The Beautiful African Game: Teams To Watch

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This month Africa will showcase the colour, skill and rich potential of its football when 24 teams compete in the 32nd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s premier trophy at six venues around Egypt.

Here is an analysis of the tournament’s groups, with the teams to keep an eye on…

Group A

Egypt headlines this pool with its mercurial forward Mo Salah the conductor of its orchestra. Coached by Mexican tactician Javier Aguirre, the Pharaohs are the most successful side in the history of the Cup of Nations with seven tournament wins, but they have had a lean time since claiming their last title in 2010.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is another side to be feared in the pool, and is packed with players plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues, as well as at home with local giants TP Mazembe and AS Vita Club.

Uganda waited 39 years between qualifications for the finals, but has now made back-to-back visits to the tournament. The team is however likely the weakest side in the pool.

Much like Zambia, the winner in 2012, Zimbabwe could be a dark horse with a squad brimming with attacking talent, but perhaps not quite the defensive quality to go all the way.

Group B

Slick Nigeria will be the overwhelming favourite to advance from a group that includes first-time qualifiers Burundi and Madagascar, as well as the more experienced Guinea.

The Super Eagles may have started slowly in their qualification campaign, but under German coach Gernot Rohr have been imperious since the World Cup in Russia last year. They have been unbeaten in seven games, which includes victory over Egypt in March.

Guinea draws most of its players from the French league and should make it out of the pool, but is not expected to go deep into the competition.

Madagascar is another team who relies heavily on its French-based diaspora, but mostly in the lower leagues, and its qualification was surprising.

Burundi has just had a single win in its last nine games, but still managed to qualify in a tight preliminary pool as the team edged more fancied Gabon. Picking up a first win at the finals will be Burundi’s aim.

Nigerian and DR Congo players vie for the ball. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigerian and DR Congo players vie for the ball. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

Group C

Senegal is arguably the best side in Africa at present, but has often gone into the Cup of Nations finals before with that tag and failed to deliver.

Senegal has a golden generation of players in Sadio Mané, Idrissa Gueye, Kalidou Koulibaly, Keita Baldé, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Salif Sané, all excelling in Europe’s top leagues.

They are coached by Aliou Cisse, who was captain of the team that shone at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea by reaching the quarter-finals. He has been in charge of the side for four years, and was a key figure in developing the team.

North African side Algeria is another that often flatters to deceive, filled to the brim with quality players, but perhaps without the mental strength to fight when the chips are down.

They both should advance from the pool, however, with Kenya and Tanzania the other two teams in contention but without the firepower to overcome their more illustrious rivals.

Group D 

The dreaded “Group of Death” features three powerhouses in Morocco, Ivory Coast and South Africa who are showing glimmers they could be getting back to somewhere near their best.

Morocco is expertly led by coach Hervé Renard, who is seeking an unprecedented third title with three different teams after taking Zambia (2012) and Ivory Coast (2015) to trophy wins.

The Moroccan team will be a pool favourite, while Ivory Coast has lost its stalwarts of the past 15 years, the likes of Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré and Didier Zokora, and is going through a rebuilding phase.

But Ivory Coast is still a dangerous outfit and may enjoy flying under the radar having gone into previous tournaments with so much expectation.

South Africa Team Picture during the 2018 Nelson Mandela Challenge match between South Africa v Paraguay at Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban on 20 November 2018 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix
South Africa Team ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

South Africa has never lost an international to Morocco (five matches) or Ivory Coast (six), which bodes well for its chances.

The only two goals South Africa conceded in its six qualifiers, which included a pool with Nigeria and tricky Libya, were a penalty and an own goal, while the team now has added firepower up front with Percy Tau and Lebo Mothiba. The second round awaits.

Namibia is the fourth team in the pool and even its coach, Ricardo Mannetti, has admitted this will be a learning exercise for the team against the three giants.

Group E

Tunisia will be the favourite to head this pool, bringing together its technical excellence and tactical organisation as the team seeks to advance past the quarter-final stage for the first time since winning on home soil in 2004.

Mali finished third in 2012 and 2013, when the competition was held in consecutive years, but since then the team has twice gone out in the pool phase without winning a game.

Mauritania’s first ever qualification was built on solid ground in the preliminaries, but away from Nouakchott the team struggles, though long-time French coach Corentin Martins will have worked out a plan.

Angola is the fourth side in the pool and has renewed its team with Portuguese-based talent in recent years, but will still be considered an outsider for the second round.

(Photo by KHALED DESOUKI / AFP)        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
 KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Group F

Defending champions Cameroon and Ghana are both considered among Africa’s elite footballing nations, but have each fallen on tough times of late that suggests their lustre is dimming.

Cameroon surprised with a win in Gabon two years ago, but has been poor since then, winning only seven of its 24 matches, with four of those victories against minnows São Tomé e Príncipe (twice), Kuwait and Comoros.

Ghana has been equally hit and miss, but has on paper a squad that could be potential champions.

Benin and Guinea-Bissau are the other two teams in the group and might each fancy their chances of causing an upset, bringing the usual West African blend of pace and power to the tournament. It is a pool almost too difficult to call.

Words by Nick Said

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