Amidst a build-up of confusion and controversy, the 2015 African Cup of Nations is set to begin in earnest this weekend in Equatorial Guinea.
The revised host nation stepped in in November to take over the mantle from Morocco after fears surrounding the spread of the Ebola virus. But the convoluted preparation period and hurried organization have yielded fears regarding safety, the conditions of the pitches and potentially poor attendances.
At this juncture, it’s a case of crossing fingers and hoping all goes well for the organizers, but for those teams involved it’s vital that focus is preserved ahead of a landmark 30th running of the competition.
After previous winners Nigeria were knocked out in the qualifying round, a new champion is set to be crowned this year. Here’s a look at the teams involved who have a serious shot of lifting the trophy come the conclusion of the final on February 8 in Bata plus a few teams with an outside shot of glory.
Of all the squads in attendance at the competition in Equatorial Guinea, it’s the Elephants who possess the most obvious clutch of household names. But in recent campaigns, despite boasting some genuinely world-class individual players, this nation has faltered when it comes to the big occasion, failing to add to their solitary AFCON triumph in 1992.
Yet again, all the ingredients seem to be in place. While the indomitable influence of Didier Drogba will no longer spearhead the team’s attack, in Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony the nation has some thoroughbred talents capable of doing real damage to any team on the planet. In Herve Renard–appointed after the 2014 World Cup—they have a manager who knows how to get the job done too.
He inspired an unfancied Zambia team to glory in this competition three years ago and you’d imagine that with a superior crop of players at his disposal, he has every chance of repeated the feat with Ivory Coast this time round.
The pressure will be on the manager and players to deliver, but this squad of players is rightly considered the bookies’ favorites for the 2015 title; if they can conquer the perpetual mental demons that have hampered them at big tournaments then it’s there for the taking.
Verdict: Potential Winners – They have the players to win it, but have massive mental hurdles to clear.
Think of Senegal and you’re immediately drawn to their magnificent performances at the 2002 World Cup. And although they’ve failed to accrue comparable heights in the 13 years since, on the cusp of this particular tournament the Lions of Teranga are looking in very fine shape indeed.
Alain Giresse has been at the helm since 2013 now and slowly he’s fashioned a side that look very much capable of challenging at the pinnacle of African football again. They’ve developed into a thoroughly entertaining outfit under the Frenchman’s tutelage and they have a selection of players that have maverick magic to compliment their diligent work-rate.
Papiss Cisse and Mame Biram Diouf looks set to lead the line in what should be a potent attacking duo, but sadly for the Senegalese, Southampton’s wonderfully capricious winger Sadio Mane was recently ruled out of this competition with an injury. Nonetheless, there’s clear attacking talent in this crop of players; their main issues come in the form of a very leaky defense.
Ultimately that could prevent this side from going far in the tournament and when you look at the draw—the Lions of Teranga are alongside Algeria, Ghana and South Africa in a perilously difficult looking Group C—it could be very difficult for Senegal to even make it out of the group.
Verdict: Group Stage Exit – A team back on the up, but this tournament comes too soon for Senegal.
Not too dissimilar to the Ivory Coast, the Black Stars harbour an undesirable reputation for coming up short on the big occasions. Indeed, if anything, Ghana’s tribulations are even worse than the Elephants, with the most recent of their four AFCON wins coming in 1982. In truth, their preparations haven’t been ideal for the 2015 edition as they look to end 33 years of hurt.
Kwesi Appiah left his post as manager in September and after a two-month search for a manager, former Chelsea and Portsmouth boss Avram Grant will take charge of the Ghanaian effort. The Israeli has only had a meagre six weeks to work with his players ahead of this tournament however and it remains to be seen how much impact he can hope to have in that relatively short time frame.
What he does have is a quality squad to work with however, particularly in the attacking areas of the pitch. Asamoah Gyan is still one of the most recognizable faces in the squad and the forward remains the best goalscorer in this Ghana team. However, he’ll be reliant on the service provided to him by the likes of Christian Atsu and the Ayew brothers from midfield positions.
Grant has the attacking talent to really get at teams in this tournament and that should see Ghana edge of out the group at Senegal’s expense. But with a quarter-final meeting with Ivory Coast looking likely and eminent defensive issues that remain unaddressed, the Black Stars will not go any further than the last eight of the competition.
Verdict: Quarter-Finalists – Dearth of defensive quality will prevent a deep run for the Black Stars.
The Fennec Foxes surprised plenty with their exploits at the 2010 World Cup as they qualified from a difficult group and pushed eventual winners Germany to the brink of a penalty shootout. But those who have been following the progress of this burgeoning football nation with attest to their stellar recent development.
In terms of the FIFA world rankings, Algeria are the best team on the continent coming into this tournament. And while the system can occasionally conjure some baffling standings, Christian Gourcuff’s side are well worth their ranking of No. 18; if anything, it’s a little harsh on them.
A look over the squad available to Gourcuff and it’s clear that this is a team that are primed to go far in Equatorial Guinea. There’s a desirable crop of experienced players including skipper Madjid Bougherra, but dotted throughout the team is vibrant young talent like Nabil Bentaleb, Sofiane Feghouli and Riyad Mahrez.
Yacine Brahimi is the player to keep an eye on, though. The Porto man enjoyed a magnificent 2014 and after really catching the eye with his dazzling skills at the World Cup, he’ll be hoping to help his team to glory here.
One potential detrimental factor for Algeria is the location of the tournament, for only once has a North African side won the AFCON outside of North Africa. But on the brink of the competition getting underway, they look the most multi-faceted side and despite facing a tough group, Gourcuff has a squad at hand that look like eventual winners.
Verdict: Likely Winners – Well balanced squad possessing a sprinkling of stardust will fire Fennec Foces to victory.
Despite the Indomitable Lions’ terrible showing at the 2014 World Cup, manager Volke Finke has been afforded some more time to turn things around. And he’s had no qualms about making bold decisions for the benefit of this Cameroon team, with illustrious names like Samuel Eto’o and Alex Song both out of the squad for this tournament.
Subsequently there seems to have been a real shift in focus from the nation. They will take a squad to this competition that is bursting with youthful exuberance and it’s these players that allow Finke to set his team up to play in a high-octane, intense pressing style. Now they will be tasked with replicating those traits at the highest level.
The biggest strength of this team during qualifying was their goalscoring and Eto’o’s retirement has allowed some exciting young talent to nail down a place in the first team. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Vincent Aboubakar are both aesthetic talents and if the team stays cohesive in defense that pairing could fire the Indomitable Lions all the way to the final.
Encouragingly for Finke, despite losing a couple of very experienced players, there’s the requisite experience in this squad that could haul his side through a difficult situation too. Sevilla’s midfield anchor Stephane Mbia is a fine choice as captain and Nicholas N’Koulou—despite being just 24 years old—is already well acquainted with the rigours of international football.
Verdict: Surprise Package – This placated and fearless Cameroon team could go far.
Any dark horses?
A peculiar draw has seen the vast majority of the big names in the bottom half of the bracket, opening up a chance for a host of supposedly lesser nations to make a long run into the tournament.
One nation that may fancy their chances is Burkina Faso. They made the final in 2013 despite having no previous history in the competition, but since then they’ve made some excellent strides. In Jonathan Pitroipa and Charles Kabore they have a couple of exuberant players and they’re definitely capable of causing teams problems on the counter.
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