenders who caught the eye with their composed, physical showings in the backline for the Elephants, and no side conceded fewer goals than the West Africans during the group stage of the under-23 tournament in Egypt.

Kouadio, 22, is a fine athlete, but his game-reading belies his slender years, and he's another who should be a much stronger prospect after another year of experience -- albeit in tricky conditions -- in a testing league.

The centre-back is currently on loan at Belgian strugglers Cercle Brugge from parent club LOSC Lille, having been signed by Les Dogues from AS Monaco in 2017.

Who's their main goal threat?

Youssouf Dao stepped up when Kouame was ruled out after the defeat by South Africa, building on his bright early showings in the tournament to net twice -- including a late diving header --- in the semifinal victory over Ghana.

Dao had earlier played a key role in the opener against Nigeria, winning the penalty from which Gnaka struck the winner, although several spurned chances against Ghana highlighted a lack of composure that must be refined before the Olympics.

At 21, the Sparta Prague attacker, nicknamed 'The Gazelle', is an exciting prospect, effective in the build-up as well as finishing off moves, and he deserves immense credit for stepping into Kouame's considerable boots.

What did they say?

"I'm proud of my team, despite the defeat, they gave it all. Congratulations to Egypt for the victory. Our goal was still reached with the qualification for the Tokyo Olympic Games," Ivory Coast coach Souhalio Haidara said after his side's final defeat.

South Africa

How did they qualify?

Unfancied before the tournament, South Africa rode their luck in the group stage, holding Nigeria and Zambia to goalless draws either side of a late 1-0 victory over the Ivory Coast.

This was a remarkable return for the Amaglug-glug side considering they travelled to the tournament with only 13 players after a series of withdrawals due to injuries or clubs' unwillingness to release players.

Their superlative defensive record was ended emphatically in the second half of their semifinal against Egypt, with the hosts running out 3-0 winners after being kept at bay for an hour, but David Notoane's side then held their nerve to defeat Ghana on penalties in the playoff after a 2-2 draw.

What's their Olympic pedigree?

Japan 2020 will mark South Africa's third appearance at the Games following group-stage exits in 2000 and 2016.

Their Olympic record to date reads played six, won one, drawn two, lost three, but the likes of Siyabonga Nomvethe, Quinton Fortune and Benni McCarthy have all used an appearance at the Olympics as a springboard to bigger and better things.

In 2016, in Brazil, Amaglug-glug memorably held the hosts to a goalless draw in Brasilia, but a narrow defeat by Denmark and failure to beat Iraq in Sao Paulo ultimately put paid to their hopes of progression.

Who's the star man?

How Notoane will be delighted that Tercious Malepe made the tournament, having originally been pulled out of the competition by his club side Chippa United, who felt they needed the defender's services for domestic duty.

He appeared in the tournament only after a red card picked up in United's 2-2 Telkom Knockout draw with Mamelodi Sundowns on Nov. 3 meant that Malepe would face a suspension at club level, prompting the Chilli Boys to reverse their decision.

The versatile Malepe duly joined the national side, and rewarded Notoane's faith with a series of influential, steadfast and at times inspirational displays in the backline.

Certainly, it's hard to see how South Africa would have enjoyed such a fine defensive record in the group stage had Malepe remained at home, and the defender's progress may yet prompt Orlando Pirates to regret loaning him out this term.

Who's their main goal threat?

Ahead of the Under-23 Afcon, there were hopes that Mamelodi Sundowns attacker Phakamani Mahlambi could return to Egypt and show local fans just what they were missing after he failed to make a name for himself in North Africa with Al-Ahly. Ultimately, however, Mahlambi missed the tournament due to an ankle injury.

Without him, Notoane handed greater responsibility to Portugal-based Luther Singh, and the 22-year-old didn't disappoint.

Singh scored only once in Egypt -- in the shootout victory over Ghana -- but he boasts the quality to lift a goal-shy Amaglug-glug frontline, and, having won the Golden Boot at the Under-20 Afcon in 2017 and the Under-20 Cosafa Cup a year beforehand, he's proved he knows how to find the net.

What did they say?

"We now have to go back to the drawing board and prepare for the bigger stage at the Olympics. If I check my calendar then there is only one Fifa break [between now and then], so I hope that I will get support from the FA and from the professional clubs, to make sure we have a lot of preparation matches and the players available for them," Notoane said in Egypt

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