Senegal secured their spot in the knockout phase of the Africa Cup of Nations as Group B winners after a late penalty reprieve saw them draw 0-0 with Malawi.

The Teranga Lions came into the tournament as one of the favourites, and while they progress to the next stage at the top of their group with five points, it was by no means convincing.

Malawi looked to carry the greater threat in the first half, with Gabadinho Mhango seeing a couple of long-range efforts go close.

Senegal did at least test Charles Thom in the Malawi goal early in the second half, with Abdou Diallo's header tipped just over, though it was hardly a sign of imminent domination.  

Malawi then looked set to take the lead with 15 minutes left when Bouna Sarr conceded a penalty for appearing to foul Gomezgani Chirwa, but the decision was overturned after a VAR check, much to the Flames' fury.

As a result, Senegal finished top of the group, meaning they will play one of the best third-placed teams, while Malawi finish third behind Guinea by virtue of an earlier defeat to them.

Three of the pre-tournament Africa Cup of Nations favourites conclude their group stage fixtures on Tuesday, though one of them is in a tricky situation.

Senegal are on track to qualify from Group B, while Morocco have so far handled the potentially difficult Group C rather well – the same cannot be said for Ghana.

Luckily for the Black Stars, they have arguably – on paper at least – their easiest game of the group stage to look forward to as they bid to avoid falling at the first hurdle for only the second time this century.

Malawi v Senegal (16:00 GMT)

Just by beating Zimbabwe 2-1 thanks to a brace from the excellent Gabadinho Mhango, Malawi have arguably already compounded expectations at this year's tournament.

That was only their second ever win at the AFCON and it ensured they go into Tuesday with a real chance of qualification, either automatically or as one of the four best third-placed teams.

But Senegal still have a lot to play for themselves, with Aliou Cisse's men tied on four points with Guinea.

While that could be enough to take them through anyway, failing to top this group will not be a good look for the team many considered favourites to lift the trophy.

One to watch: Gabadinho Mhango (Malawi)

While Senegal undoubtedly possess the stronger squad, Orlando Pirates striker Mhango really caught the eye last time out with a couple of well-taken goals. One more will make him Malawi's all-time top scorer in the AFCON.

 

Zimbabwe v Guinea (16:00 GMT)

A wonderful opportunity awaits Guinea here, with the Syli Nationale knowing they will win the group as long as they better Senegal's result.

Their 0-0 draw with the Teranga Lions was a decent outcome and means they are one of just three teams still to concede a goal – though goalkeeper Aly Keita's tournament-best record of 2.4 goals prevented may have something to do with that.

They face a Zimbabwe side with only pride to play for having lost each of their first two games, though the omens are not great for Guinea: the Warriors' only previous AFCON wins have been in their final group matches (in 2004 and 2006).

 

One to watch: Mohamed Bayo (Guinea)

Despite their chances being worth 2.98 in terms of expected goals (xG), Guinea have only netted once. That 1.98 non-penalty xG underperformance is the second-worst at the tournament. Bayo arrived in Cameroon in good form – they will hope he can inspire an improvement where it matters most.

 

Gabon v Morocco (19:00 GMT)

As one of only three teams to win both of their first two games this year, Morocco are already assured of a place in the next round – they just need to seal top spot now.

The Atlas Lions are already on their longest unbeaten run at the AFCON (six matches) since going 11 without defeat in the 1970s, and they also boast the best xG (5.3) and xGA (0.5) records of the teams to play twice, evidence of how effective they have been at both ends of the pitch.

But Gabon, who confirmed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Lemina have returned to their clubs for medical reasons, are aiming to go unbeaten in a second success group stage campaign for the first time, with a point likely good enough to send them through.

One to watch: Youssef En-Nesyri (Morocco)

It has been a frustrating season so far for Sevilla striker En-Nesyri, who has missed prolonged periods through injury and then saw his penalty saved against Comoros. His 25-minute cameo then was his first appearance in the tournament. With qualification already assured, they might opt to build up his fitness for the knockouts with a start against Gabon.

 

Ghana v Comoros (19:00 GMT)

Ghana were held to a 1-1 draw by Gabon last time out, a match that was marred by ugly scenes at full-time after a late equaliser denied them victory. It culminated in a red card for Benjamin Tetteh after he punched an opponent in the face.

Having also lost to Morocco on matchday one, Ghana now need a win to have any hope of progressing – even then, it may not be enough.

If Ghana do not win, it will be the first time they have ever failed to win a single group game in 22 appearances at the tournament.

It would also be their first failure to get out of the group since 2006. Much is at stake.

One to watch: Andre Ayew (Ghana)

While Ghana have some very talented young players in their squad, their qualification hopes are looking a little desperate – they need their experienced stars to take the lead here. Andre Ayew and his brother Jordan are obviously the focus here, given that nine (70 per cent) of Ghana's previous 13 AFCON goals have been scored by the siblings (Andre is on five, Jordan on four).

 

Senegal failed to take advantage of their apparent superiority against Guinea as they were held to a 0-0 draw at the Africa Cup of Nations.

The Lions of Teranga reached the final of the 2019 tournament but are still awaiting their first AFCON title and better attacking play will be required for them to do so on the evidence of this Group B encounter.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was left to rue the absence of Senegal's Sadio Mane and Guinea's Naby Keita, as well as Mohamed Salah of Egypt, in their 0-0 EFL Cup draw with Arsenal on Thursday. But neither Mane nor Keita could provide the moment of magic to break the deadlock in Bafoussam, though it was not for lack of trying.

Guinea, for whom Keita played a game-high 18 passes in the opposition half, should have taken the lead in the 31st minute when Morgan Guilavogui shot straight at Seny Timothy Dieng after a counter-attack, while Mane created Senegal's best chance of the game in the 67th minute only for Bouna Sarr to skew hopelessly wide from close range.

Sarr's miss encapsulated a match in which the two teams combined for just three shots on target, though both should sail into the next round having each claimed four points from two games in a group with minnows Malawi and Zimbabwe.

The Africa Cup of Nations group stage continues at pace on Friday, with four matches scheduled to take place.

Senegal, runners-up in 2019, face Guinea in Group B, with both teams having won their opening fixtures. Malawi and Zimbabwe take each other on in the other match in that group.

Meanwhile, Gabon are hoping to have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back for their clash with Ghana in Group C, while Morocco, winners against the Black Stars on matchday one, take on Comoros.

Senegal v Guinea (13:00 GMT)

Senegal and Guinea are meeting for the third time at the Africa Cup of Nations, with the former winning their first two encounters: 2-1 in the 1994 group stages and 3-2 in the 2006 quarter-finals.

In both matches, Guinea opened the scoring before eventually finishing as the losing side, and it is Senegal – led, of course, by Sadio Mane – who will be favourites on Friday, the Liverpool forward's 97th-minute penalty sealing an opening win against Zimbabwe.

Mane's fellow Red Naby Keita is Guinea's star man. He attempted more passes in the opposition half (26) than any of his team-mates in the 1-0 defeat of Malawi last time out and it was his precise ball that led to the only goal of the game.

Keita might have his work cut out against a Senegal midfield that will likely include Paris Saint-Germain's all-action Idrissa Gueye, the towering presence of Crystal Palace's Cheikhou Kouyate and Bayern Munich's versatile full-back Bouna Sarr, who had five attempts and played two key passes in the win over Zimbabwe.

One to watch: Sadio Mane

After his last-gasp winner on Monday, Mane has been directly involved in five of Senegal's past six AFCON goals, scoring four and providing one assist. Since his debut in the competition in January 2015, the former Southampton star has been directly involved in more goals than any other Senegal player.

 

Malawi v Zimbabwe (16:00)

After narrow defeats in their opening matches, Group B's other teams will be looking to bounce back knowing they could draw level with one of the pool's big sides with three points.

That being said, neither team exactly have a strong history in the competition. This will be the first encounter between the nations at an AFCON finals, with Malawi winning just one of their seven matches at the tournament (D1 L5).

Zimbabwe, meanwhile, are winless in their past seven AFCON matches (D2 L5), last claiming a victory in the competition in 2006, against Ghana (2-1).

It could be a case of an easily stoppable force meeting a highly movable object, however, with Malawi having failed to score in four of their past seven AFCON games, while Zimbabwe have never kept a clean sheet in 13 such matches, conceding 28 goals. No team has ever played more games in the competition without once keeping the ball out of their own net.

One to watch: Tino Kadewere (Zimbabwe)

Lyon forward Kadewere had to settle for a place on the bench in the first game, though he came on for the second half and had two attempts, which was bettered by only Knowledge Musona for Zimbabwe. In a squad shy of top-level European experience, Kadewere is undoubtedly the standout talent.

 

Morocco v Comoros (16:00)

After Senegal, Morocco are the second-best-ranked team at AFCON, currently placed 28th in the FIFA's world standings.

The Atlas Lions defeated Ghana in their opening Group C match and head into Friday's meeting with minnows Comoros as huge favourites, with Morocco looking to win their opening two matches at an AFCON in consecutive editions of the tournament, having only won both such games in one of their previous 16 appearances in the competition.

Comoros, who went down 1-0 to Gabon on Monday, will hope to avoid becoming the sixth AFCON debutants this century to lose their opening two matches, after Benin (2004), Botswana (2012), Burundi (2019), Niger (2012) and Zimbabwe (2004).

One to watch: Sofiane Boufal

Former Southampton midfielder Boufal scored an 83rd-minute winner against Ghana. No Moroccan player has netted in successive AFCON matches since Houssine Kharja in 2012.

 

Gabon v Ghana (19:00)

Friday's headline clash sees Gabon take on Ghana, and Aubameyang could well be back after he trained with his side following a negative coronavirus result.

Aubameyang, who has not played for Arsenal since early December and was recently stripped of the club captaincy due to a disciplinary breach, tested positive for COVID-19 upon his arrival for the AFCON, along with Mario Lemina.

Gabon will, however, be without coach Patrice Neveu, who is isolating. They are looking to win successive AFCON games for the first time since a run of three victories in 2012.

Four-time champions Ghana, meanwhile, have won just one of their past five group games (D2 L2), losing more in this run than in their previous 12 such matches combined (W9 D2 L1).

One to watch: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

There is no doubting Aubameyang's quality, even if the 32-year-old has been ostracised at Arsenal recently. Having been out of action for so long, it may take the former Borussia Dortmund star time to get up to speed, though he has the ability to be the difference-maker. 

Senegal got their Africa Cup of Nations campaign started with a 1-0 win over Zimbabwe, as Sadio Mane scored the decisive goal with a matter of seconds remaining.

Aliou Cisse's side were without as many as six "indisputable starting players" due to a COVID-19 outbreak, which impacted the likes of Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly.

But even allowing for their absences, the Teranga Lions failed to meet expectations for much of the match.

Keita Balde summed up their performance early on, wasting one of few clear opportunities when shooting over from close range, and Mane spurned another good chance.

The game was largely played at a pedestrian pace in the heat of Bafoussam, but Boulaye Dia sprung into action 14 minutes from time and looked certain to square to Mane for a tap-in, only for Petros Mhari to brilliantly hold on to the squared pass.

Zimbabwe looked set to hang on, but in the final 10 seconds of stoppage time, Kelvin Madzongwe charged down a shot and accidentally handled the ball, allowing Mane to smash home the resulting penalty.

The Africa Cup of Nations is in full swing following its big kick-off on Sunday, and Monday sees the action taken up a notch.

There will be twice as many games as Group B and Group C get under way, providing first opportunities to see two of the pre-tournament favourites: Morocco and Senegal.

But the shroud of COVID-19 lingers over practically every AFCON match at the moment, and it will be especially difficult to ignore its impact on games on Monday, with the likes of Senegal, Guinea, Malawi and Gabon all missing key players.

Senegal v Zimbabwe (13:00 GMT)

Senegal's second so-called 'golden generation' is running out of time.

They arrived in Cameroon with a stacked squad, but many of their key players are approaching 30 or are already there.

To make matters worse, coach Aliou Cisse is without a host of big players against Zimbabwe, a game he will be keen to just get out of the way.

"I was looking at the composition of our team," Cisse said. "Compared to our last match against Congo, I can already tell you we have six indisputable starting players who are not on the squad list: Edouard Mendy, Krepin Diatta, Ismaila Sarr, Nampalys Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly and Saliou Ciss.

"Having six absent starting players, it's true that it's worrying."

One to watch: Sadio Mane (Senegal)

Senegal have one of the best squads – if not the very best – in the tournament, but they are going to rely on Mane to a certain degree, particularly given their COVID-19 absences. Thankfully he is exceptional both when it comes to sniffing out chances and creating them, with his 0.67 non-penalty expected goal involvements every 90 minutes being the fourth-best in the Premier League (min. 900 minutes played) this term.

 

Guinea v Malawi (16:00 GMT)

Both Guinea and Malawi have been among the sides struck by coronavirus ahead of this tournament, but the former should still fancy their chances on Monday against a team considered Group B's rank outsiders.

Anything but three points will be a major disappointment for Guinea on matchday one, and key player Naby Keita is not among those to be afflicted with COVID-19.

As such, coach Kaba Diawara is feeling confident.

"We have the ambition to go as far as possible in this competition, which is why I accepted this mission," Diawara told Africa Top Sports ahead of the tournament.

"It's clear that it is the results that will speak. We try to put things in place, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."

One to watch: Mohamed Bayo (Guinea)

While Naby Keita may be the team's most-recognisable star, expectations on Bayo are significant given he heads into the tournament with nine Ligue 1 goals to his name with Clermont this season, 45 per cent of their total output, and only one was a penalty. Only Jonathan David (12) and Wissam Ben Yedder and Ludovic Ajorque (both 10) have scored more in the French top flight so far.

 

Morocco v Ghana (16:00 GMT)

After Senegal (60.9 per cent), Morocco are the likeliest to finish top of a group at the AFCON (52.6 per cent), according to Stats Perform analysis. This speaks to the quality in the side assembled by Vahid Halilhodzic.

Even without Chelsea star Hakim Ziyech, who has been exiled, Morocco boast some fine players and will be expected to go deep into the competition – not that coach Halilhodzic is taking anything for granted.

"We have to prepare well to face the three teams in the group: Ghana, Gabon, and the Comoros," the Bosnian told reporters.

"Although Morocco are favourites to reach the second round, we have to prepare well and play with a lot of ambition and determination to go as far as possible."

One to watch: Yassine Bounou (Morocco)

This is likely to be Morocco's biggest challenge in the group stage, so they will want to be solid at the back. Bounou should help them in that respect – the Sevilla goalkeeper's 25 clean sheets in all competitions in 2021 was a total bettered only by Ederson (26) and Edouard Mendy (27) across the top five leagues in Europe.

 

Comoros v Gabon (19:00 GMT)

Comoros' Group C opener will be a momentous game as they play in a major international tournament for the first time.

Making a splash will be tough, but coach Amir Abdou is adamant they are more than worthy of their place in Cameroon.

 

He told Africa Foot United: "We haven't qualified by chance. We therefore don't think that we will let the opportunity to go as far as possible slip away.

"We will fight with our weapons with our various opponents, as tough as they are."

 

One to watch: Denis Bouanga (Gabon)

Gabon are likely to be without two of their most experienced players in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Lemina due to coronavirus, meaning others will need to step up. Bouanga will probably be among those expected to take on greater responsibility. The gifted Saint-Etienne left-winger is a good dribbler and takes a lot of shots, his 3.4 attempts per 90 minutes being the fifth-most in Ligue 1 this season (min. 900 minutes played).

Liverpool are not worried about being without Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita while they are on Africa Cup of Nations duty, according to assistant Pep Lijnders.

The trio all played in Sunday's thrilling 2-2 Premier League draw with Chelsea in their final outing before linking up with their respective national sides.

Mane and Salah were both on target at Stamford Bridge as Liverpool raced into a two-goal lead, while Keita was introduced in the second half after Chelsea had levelled up through Mateo Kovacic and Christian Pulisic.

Key attacking pair Salah and Mane have played in 26 of Liverpool's 29 matches this term – the joint-most of any Reds players, with Jordan Henderson (25) next on the list.

Between them, they have scored 33 of their side's 77 goals in 2021-22, while chipping in with a combined 10 assists.

Liverpool could now potentially be without both players, as well as midfielder Keita, until the second week of February depending on how far their countries advance at the Africa Cup of Nations.

But Lijnders, who filled in for Jurgen Klopp against Chelsea after the German tested positive for coronavirus, is confident others in the squad can now step up.

"You can try to plan it, but you can never prepare it," he said.

"It is not a worry because we have faith in the boys we have and a few boys are coming back as well.

"We know that certain players can play more offensively as well, they have been playing in midfield, but they can play more offensively as well."

Salah and Mane will link up with Egypt and Senegal respectively, while Keita is part of Guinea's squad for the tournament in Cameroon.

Losing three regulars during a hectic period in the season and with others out through coronavirus and injury is not ideal for Liverpool, but Lijnders has wished the trio well.

"I just told the boys that they should try to win the AFCON because it is a prize to catch and the careers are never long and they deserve to fight for each prize," Lijnders said.

"This prize now comes in front of them – it’s a tournament with so much passion, so much culture and it is a really proud situation if you can play for your country.

"If it's England or Germany or Holland or whoever, that's what they have and feel.

"So they are African legends, they are legends for me, but if they win it they will probably be even bigger legends so they should try with all they have to win it."

Roberto Firmino missed the Chelsea game after contracting COVID-19, while Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi are currently nursing injuries.

Asked when those players are expected to return to training, Lijnders said: "Let's see. 

"Some of the boys plan to be back, but they still didn't start team training, so we have to see."

Lijnders confirmed Klopp will still be absent for the first leg of Liverpool's EFL Cup semi-final tie with Arsenal on Thursday as he continues to self-isolate.

Senegal have accused Watford of blocking Ismaila Sarr from linking up with the national team ahead of the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.

Sarr has not played for Watford since November 20 due to a knee ligament injury and is not expected to return to fitness until the end of this month at the earliest.

Despite still being out injured, Senegal named the 23-year-old in their squad for the tournament, which runs from January 9 until February 6.

However, Watford informed Senegal earlier this week that Sarr will not be allowed to travel.

It is the second Africa Cup of Nations row Watford have been embroiled in after Nigeria accused the Premier League side of "baring fangs" after objecting to Emmanuel Dennis being named in the squad.

The Senegalese Football Federation's general secretary Victor Seh Cisse believes the reasons given by Watford for objecting to Sarr's call-up are not justified.

"By mail on Friday, December 31, Watford notified on the basis of arguments equally specious as fallacious its decision to block the player Ismaila Sarr, who has expressed his desire to join the Senegalese selection for the next Cup of Nations in Cameroon," a statement read.

"The Senegal Football Federation wishes to express with this communication its deep condemnation of the disrespectful, pernicious and discriminatory behaviour of Watford's hierarchy who look by all means to prevent a player from playing with his national team."

Clubs have until Monday to release players called up by their national teams for the delayed competition, which has been pushed back by a year due to coronavirus.

Senegal, who finished runners-up to Algeria in 2019, added they will take the matter up with FIFA should it not be resolved. 

Responding to the allegations, Watford released a statement on their official website on Sunday that read: "Ismaila Sarr suffered a knee ligament injury on November 20 in the match against Manchester United and has not been fit to play for Watford FC since that date.

"In early December, the club wrote to the Senegal Football Federation outlining the clinical diagnosis of Ismaila's injury and immediately followed that up by supplying the MRI scans detailing the extent of the injury. 

"After further consultation with medical experts, we informed the federation of Ismaila's rehabilitation process and likely timeframe of recovery.

"Within the past 10 days, the club has reiterated to the Senegal Football Federation the player's current medical status and recovery schedule.

"The Hornets have also invited the Senegal Football Federation to instruct their own independent surgeon to confirm the diagnosis and rehabilitation period."

Senegal head coach Aliou Cisse eased concerns over Liverpool star Sadio Mane following his early withdrawal against Togo, describing his injury as "nothing serious".

The Reds forward was substituted after just 28 minutes on Thursday, with Villarreal striker Boulaye Dia replacing him, and Senegal needed a 93rd-minute equaliser from Habib Diallo to cancel out Pape Abou Cisse's first-half own goal and salvage a draw.

The result ended Senegal's four-game winning streak in World Cup qualifying, although they have already advanced to the next stage as Group H winners.

Mane's enforced substitution sparked worries the 29-year-old could be set for a spell on the sidelines, but his national team boss insisted the move was precautionary.

"The [injury] is nothing serious," Cisse said after the game. "We replaced him only as a precaution, not for anything important."

Mane has been crucial to Liverpool this term, netting eight goals across all competitions for the Reds in 15 appearances, behind only Mohamed Salah, who has 15 strikes to his name.

The Senegal winger has also taken the second-most shots in all competitions for Liverpool (42), with 35 of them coming inside the box – again, only Salah betters both tallies at the club.

Liverpool suffered their first league defeat of the season against West Ham before the international break and slipped to fourth in the Premier League table as a result, but Jurgen Klopp's men are only four points behind leaders Chelsea and still very much in the title race.

Kalidou Koulibaly says "it is a real shame" Senegal team-mate Edouard Mendy is not in the running to win this year's Ballon d'Or after an impressive first year at Chelsea.

Mendy joined Chelsea from Rennes last September and did not take long to oust Kepa Arrizabalaga as first choice between the sticks at Stamford Bridge.

He played a key part in the Blues' 2020-21 Champions League triumph, the 29-year-old's nine clean sheets the most by a goalkeeper in their debut campaign in the competition.

That includes a clean sheet in the 1-0 win over Manchester City in the final as Mendy became the first African goalkeeper to lift the famous trophy.

Mendy's 19 shutouts in all competitions this calendar year, meanwhile, has been bettered only by Manchester City's Ederson (20) among keepers in Europe's top five leagues.

He was not included on the 30-player Ballon d'Or shortlist last week, however, and Koulibaly has suggested that could be down to his nationality.

"It's a real shame that Edou isn't included. He is the first African goalkeeper to win the Champions League," Koulibaly told reporters while away on international duty with Senegal.

"We must continue to work and move forward. We have to do the double [the work] of some people to be well judged.

"Edou is a very positive person. We talked about it together. He will continue to fight to be part of it. For me, he has a place among these 30 players."

Gianluigi Donnarumma is the only goalkeeper in contention to win football's most prestigious individual accolade after helping Italy to Euro 2020 success.

The Paris Saint-Germain star's save percentage of 70.8 in 2021 is considerably lower than Mendy's 77.23 at club level when taking all competitions into account.

Indeed, only Keylor Navas – who Donnarumma is battling with for a starting spot at PSG – boasts a better save percentage (78.38) than Mendy among those to have played at least 15 times since January 1.

Napoli defender Koulibaly is also not part of the shortlist for the award, with Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez the only African players selected.

Five of Mendy's Chelsea club-mates were included in the shortlist, however, with Mason Mount, Romelu Lukaku, Cesar Azpilicueta, N'Golo Kante and Jorginho nominated. 

Holders Algeria have been grouped alongside two-time winners Ivory Coast following the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations draw ceremony held in Yaounde on Tuesday.

The delayed event, which will be hosted in Cameroon from January 9 to February 6, features 24 teams for the second time with six groups of four.

Algeria, who triumphed in Egypt in 2019, are alongside 1992 and 2015 winners Ivory Coast as well as Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea in Group E.

Hosts Cameroon will open the tournament in Group A, where they were drawn alongside Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Cape Verde.

Record seven-time winners Egypt, who last lifted the title in 2010, are grouped with three-time champions Nigeria, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau in Group D.

Arsenal team-mates Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thomas Partey will face off in Group C with Gabon and Ghana alongside first-timers Comoros and top seeds Morocco.

Debutants Gambia are alongside Tunisia, Mali and Mauritania in Group F, while 2019 runners-up Senegal are in Group B with Zimbabwe, Guinea and Malawi.

Africa Cup of Nations draw:

Group A: Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Cape Verde

Group B: Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Malawi

Group C: Morocco, Ghana, Comoros, Gabon

Group D: Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau

Group E: Algeria, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast

Group F: Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Gambia

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