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from ROSY SADOU in Yaoundé, Cameroon
YAOUNDE, (CAJ News) – ALGERIA, Cameroon and Senegal.
By virtue of being the defending champions, hosts and the highest-ranked side in the continent, respectively, these are bookmakers’ favourites to win the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
It would be folly however to rule out the usual suspects, Egypt, West African forces Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana, as well as the North blocs’ duo of Morocco and Tunisia from securing the prime football tournament that gets underway on Sunday.
Regular participants, Mali, will again be the dark horses for an elusive coronation.
A total of 24 teams will compete in the tournament that kicks off with Cameroon against Burkina Faso at the 60 000-seater Olembe Stadium in Yaoundé.
The facility is hailed as an “architectural jewel.”
Burkina Faso’s Stallions can choose to be no pushovers.
They are returning to the tournament buoyed by their third-place finish at the last tournament, held in Egypt.
On paper, this though still reads like a mismatch. The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon are one of the most successful sides, having won the tournament five times.
Burkina Faso’s bronze in Egypt is the best accolade they have secured.
In the experience of Andre Onana in goal, defenders Collins Fai and Jerome Onguene, the Toni Conceição-coached hosts are covered at the back.
Malong Kunde, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and James Lea Siliki are to provide services from midfield to the attackers among them Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Karl Toko-Ekambi and Clinton Njie.
English-based Bertrand Traore, Yacouba Nasser Djiga, Ismahila Ouedraogo and Edmond Tapsoba are nonetheless tipped to get the Burkinabe Stallions’ campaign galloping.
Cameroon, thus, and Burkina Faso are favourites to proceed from Group A where they are alongside Cape Verde and Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, Senegal’s progress from Group B, without a hassle, is a formality.
They have the luxury of playing tepid Guinea and nonentities in the form of Southern African sides Malawi and Zimbabwe.
The justifiably underrated trio will provide useful punching bags for the Teranga Lions en-route to the knockout stages.
Twice runners-up, including the last edition, this could be the year Senegal ends its drought.
In Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, they boast one of the deadliest strikers in world football.
The 29-year-old treasure is only an arrowhead in a team fiercely blessed with talent.
Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy was the best in his position in Europe last season and easily the safety pair of gloves in England, starring for continental champions, Chelsea.
With Keita Balde, Bamba Dieng and Boulaye Dia in the side, coach Aliou Cisse will have a welcome selection headache.
Cisse, the respected former captain, has been at the helm for an incredible seven years. Hence, consistency will be a plus for the best team in Africa by rankings.
How the midfield will line up is another poser for Cisse.
Namesakes Idrissa Gana Gueye and Pape Gueye as well as Pape Matar Sarr are set to get the nod in the hunt for gold.
None of the 24 teams in Cameroon can claim to have a defence as endowed as the endearing Senegalese.
Fode Ballo-Toure, Pape Abou Cisse, Abdou Diallo, Kalidou Koulibaly, Cheikhou Kouyate and Bouna Sarr are among intimidating names, more so in global football.
It remains to be seen which side will accompany them to the knockout phase.
On paper, either Zimbabwe or Guinea will.
Unnecessary off-field drama, synonymous with Zimbabwe at AFCONs, could nonetheless be the Warriors’ undoing.
Their participation at this tournament has been uncertain after the government incurred the wrath of the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) for interfering in the running of the troubled local association, Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA).
Guinea’s National Elephants at least have a runners-up finish attained in 1976 and four quarterfinal finishes. Zimbabwe has never reached the knockout stages but there are no doubts they can hold their own in a right frame of mind.
The Kouekong Stadium in Bafoussam, the largest city in western Cameroon, will host a majority of the games. Bafoussam, located in the highlands, is a tribal culture and traditional crafts jamboree.
Ghana’s Black Stars, four-time winners, and one-time champion Morocco’s Atlas Lions (second-best side by rankings) are meanwhile fancying their chances in Group C.
Their meeting next Saturday at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo, also in Younde, is highly likely to decide who finishes top of the pool.
The Comoros and Gabon look set to compete for the wooden spoon.
Egypt and Nigeria are favoured to progress from Group D, which opens on Tuesday with a blockbuster fixture between the two at the Roumdé Adjia Stadium in the port city of Garoua.
It is a city famous for its thriving cotton and textiles and industries.
The Pharaohs of Egypt are the undisputed kings of the AFCON, with a record seven titles. Mohamed Salah, undoubtedly the hottest property in the beautiful game currently, is the trump card for coach Carlos Queiroz’s favourites.
Queiroz’s side is, à la the staple Koshary, a nice mix of foreign-based stars and local players mostly drawn from reigning and record African club champions, Al Ahly, and Zamalek.
Elsewhere, preparations by three-time victors Nigeria have been a characteristic shambles. Ever beset by conflict, the Super Eagles should be thankful that lightweights Guinea Bissau and Sudan are the only other group contenders.
A poor run of form cost coach Gernot Rohr his job last month. Augustine Eguavoen is back for a third spell as coach.
He will be motivated by the prospect of being third man to win the AFCON title as player and coach, after late compatriot Stephen Keshi, and Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary.
Champions Algeria and Ivory Coast face potential banana skins in Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone although they remain favourites to progress from Group E.
Their clash at the Japoma Stadium in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city and economic capital, is the group’s standout fixture.
Algeria are poised to add to their two titles. Their maiden victory in the FIFA Arab Cup in December fired warning shot to rivals of their African crown.
Continuity is key to the Desert Foxes. Coach Baghdad Bounedjah remains at the helm from the last triumph in Egypt. Baghdad Bounedjah, scorer of the only goal in that triumph over Senegal is still in the side. Twinkle-toed forward and captain Riyad Mahrez remains a phenomenon.
Coincidentally, The Elephants of Ivory Coast have two titles. This, by their endowment over the years, is an underachievement.
A record-breaking run by Sebastien Haller for Ajax in the UEFA Champions League buoys the Ivorians, who have another golden generation on show.
Stars include Serge Aurier, Eric Bailly, Odilon Kossounou, Nicolas Pepe, Ibrahim Sangare and Wilfried Zaha.
It will be a monumental shock if Mali and Tunisia do not progress from Group F where they are seeded ahead of Gambia, first-time qualifiers and lowest-ranked team of all 24 teams (46th), and Mauritania, back for a second time.
All matches, bar one, will be played at the Limbe Stadium, in the northwestern coastal, oil hub, city of the same name.
Tunisia’s Carthage Eagles, under Mondher Kebaier, must add to their sole title won on home soil in 2004.
If a single title is a mark of underachievement, spare a thought for The Eagles of Mali whose biggest achievement is two third-place finishes.
It is already an honour for The Scorpions of Gambia and Mauritania’s Lions of Chinguetti to have qualified for the revered showpiece.
On Friday, the Executive Committee of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) on Friday resolved to increase the prize money of the TotalEnergies-sponsored AFCON by US$1,850 million.
The winner will pocket $5 million, an increase of $500 000.
– CAJ News