Perhaps overshadowed in its build-up this week by the controversial, certainly undemocratic decision, which (sarcasm here) may or may not benefit African, amongst other less developed, football associations, from FIFA to expand the World Cup to an unprecedentedly vast 48 teams, the mutual enemy of most Premier League clubs kicks off today; the African Cup of Nations. With the biennial event, after its extensive warm-up period, finally seeing hosts Gabon take on minnows Guinea-Bissau in the capital Libreville tonight at 4PM sharp, marking the first game of the tournament, focus inevitably switches from cheap predictions to the real action on the pitch. In order to capitalise on the very last period available to me in which to launch my calls for the next 22 days’ action in the minor Central African state, I’ll be contributing to the waves of foolish, but hopefully educated, tips for potential tournament successes, in this week’s blog, with the intention of effectively using the stats, facts, bookies’ tips and knowledge – or lack thereof - available to me to foresee a winner amongst the 16 sides. Let’s just hope it goes better than my Euro 2016 predictions, in which I called Germany to win and our very own Three Lions to reach the semi-finals, alongside Spain, or my Premier League calls for this season, which saw West Brom placed in 18th (it could still happen, who knows?)…
Starting off with Group A, comprised obviously of hosts Gabon, their primary opponents Guinea-Bissau, infighting Cameroon and potential dark horses Burkina Faso, I believe the opening fixtures will be the deal-breakers. With newly installed (so much so that his Wikipedia page is bereft of any information on his month-long tenure) but highly experienced Spanish boss Jose Antonio Camacho pitting his certainly talented troops against a Guinea-Bissau side based at the core at Portuguese sides in a surely tense opening match, an upset for the West Africans, even to achieve a point, could prove decisive in what is likely to be a scrap for positioning in what appears a tight group. As Belgian coach Hugo Broos’ highly unpredictable, and star-rationed Cameroonians head to battle with an impressively experienced attacking Burkina Faso outfit under the leadership of Portuguese Paulo Duarte, himself with a chequered managerial past, there will also be a high degree of anticipation for both sides to escape with the three points, as no match in this group appears too one-sided.
You’d have to imagine, however, that as Gabon - with the infamous home advantage of playing their three matches in successive degrees of ‘difficulty’ finishing with the formerly continent-leading Cameroonians - have Emerick-Aubameyang, alongside highly-rated Juventus midfield youngster Mario Lemina, Sunderland anchor man Didier N’Dong and powerful Cardiff defensive presence Bruno Ecuele Manga in their spine, success in this group isn’t unlikely. Factoring in the 97 caps of goalkeeper Didier Ovono, the developing experience of Manga’s defensive partner Johann Obiang, and the enviably lethal goal ratio of second striker Malick Evouna, he of the Chinese Super League, (11 goals in 21 games, primarily against weaker defensive sides), and, even if Camacho’s stability in the nation is lacking, that of his squad certainly is not, with a major point on the checklist towards success ticked off for the Spaniard there.
For Cameroon, however, it seems there can’t be peace in the foreseeable future, as squad disputes with governing bodies persist, resulting this time in the loss of key players Joël Matip, Allan Nyom and Eric Choupo-Moting for Broos, surely making his task harder. While their indomitable – see what I did there – attacking ranks may not have been diminished too heavily, still boasting tank Vincent Aboubakar, the well-respected Benjamin Moukandjo and naturally gifted Clinton N’Jie, vast other sections of their squad seem drastically lacking in depth or serious international experience, other than in defensive marshal Nicolas Nkoulou, who will presumably take over the captaincy after Stephane Mbia was dramatically dropped by Broos before even the 35-man squad for the tournament. Honestly, even though their makeshift first eleven should make it through this group, we shouldn’t expect much of what is one of the worst Cameroonian squads in recent decades, a shame really for such a football-mad nation who deserve better.
In the cases of Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau, points should be a struggle to come by, even with the prominence of figures such as prodigy Bertrand Traore, FIFA 13 pace-burner Jonathan Pitroipa and dominant Malaga centre-back Bakary Koné for the Burkinabes, their only real glimpse of escaping their group is by pegging Cameroon to just the one point, and praying that their hosts can be hospitable by saving their goals for their final match on the 22nd January. Unfortunately for the Guinea-Bissauans, I can only see them finishing bottom, considering their overall dire lack of experience, the 141 caps between the 23 players involved averaging out at just 6.13 game’s worth of international football under their belts each in their very first AFCON as a nation.
3) Burkina Faso
Moving onto something entirely different, and in Group B, we arrive to find two of the tournament favourites in Algeria and Senegal, alongside total underdogs Zimbabwe and understated 2004 champions, Tunisia, who have the potential to spring a shock or two. The main story in Group B will, I suppose, be which of the two drastically dissimilar, yet seemingly even, sides finishes bottom. No, I’m only joking, what most punters are fixating on in this group is which of our main challengers can assert early dominance and possibly knock the other down a peg, for which we will have to wait until the 23rd January, when what will be billed as Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria take on Sadio Mane’s Senegal.
Aside from these two stars, both squads have diverse arrays of talent, of which both the Tunisians and Zimbabweans would be grateful to own even the weakest of the crop, as Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, Watford’s Adlène Guedioura and Leicester team-mate Islam Slimani complement Mahrez in the Desert Warriors’ attack, while Moussa Sow, Mame Biram Diouf and Moussa Konaté of Fenerbache, Stoke and Sion respectively aid Mané’s cause for the Lions of Teranga.
Perhaps it should be considered that behind this offensive plethora, Algeria, regarded as one of the most competitive footballing nations in the continent thanks to their regular recent World Cup appearances, however, have a small pool of experience upon which to call come the latter stages of the tournament, with only Guédioura, Slimani and Brahimi, in addition to long-serving goalkeeper Raïs M'Bolhi, striker El Arabi Hillel Soudani and left-back Djamel Mesbah, the oldest player of their squad at 32, having earned more than 30 international caps. With seven of their 23 names having played less than 180 minutes on such a stage, the consistency of top players, Schalke’s Nabil Bentaleb and Faouzi Ghoulam of Napoli included, and a little luck in the injury department, will be relied upon heavily for the North Africans, who are already without creative catalyst Saphir Taïder in one-time Belgium manager Georges Leekens’ first tournament in charge. Certainly a tough period for the largest nation in Africa, currently on course to fail to reach the 2018 World Cup, but in a fairly unintimidating group here, qualification to the knockout stages should be a minimum target.
For Senegal, another side currently behind the pace in World Cup qualifying after falling to a 2-1 defeat in South Africa in November, prospects are a little brighter for AFCON, with a settled, clearly promising, squad, consisting of a nucleus of Premier League and Ligue 1 talent. Mainly adopting a free-flowing 4-3-3 tactic, utilising marauder Mohammed Diame, workhorse Idrissa Gueye and lynchpin Cheikhou Kouyaté behind Mané, Konaté and either in-form Sow or Diouf, they have only lost three games since bowing out of a group of death at AFCON 2015, one their first game back from that disappointment – an AFCON qualifier in Guinea – and the others a friendly against Mexico and the aforementioned South African slump. Having proven their ability to turn over minnows during that time, it remains to be seen whether their big-game pedigree has recovered from two years ago, but having been tipped as second favourites for this year’s prize – the bookies will certainly hope it has.
I do feel sorry for Tunisia – they are well-equipped with the likes of wing magician Wahbi Khazri and Valencia centre-back Aymen Abdennour – but with two of the heavyweights standing in their way, I can only see a respectable third place group stage finish on the cards, as they can only smash a Zimbabwean side who will presumably be shot of confidence after successive fixtures against Algeria and Senegal, and bereft of any serious talent. Still, the minnows should be good comic relief with the likes of Hardlife Zvirekwi, Teenage Hadebe, Knowledge Musona and Marvelous Nakamba in their ranks…
Now to this tournament’s Group of Death, or as some like to call it, Group C, housing defending champions Ivory Coast, third-place finishes last time DR Congo, my personal dark horse Morocco and journeymen Togo in what is likely to be a high-scoring, high-intensity scrap to make the knockouts. Obviously, Les Èléphants are the favourites for both this group and the competition itself, possessing serious quality in patches and invaluable experience in others. But it cannot be understated that this Cote D’Ivoire team is nothing like that of two years ago; losing Yaya Touré, Kolo Touré and legendary goalkeeper Boubacar Barry to retirement, and yet to hand enough games to their unclear replacements, their only silver lining is the emergence of Championship marksman Jonathan Kodjia in the considerable hole of Didier Drogba. Eric Bailly, too, has come on leaps and bounds since his international debut at AFCON 2015, but, alongside Wilfried Zaha after his decision to quit England just a month ago, will require the guidance of the likes of Salamon Kalou, Wilfried Bony and Max Gradel in this squad in order to fill the roles expected of them in what many anticipate to be another winning run. It will certainly be a much heftier task than before, but providing they can finish top in this group, they are well set. No pressure...
In the case of DR Congo, also lacking quite the resources of their exploits last time out, especially in the presence of madcap goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba – he of the ‘bum shuffle’ celebration – Yannick Bolasie and Werder Bremen midfielder Cédric Makiadi, such a run would be highly unlikely this month. Bereft of burly Benik Afobe – and heavily reliant upon inexperienced, but highly rated Cédric Bakambu, misfiring Dieumurci Mbokani and out-of-form captain Youssouf Mulumbu – a single injury could spell the end of their hopes, as their remaining squad leaves much to be desired. Still, providing they can scrape past a stark contrast, in terms of climate, footballing philosophy and squad capabilities – Morocco – their tournament could be reignited, leaving them second place in Group C wide open. I wouldn’t be too sure about the likelihood of that, however, especially with yesterday’s news that the team refused to train as a result of, unsurprisingly, pay disputes.
Morocco, for my money, could spring big surprises in this year’s tournament, as on paper, but only on paper, their squad pans out very kindly. Blessed to have captain Mehdi Benatia now with bucket loads of Champions League experience under his belt, as well as Feyenoord’s defensive shield Karim El Ahmadi, Monaco staple Nabil Dirar and wise head Mounir Obbadi of Lille adept higher-table, Europa League quality players, their spine appears rock solid. Perhaps only lacking a ruthless striking option, upon which they are relying on Youssef El-Arabi (who has 17 goals from 13 games in the Qatari league), as well as a regular number 1, their back-up options do, however appear reliable, as striker Aziz Bouhaddouz should not go unnoticed from the bench, Wolves defender Romain Saïss could prove handy, and Malaga prodigy Youssef En-Nesyri will want to announce himself. One thing to be considered is the double withdrawal of Nordin Amrabat and Sofiane Boufal, a double hit to the side’s creative chances, but even without these two, there are plenty of reasons to watch out for the Atlas Lions over the course of this coming month.
Only poor Togo remain in Group C, and with their two main characters, Emmanuel Adebayor and goalkeeper Kossi Agassi, similarly bereft of playing time as free agents, and reliant upon to carry the rest of the either low-quality or inexperienced squad in their arms, it would be nothing short of a miracle if they won more than a point during what will inevitably be a short trip. Coach Claude LeRoy should enjoy it, as he breaks the record for the most amount of AFCON’s qualified for as international manager, but this Togo side could be one of the Frenchman’s toughest challenges, especially with a disjointed mishmash of players from no less than 16 different nations – that’s if you include free agency as a nation as well – ranging from England to Cyprus, Moldova to Tanzania, Saudi Arabia to Sweden and anywhere in-between. An unlucky one to pull in the office sweepstake, I’d imagine.
1) Ivory Coast
3) DR Congo
Onto Group D, our last quarter of the first stage, then, and returning finalists Ghana, fallen giants Egypt, understatedly adept Mali and hard-grafting Uganda are our candidates for firing and hiring. For me, I expect this group to go to plan, with the historically dominant Egypt battling it out with Avram Grant’s refined Ghanaians for top spot, and the lower seeds pitching to pick up points the ugly way.
Certainly, it is Egypt, after their seven-year hiatus from the tournament, failing to qualify on three successive occasions, that are form favourites for this group on what they will hope to be a glorious return, especially after winning the 2010 edition last time out. Who was that final against? Well, none other than Ghana, and after miraculously edging out Nigeria, equipped with such quality as Alex Iwobi, John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa, in qualifying for this year’s tournament, hopes should be high for at least a run to the semi-finals under Argentine Héctor Cúper, who has currently won 12 of his 17 matches in charge of the Pharaohs. Relying primarily on human rocket Mohamed Salah, midfield engine Mohamed Elneny, utility man Ahmed Elmohamady and skilful youngster Ramadan Sobhi in the middle of the park, Braga striker Ahmed Hassan will look to keep up his impressive scoring record on the road to team success. With a vast majority of the squad otherwise filled by Al Ahly and Zamalek players, based on their records in the CAF Champions League, there is certainly no shortage of top-level experience in decisive tournament matches in this squad. With 43 year-old ‘keeper Essam El Hadary on target to break the record for oldest appearance maker in the tournament, be wary of their defence, but with such creative depths, goals should be no problem for the North Africans, certainly aiming to light the tournament up.
Grant’s Ghanaians, reclassified from manic miracle workers at the 2010 World Cup to tactically astute, responsible game managers, would be first on most pundits’ reputation guides in this group, but as we have discovered in the past 12 months, reputation counts for nothing in football. Still with the likes of Asamoah Gyan, Jonathan Mensah, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and the Ayew brothers in their squad, Grant seems to be aiming to extract every last drop of desire and knowledge from these players, while also introducing the likes of Baba Rahman, Daniel Amartey and Frank Acheampong alongside them, developing his impressive array of youngsters. As Christian Atsu continues to improve, following a storming performance in 2015’s AFCON, in fulfilling his creative position, the team builds too, and if the West Africans are to match last time’s result, they will require similar performances from each and every member of their squad, especially the Ayew brothers, short of confidence and goals recently, but with the gauntlet thrown down, can they deliver?
As for Uganda and Mali, well, I can’t separate their chances too much, as while I feel Mali obviously obtain a talent advantage in Yacouba Sylla, Bakary Sako and Adama Traoré, Uganda’s work ethic cannot be overshadowed, and it will require a clinical performance from the Malians to fend off their defensive opponents. In breaking down a stubborn defence, – which claimed five home clean sheets last calendar year and held Ghana to a stalemate in October’s World Cup Qualifying - Sako and Traoré have to be at their lock-picking best, something I feel might require a little too much from just two bigger names in the squad, allowing the Ugandans to exploit. With a vault of caps upon which to call upon for Milutin Sredojević’s Cranes, plying their trade in such minor leagues from Vietnam to Iceland, Finland to Lebanon and back to Kenya and Ethiopia, they are certainly no strangers to such testing tactics, and as a settled squad, I believe that such a positive result in Uganda’s first AFCON for almost 40 years could be around the corner.
After drivelling on for so long, and with the considerable notes I’ve made on each team so far, I’ll run through my quarter-final and semi-final predictions to spare you further torture;
QF1) Gabon vs Algeria – Gabon WIN
QF2) Egypt vs Morocco – Egypt WIN
QF3) Senegal vs Cameroon – Senegal WIN
QF4) Ivory Coast vs Ghana – Ivory Coast WIN
SF1) Gabon vs Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast WIN
SF2) Egypt vs Senegal – Egypt WIN
Ivory Coast vs Egypt – Egypt WIN
An interesting proposition after completely alternating recent records in the competition for these two sides – Ivory Coast, defending champions, complete with manager Michael Dusseyer’s admirable AFCON record, with two quarter-final finishes in separate stints with Guinea, up against three-time drastic underachievers in qualifying, and rightful finalists Egypt; who should have proved their credentials with a tricky path to the final. (Note: That is, of course, if I am correct with my predictions, a highly unlikely occurrence).
With both sides’ strengths lying in attacking areas, but Egypt slightly edging the defensive comparisons if you ask me, despite Eric Bailly’s presence in the Ivoirians’ back line, I feel this final would have the potential to be much more of a test of each side’s ability to be pegged back and offer a response, much unlike the 22-penalty slog of a shoot-out against Ghana last time out. It has to be considered seriously whether the Coast’s youthful exterior will serve them well come the end of the tournament, and whether the loss of the Touré’s will just be too heavy for them in such high-pressure environments as this.
Egypt’s physical qualities should shine through, in my opinion, by this stage in the tournament, and with such a well-stocked squad, their depth should come to the fore in the event of injuries and suspensions, which are inevitable, come this stage. For me, Salah will be the shining light in both the tournament and this final, as his diminutive stance only offers a distraction to the fatal blows he can deliver to opponents, and, providing he stays injury-free, that quality should shine through, along with that of his side, during AFCON 2017. For now, though, such talk is cheap, and come 4PM today, the real action will start, and such players will really prove themselves to their countries, their continent and the world. Let’s just hope it lives up to the reputation of previous tournaments, and that football, especially in Africa, is the ultimate achiever in Gabon over the coming three weeks…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!