Kick-off in Africa – watch out for Senegal and Algeria

acnIt seems like only yesterday that the last African Cup of Nations last took place, but it’s back and the big challenge will be to get people to take notice, although with so many players missing now from English, Spanish and French football, fans cannot help notice that something else is going on in the world.

The last series, in 2013, was an uninspiring competition, with Nigeria coming out on top. But the old stereotype of African football epitomizing gay abandon is a thing of the past – in South Africa, the average goals per game was down to 2.18, the lowest since 2002. Crowds were healthy, however, with 85,000 watching the final and a tournament average of almost 23,000.

Nigeria will be missing from this year’s party, they finished third in their qualifying group behind South Africa and Congo. Morocco won’t be there, either. The would-be hosts pulled out over fears of Ebola. So Equatorial Guinea, who co-hosted the 2012 finals with Gabon, stepped in and won themselves many friends in Africa. Interestingly, back in July, Equatorial Guinea had been disqualified after fielding an ineligible player against Mauritia. At odds of 28-1, it is unlikely that the host nation will feature in the final on February 8.

Who will then? Favourites this year are Ivory Coast, Senegal and Algeria. The Ivorians are invariably named among the “nations most likely to”, but with Didier Drogba retired, have they got the firepower? Manchester City new boy Wilfried Bony and Roma’s Gervinho can fill the gap left by the Chelsea legend and of course, they do have African Player of the Year, Yaya Toure.

In the era of top players like Drogba and the Toures, Ivory Coast have always fallen short in the African Cup of Nations. They’ve been runners-up twice, quarter-finalists twice and fourth place once in the past five competitions. It would be ironic if, in the first post-Drogba series, they returned home as champions!

A lot of money is being placed on Senegal, who have never won the African Cup of Nations. They’re in a tough group – Algeria (9-2), Ghana (8-1) and South Africa (18-1) and without Southampton’s Sadio Mane, they will not be as formidable as they were a couple of weeks ago. Mane was injured on New Year’s Day when Southampton beat Arsenal 2-0 and it was widely reported that he would be sidelined for up to six weeks. But Senegal coach Alain Giresse (what a player he was…) has taken a gamble by including him in his squad, hoping he may be able to play a part. Papiss Cisse, when he’s in the mood, can be a world-beater, but at the same time, he can frustrate. Much will depend on how he performs.

Senegal and Algeria will probably battle out the group and at the moment, Algerian football is on a high after their displays in the World Cup. They were recently named African Team of the Year for 2014. They followed their impressive Brazil 2014 with a barn-storming qualification programme, winning five of their six games against Mali, Malawi and Ethiopia. All eyes will be on Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, who impressed in Brazil and moved from Granada after being named La Liga’s best African player in 2013-14.

Ghana cannot be discounted and have a good track record to back-up their claim. Avram Grant is their manager and will be under enormous pressure to succeed after Ghana’s disappointing World Cup. The Black Stars are one of the most consistent nations in the competition, having won the trophy on four occasions, the last in 1982. They’ve finished in the first four in all of the last four finals. They may not have the likes of Michael Essien or a Tony Yeboah or Abedi Pele, but they will be expected to feature in the latter stages.

Where else could we see a winner? Tunisia may be a contender, but like North African neighbours Algeria, they may not find the climate of Equatorial Guinea to their liking. Almost half of Tunisia’s squad is drawn from domestic clubs like Espercance, Africain and Etoile du Sahel, a stark contrast to some of the nations participating.

It all kicks off on January 17 with the hosts playing Congo. Equatorial Guinea have a FIFA ranking of 120. Don’t expect too much of them – look towards Ivory Coast, Algeria and Senegal for a likely winner.

FIFA Rankings of the 16 nations:
18 – Algeria; 22 – Tunisia; 28 – Ivory Coast; 35 – Senegal; 37 – Ghana; 39 – Guinea; 40 – Cape Verde; 42 – Cameroon; 49 – Mali; 50 – Zambia; 52 – South Africa; 57 – Congo DR; 61 – Congo; 62 – Gabon; 64 – Burkina Faso; 118 – Equatorial Guinea

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