Written by Ugochukwu Ohia
The 33rd edition of the African Cup of Nations is clearly upon us. This time, 24 African nations will answer the clarion call at the home of 5 time winners, Cameroon.
The competition is billed to run from the 9th of January to the 6th of February in 5 cities across Cameroon. The hosts will be gunning for a 6th continental title when they file out for the opening match against 2013 finalists, the stallions of Burkina Faso at the new Olembe stadium in Yaounde.
1962 Winners, Ethiopia and the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde will also look to lay claim to the bragging rights of group A.
In group B, 2019 finalists Senegal will aim to finally clinch the title for the first time. With the quality of players at their disposal, the Teranga Lions will justify their “biggest underachievers” tag in African football if they fail to lift the trophy this time.
The Syli Nationals of Guinea should be the biggest opponent for Senegal in Bafoussam, while the Warriors of Zimbabwe and the flames of Malawi will hope to cause major upsets.
State Ahmadou Ahidjo will be the arena for group C with continental heavyweights Ghana very much in the mix. Having won the tournament 4 times in the past, the mission is quite clear for the Black stars; they must end their 40 years wait for another title.
Morocco will look to erase the memories of the last edition in Egypt where they were eliminated in the second round by Benin.
The 1976 winners will begin their quest for glory against Ghana. Comoros will be making their debut at the tournament.
The _Les Coelacantes_ as they are called will have their first taste of AFCON against 2017 hosts, Gabon before rubbing shoulders with the heavyweights Morocco and Ghana respectively.
The panthers of Gabon will be the other team in group C.
The 2012 quarterfinalists must believe they can push the likes of Ghana and Morocco to the limit. It promises to be an interesting group.
Group D will witness a clash of the titans. Record Winners, Egypt will take the stage against the Super Eagles of Nigeria in the opening match of the group in Garoua.
The Pharaohs will pray for a repeat of the 2010 edition in Angola where they saw off Nigeria by a 3-1 scoreline in their opening match before going all the way to defeat Ghana in the final.
For Nigeria, the three time winners will hope to make a statement against Egypt before shifting their attention to 1970 winners Sudan and Guinea Bissau in group D.
Algeria will hope to retain the title they won in Egypt three years ago. They start things off in group C against the Leone stars of Sierra Leone in Douala as heavy favorites to win the trophy yet again.
The Leone stars will be making a return to the competition after 25 years hiatus and they will definitely have a few tricks up against their sleeves.
The Elephants of Ivory Coast will also relish their chances of adding to the two AFCON titles in their cabinet.
The Elephants will be favorites to win group C along with Algeria but they must get it right against Equatorial Guinea in their opening match.
The Nzalang Nacional are no pushovers. The 2015 hosts and semifinalists will hope to make it a memorable tournament just like 7 years ago.
It will be a battle of the Eagles in group F. The Carthage Eagles of Tunisia and the Eagles of Mali will open proceedings in Limbe. Tunisia only won the tournament in 2004 as hosts.
They were losing semifinalists in Egypt in 2019 and they are back this time with a much stronger team while for Mali, this should be their best squad to any AFCON.
The 1972 runners up will hope to fly above the Carthage Eagles in group F. Mauritania and the Gambia are the other teams in the group.
Mauritania will be making their second appearance in the competition. With their glorious performances during the qualifiers still fresh in their memories, Lions of Chinguetti will certainly be bold enough to challenge for the qualification ticket in group F.
Like Comoros, the Gambia will be making their AFCON debut in Cameroon.
They definitely have nothing to lose and that makes them more dangerous. The scorpions will make their grand entrance against 2019 debutants Mauritania before a meeting with Mali and then Tunisia.
The Fennecs of Algeria are coming into the competition as defending champions and they are not looking back. Having gone 33 matches unbeaten in all competitions, Djamel Belmadi and his boys will be the team to beat in Cameroon. Captained by the mesmerizing Riyad Mahrez, the Algerian national team are clearly dominating Africa with their quick and aggressive style of play.
The Algerians are looking for their 3rd AFCON title in Cameroon and they clearly made a statement when they annihilated Ghana in a tuneup match in Dubai. Their record goalscorer Islam Slimani was among the goalscorers as the north Africans strolled through the match winning by 3-0.
However, they should be wary of their vanquished opponents during the final match of the 2019 edition, Senegal.
The Teranga lions are coming to Cameroon with their “Golden Generation” of players having been beaten finalists in 2002 and 2019.
They eased through to the finals two years ago in Egypt and will hope to finally clinch the trophy this time. Coach Aliou Cissé must win the competition or vacate his position as the head coach of Senegal according to the target set for him by the Senegalese Football Federation.
The pressure will certainly be on the Teranga lions to deliver. With stars like Captain Kalidou Koulibaly, Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy, Ismaïla Sarr and Idrissa Gana Gueye, one expects the West Africans to go all the way.
The Senegalese team must not let the huge expectations from home and on the continent get the better of them, they must reduce the pressure on themselves otherwise, it may be a case of same AFCON, same old story for the team.
The advantage this time will be on the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. They will be coming in as hosts. Cameroon have won this competition 6 times and are one of the traditional favorites to win any AFCON along with Nigeria and Egypt.
However, the Cameroonians must understand that they presently don’t have the same quality as their teams in the 80s, and early 2000s when they hugely dominated Africa and made moderate statements on the world stage.. Cameroon find themselves almost in the same situation as 2017 when they won the tournament with no much expectations on them to win.
Nevertheless, one must not overlook the threats posed by Cameroon at any AFCON especially when they are playing in front of their passionate fans.
Coach Antonio Conceicao will be relying on the physicality and strength of his players like Zambo Anguisa, Jêröme Onguéné, Vincent Aboubakar and the influential captain Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
With legendary captain Samuel Eto’o now at the helm of affairs at the Cameroon Football Federation, all is looking bright for the Indomitable Lions to deliver.
The likes of Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria will also be considered favorites. With experienced Carlos Queiroz now coaching Egypt, the Pharaohs will be hoping to add to their array of title collections. Captained by arguably the most dangerous player in the world at the moment, the Egyptians will savour the possibility of securing an 8th title.
Nigeria will come in as a traditional big name in the competition. However, all is not well with the preparations and events leading to the AFCON for the super Eagles. The Nigeria Football federation decided to end their long lasting relationship with German tactician, Gernot Rohr just a month to the competition.
Augustine Eguavoen must now lead the team to Egypt on interim basis and also get the team play to his philosophy with less than a week camp preparation.
Talismanic Striker Victor Osimhen won’t be available for the Super Eagles due to Covid related issues. Also, inform striker Emmanuel Dennis and Saudi Arabia based veteran Odion Ighalo will both miss out on the fiesta.
All hopes won’t be lost for the Super Eagles as they still possess some strong firepower in their Arsenal.
Samuel Chukwueze recovered from his long injury just in time for the AFCON. Germany based Taiwo Awoniyi will have the responsibility of finding the goals for the Super Eagles in Cameroon.
Mali and Burkina Faso will look to cause huge upsets in Cameroon.
The opening match will see the stallions face Cameroon in Yaounde. Burkina Faso pushed Algeria to the last day of the world cup qualifiers.
They narrowly lost the 2013 final to Nigeria. Coach Kamou Malo will hope to bring the best out of Bertrand Traore and his colleagues.
With Lassina Traore and Bryan Dabo missing due to Injury, the Burkina babes will need to look deep in their ranks for the much needed replacements if they are to meet up with the expectations in Cameroon.
The Eagles of Mali were very impressive during their AFCON and world cup qualifying series.
As a matter of fact, they have qualified for the final stage of the world cup qualification. Coach Mohamed Magassouba will have very exciting players to work with at the AFCON.
Yves Bisssouma is currently one of the best midfielders in the English premier league, while experienced khalifa Coulibaly will hope to deliver the goals. The Eagles of Mali will be expected to have a good tournament in Cameroon.
The long awaited AFCON is finally here. We can only sit back and watch the best of African football unfold before our eyes. It promises to be an eventful one month for the players and the fans.
Enjoy the games!