The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) has finally been moved in line with the European football competitions summer break, meaning the continents best players are no longer torn between club and country commitments. In this preview I will look at all the teams attending the tournament in Egypt this year.
I will preview the groups in chronological order, starting with Groups A and B, involving the hosts Egypt and a couple of first time participants at the tournament.
Originally Cameroon were scheduled to host the tournament, however issues including stadium delays resulted in Egypt being awarded the tournament. The Pharaohs will once again be considered favourites to make use of home advantage and go on a deep run. At the last AFCON they made the final, but a poor World Cup has hampered some of their expectations. When it comes to AFCON, the Pharaohs are the most successful team in history.
Obviously Mo Salah is key to the team’s chances this year. One of the best players at the competition, there will be a lot of pressure on him to supply the goals Egypt needs. At last year’s World Cup Salah’s injury showed the weaknesses in Egypt’s team, which was heavily focused on defending under Hector Cuper. Cuper has since been replaced by Mexican Javier Aguirre, whose side appeared to score quite freely during qualifying, albeit against weaker opposition.
Expectations will be high amongst Egyptian fans, and with a squad that has many players who play their trade in the domestic league, they should be able to use home advantage to see them go a long way. Aguirre himself has already called them the favourites.
At the last tournament in Gabon the Leopards made the quarter finals. They should be targeting getting out of the group alongside Egypt this time round as a minimum, despite finishing runners up in qualifying to fellow Group A side Zimbabwe.
With the likes of Bolasie, Bakambu and Assombalonga, the Leopards should have enough going forward to scare most defences. At the back, Masuaka has had a good showing for West Ham this season and should be able to help the attack by pushing forward when possible. Like Egypt, manager Florent Ibenge has called up a large amount of domestic players from Vita Club and TP Mazembe into the squad. Mazembe reached the semi-finals of the African Champions League, so these players should be in good form coming off a successful domestic season.
The DRC should expect to get out of the group and the attacking players should provide some entertainment in doing so.
Having been pipped to qualifying for the World Cup in 2018 by Egypt, Uganda’s football resurgence has continued with qualification for this year’s AFCON. Despite no obviously recognisable stars in their team, Uganda only lost one game in qualification. Therefore, it would be wrong for the other Group A sides to take them lightly.
Goalkeeper Dennis Onyango was voted the 2016 African based player of the year and the Sundowns goalkeeper will be a key player for the Cranes. At the other end of the pitch, Uganda will be looking to Croatia based forward Farouk Miya to get the goals. He scored 3 in qualifying, leading the way for Uganda and will need to find the net regularly. Uganda are to have a chance to pip the DRC to second place.
Unlike Egypt and the DRC, Uganda’s squad is made up of players from almost all corners of the globe. Hopefully they can put on a good show in Egypt that could lead to some bigger clubs coming in for them.
The Warriors impressed in qualifying, topping their group ahead of the DRC. Having not won a game in Gabon, they will be looking to at least register a victory this time around. The majority of Zimbabwe’s players will be unknown to those outside of the continent, with many players involved in the top clubs of the South African Premier league.
Outside of the South African league, Zimbabwe will be hoping that Nyasha Mushekwi can bring his club form into the tournament. Mushekwi scored 15 goals in 20 appearances for Chinese Super League side Dailan Yinfang last season, and will need to bring his shooting boots if The Warriors are going to have any chance of getting out of the group.
Personally, a player I always enjoy watching is Knowledge Musona. Despite not having made many appearances for Belgian side Lokeren this past season, hopefully his inclusion in the Zimbabwe squad will allow him to re-find his form, as on his day he can be a very exciting player to watch.
The Swallows surprised everyone in qualifying for their first ever AFCON, finishing above Gabon in Group C of qualification. While there are some names that football fans will be familiar with, a lot of Burundi’s players will be unknown. This will make them an exciting prospect to watch, and gives the chance for a lot of players to impress an international audience.
Despite his stuttering domestic career, since changing allegiance from England to Burundi Saido Berahino has enjoyed some success. Having recently been released by Stoke, this tournament could be a chance for Berahino to show he still has what it takes to play top level football.
Berahino, alongside Gael Bigirimana, are probably the two best known players to fans of European football. However, during qualifying, it was the goals of Abdul Razaak which were key to the Swallows success. His six goals in qualifying show that perhaps the Algerian based striker is one to watch going into the tournament. Getting out of the group on debut would be a great success for the Swallows, and with Berahino and Razaak upfront there is nothing to suggest this isn’t a possibility.
The National Elephants failed to qualify for Gabon, but are back for this year’s tournament in Egypt. With two debutant nations in their group, they will be second favourites to get out of Group B alongside Nigeria.
Despite injury, Naby Keita has been included in manager Paul Puts squad. Despite an indifferent season at Liverpool, if Keita can get fit and rediscover his form from his days at RB Leipzig, Guinea will have a chance. Alongside Keita, the likes of Amadou Diawara of Napoli and Ibrahima Traore of Gladbach will provide enough quality to pose teams trouble. Traore especially ended the season well in Germany and will hopefully bring that form into the tournament.
If Keita is fit, I can see Guinea having a good tournament and causing teams a few problems.
Joining fellow first timers Burundi are the team from the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. The Barea finished second to Senegal in qualification, comfortably ahead of Equatorial Guinea and Sudan. Nicolas Dupius men will be hoping to take advantage of their underdog status and cause a few upsets against heavily favoured Nigeria and Guinea in group B.
The majority of the squad play their football in the French leagues, however not many are well known. Experienced centre back Jeremy Morel of Lyon will be crucial to helping keep the attacking players of the other group B teams at bay. At the other end, they will be looking to both Charles Carolus Andriamahitsinoro and experienced Club Foot striker Ima Andriatsima to provide an attacking threat.
As Group B favourites, the Super Eagles will be expected to qualify comfortably, especially with two debutant sides in their group. However, Nigeria never do things the easy way and if they show any complacency they could be on the end of an embarrassing set of results. The Super Eagles will have a point to prove, having failed to qualify for the past two tournaments following their success in 2013.
Despite missing out on the qualifying campaign, John Obi Mikel has been included in the provisional squad by manager Rohr. Alongside other talented players such as Wilfred Ndidi and Ahmed Musa, one player who could set the tournament alight is the young talented Villarreal player Samuel Chukwueze. Chukwueze has been in great form in La Liga and the 20 year old has already been linked with moves to bigger clubs.
Nigeria will be amongst the favourites, and if they can play to their potential they should be right up there come the end of the tournament.
Featured image | Egypt national team at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia | soccer.ru | wikimedia commons
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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