An extensive preview of the African Cup of Nations

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang represents Gabon

The African Cup of Nations is almost upon us, but you can barely feel any excitement in the air.

It is a bit of a lukewarm affair in the part of Africa where I come from.

Zambia won the competition in 2012, but what has happened since has highlighted just what a miracle that triumph was.

The fact that we have failed to improve upon that showing – eliminated in the group stages in 2013 and failing to make it to the last two tournaments – has had a large bearing on how the tournament is viewed in my country.

Only the most ardent football fans are actually paying any attention to the competition.

This is not to say that the situation is the same across all of Africa.

Plans to hold the tournament in Libya were scotched for fairly obvious reasons. Gabon stepped in and were given the honour of kicking off the tournament against Guinea-Bissau.

Terrific support got Gabon further than they expected last time around – a quarter final appearance – but political upheaval in the country threatens to get in the way of what looks again to be a quite decent side.

Aubameyang holds aces

Star man for the hosts is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Borussia Dortmund who needs no introduction. Reaching the finals for the first time was a momentous achievement for Guinea-Bissau, the team from this small country, as they topped a qualifying group including Congo, Kenya and the 2012 champions Zambia.

Reaching the knockout stage would represent over-achievement on an enormous scale given the lack of preparation – the team has not played any friendlies since attaining qualification — from an impoverished national federation.

Tricky passage for Burkina Faso

Continuing a West Africa centric preview – which should tell you a lot about who’s who in African football right now – Burkina Faso reached this tournament thanks to a goal in stoppage time against Botswana.

Finalists in 2013, they have kept faith in most of the squad that achieved so much in that tournament. Add Chelsea’s Bertrand Traore to the mix and Burkina Faso have the potential to go deep into the tournament.

Cameroon looking a shadow of former self

It seems unlikely that Cameroon will progress far into this tournament as they really are a far cry from the all-conquering Samuel Eto’o-led indomitable lions of the past.

Seven players (could be more, but as I type this, it is seven) have rejected invitations to play for the national team.

They do have good width and former Porto man Vincent Aboubakar is a fine striker, but it will probably not be enough. At least I’d advice you not to put your money on it.

Algeria’s talent should see them through

With the likes of Islam Slimani, Riyad Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi, expectations are understandably skewed in favor of this multi-talented Algerian side.

A few caveats, however, they are now with their third manager in a year and are bottom of their qualifying group for the world cup in Russia.

If they hold their nerve, however, they could get through a group featuring Tunisia and Senegal.

Tunisia, Senegal could prove tricky

Tunisia is strongly tipped to do well in this competition.

However, better informed people than I are concerned that the Carthage Eagles’ performances are not matching the good results they have been getting in recent World Cup qualifiers.

Senegal can rely on Sadio Mane for goals but this is not a vintage side. The team is being coached by Aliou Cisse, who was part of the 2002 World Cup team that reached the quarterfinals.

Zimbabwe’s stay likely to be short

As for Zimbabwe, their first appearance since 2006 will, in all probability be a short one.

They have been placed in a really difficult group and have financial troubles as well, with constant rows over payment.

On the other hand, financial hardship and Callisto Pasuwa’s astute management helped breed powerful team spirit between players during qualification and they do not seem the sort of side to go into any match with an inferiority complex.

Zaha pivotal to Ivory Coast’s chances

As for the holders Ivory Coast, they won only one game in four in qualifying and yet, managed to get through.

While Wilfried Zaha’s decision to join the Elephants could compensate for the injury to Gervinho, doubts persist about the team’s midfield creativity since the retirement of Yaya Touré.

Since they have always been a team that exploits the width of the field, along with boasting one of the best defences in the tournament, they do look like quite a threat.

Morocco rocked, but contenders

Morocco has been hit by a slew of injuries to their best players, having lost Oussama Tannane, midfielders Nordin Amrabat and Sofiane Boufal and the nifty creator Younès Belhanda.

The Atlas Lions underlined the loftiness of their ambitions by firing manager Badou Zaki last year despite being joint-top of their qualifying group and replacing him with Hervé Renard, who has won the tournament with Zambia and Ivory Coast.

Florent Ibengé has forged a potent collective from an array of skillful players spread across many European and domestic clubs.

In charge when the country finished third two years ago, he was also at the helm when they won the African Nations Championship, a tournament where only players playing within the African continent can participate in.

Congo will find solace in Bakambu

The injury to Yannick Bolasie was a big blow but if Cedric Bakambu and co are on song, they could still prove to be formidable opponents.

Fun fact: Bakambu partnered and outscored Antoinne Griezmann while playing for France at the Under-19 European Championship, which they won.

He may be winning senior glory with Hull City’s Dieumerci Mbokani. Togo manager Claude LeRoy will be managing a team at the AFCON for a ninth time, but that is probably as good as it’ll get for the Frenchman.

Togo, Ghana unlikely to make it far

Togo is unlikely to go far in the tournament or even past the group stages as two of their leading lights are fading stars without any club attachments. Captain Emmanuel Adebayor and goalkeeper Kossi Agassa have both been training without a club for a long period now.

Avram Grant has kept 16 players from the team that reached the final last year for Ghana, but his side is unlikely to get that far this time around.

They are not that great this year, their attack looks blunt and short on creativity – they are still reliant on Asamoah Gyan to score their goals – which with all due respect to the man, is not going to win you many matches.

They lost 2-0 to Egypt in Alexandria and failed to score against Uganda in a drab 0-0 draw in October.

Mali will be the dark horses

Mali is a perennial knockout stage participant. Their manager is back in-charge after leading them to third place in 2012.

He has a solid squad to work with who could give anyone a tough game. With Adama Traore in the side, they can pose a great threat on the counter attack. However, an iffy defence and goalkeeper may undermine them.

Uganda’s spirit may carry them through

The Cranes eventually earned a return to this tournament 38 years after their last appearance. They did so thanks mainly to mighty spirit, disciplined defending and the heroics of goalkeeper Denis Onyango.

Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic picked several players who ply their trade with clubs all over the world – from USA and Iceland to Lebanon, Vietnam and Kenya – and together they form an impressively stubborn rearguard, Ghana know this all too well after their World Cup qualifier.

Salah, Elneny will look to inspire Egypt

Having been away for the last three editions of the tournament, the pharaohs, Egypt, are back.

The last time they were here, they won the tournament for a record third time in a row, goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary was still around. Now, at 43, he is in line to become the oldest player in African Nations Cup history.

However, this side is thriving thanks in no small part to a number of young talents including Arsenal midfielder Mohammed Elneny, Stoke City’s Ramadan Sobhi and of course, Mo Salah of Roma.

Egypt eliminated 2013 winners Nigeria in qualifying for this tournament.

If Salah is on song they could be a force in this tournament.

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