Johannesburg (AFP) – Former Senegal star El Hadji Diouf has told the current national squad they will win the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time if they believe in themselves.
“You possess talent, you are preparing impressively, now believe and you will conquer Africa,” was his message ahead of the January 9 tournament kick-off in Cameroon.
Two-time African Footballer of the Year Diouf missed a shootout penalty when Senegal lost the 2002 final to Cameroon and the Teranga Lions reached the title decider again in 2019 only to fail against Algeria.
Here, AFP Sport puts the spotlight on the four Group B contenders with the winners and runners-up assured of last-16 places while the best four third-placed teams from six groups also qualify.
Senegal have topped the African rankings for three years, but the star-stacked side have no trophies or medals to show off.
There is a belief that it is now or never for a team boasting a ‘spine’ of Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Idrissa Gueye and Liverpool forward Sadio Mane.
Captain Koulibaly and Watford forward Ismaila Sarr were chosen by coach and former star Aliou Cisse despite still recovering from injuries and could miss some group matches.
The Lions are in arguably the weakest of the six groups and with a last-16 match against a third-place finisher likely to follow, the first serious challenge they face could be in the quarter-finals.
As if rookie national coach Kaba Diawara did not have enough problems trying to fix a dysfunctional squad, junta leader Mamady Doumbouya has thrown a spanner in the works.
Addressing the Syli Nationale (national elephants), he told the squad they must repay state-funded preparation costs if they do not return to Conakry with the Cup of Nations trophy.
That is highly unlikely as Guinea fared dismally in recent 2022 World Cup qualifying, failing to win in six matches against Morocco, Guinea-Bissau and Sudan.
Midfield has been a particular problem and Diawara, in his first head coach role, hopes Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita can trigger the dramatic improvement necessary to make any impact.
Malawi were another team to perform woefully in the recently completed group phase of World Cup qualifying, losing five matches and finishing last of four nations.
Like Guinea, they reacted by changing coaches, demoting local Meck Mwase and hiring Mario Marinica, a 56-year-old Romanian who holds a UEFA pro diploma, the highest coaching qualification in Europe.
As the country prepares for a third Cup of Nations appearance, his message to the underperforming Flames emphasised speed: “Think fast, act fast, move fast.”
While many teams heading to Cameroon are packed with Europe-based professionals, Malawi have only two, midfielder Charles Petro plays in Moldova and forward Francisco Madinga in Georgia.
Zimbabwe could be barred on Monday from competing at the Cup of Nations unless a state umbrella sports body reinstates the board of the national football association.
The Sports and Recreation Commission sacked the officials in November, alleging mismanagement, lack of financial accountability and the sexual harassment of female referees.
FIFA says a ban may have to be imposed on Zimbabwe unless the board regains control of the sport by January 3.
Add the absence of three key players — injured Marvelous Nakamba and Marshall Munetsi and retired Khama Billiat — and the outlook for the Knowledge Musona-captained team is bleak, if they get to play.
AFP predicts: 1. Senegal, 2. Guinea, 3. Malawi, 4. Zimbabwe
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