Photograph — Mirror

The 2017 CAF Total African Cup of Nations will kick off in Gabon on Saturday, January 14 amidst talk of a political fracas between major political parties in the country. The opposition activists who are protesting the August presidential election, in a release, recently called for a boycott of Africa’s biggest soccer fiesta by fans and followers of the game in Gabon, who are incidentally making their first AFCON appearance since 2012.

The tournament was initially scheduled to be hosted by Libya but the hosting right was rescinded following the protracted 2014 war in the oil-rich North African state. After another round of bidding and voting, Gabon emerged the new host of the 2017 edition. As things stand, the passion and love for the round leather game appear to have trumped political sentiments, and all is set for the commencement of the games.

Debuts and returns

The 2017 games in Gabon will have Guinea-Bissau as the only debutant, while Zimbabwe will be featuring in their third AFCON tournament. Seven-time African champions, Egypt, will be returning to the elite showpiece after five years, with their last appearance coming in 2010 when they won the competition for a record seventh time.

Uganda will also be making their first appearance in 38 years after impressive qualifying campaign that saw them qualify as one of the two best group runners-up. Their qualification is particularly significant to the African football as it shows how the game on the continent has evolved over the last couple of years. It somehow lends a voice to the call for an increase in the slots for African teams at the World Cup, which, to the joy of football lovers, was recently granted by FIFA. The recent increase means, from the 2026 edition of the world cup Africa will produce at least two more than the usual five teams that represent the continent. At the 2026 world cup, Africa might be producing the next Iceland or Leicester.

Teams to watch

The strings of surprises pulled by relatively smaller teams – Burkina Faso, Uganda, and Guinea Bissau – during the qualifying rounds of the competition could as well be an indication of things to come in the competition scheduled to kick-off this weekend. Even though smaller teams would almost readily be open to carrying the tag of underdogs, as that would ease the pressure of expected top notch performances, one thing is very clear, no team can be written off as an underdog, not after a year of Leicester, Iceland, and Portugal. However, the heavyweights in the competition, due to the enormous wealth of talents at their disposal, will go into the competition as teams to watch.

The duo of Algeria, the one number team in Africa, and defending Champions, Ivory Coast, will remain as the biggest teams, and ones to not just watch out for, but fear in the competition. However, a 3-1 defeat suffered in the hands of a high-spirited Nigerian team, during the last round of the Russia 2018 World Cup, has shown that the so-called big teams are beatable, and I am more than convinced that the relatively smaller teams will be looking to make big statements against these two teams.

Egypt, returning after five years, is definitely one of the teams to watch. Even though we haven’t seen them in a while, their impressive qualifying campaign in which they ensured Nigeria missed a second successive AFCON, as well as their formidable team made up of more home-based players who are quite familiar with one another, are coming in handy into the competition.

If there is one team to particularly watch out for in the competition, it is the Teranga Lions of Senegal. The West African team particularly appears promising more than ever, and might just be in line to spring a major surprise at the cup of nations. With a defence marshalled by Napoli’s in demand centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, a midfield anchored by the combative duo of Everton’s Idrissa Gueye and West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate, and with an attack spearheaded by the powerful and skilful duo of Liverpool’s Sadio Mane and Fenerbache’s Moussa Sow, who have scored 18 goals between them this term, Senegal are the team to beat. The Teranga Lions are coming into the competition with arguably the highest number of in form players. While in form players do not always translate into a formidable team, especially at the International level, Senegal with a run of six wins from six games, scoring eleven goals during the qualifying stages, have shown that beyond the individual brilliance of their players, they are a formidable team.

Big misses and players to watch

Injuries and awkward decisions to stay back at their clubs will rob lovers of the game of the chance of seeing their best legs and most skillful players on show at the AFCON.  DR Congo will be without the services of Everton attacker, Yannick Bolasie after the winger picked up a season-ending injury last month. DR Congo will also be without their lanky forward, Benik Afobe after he decided to remain in England with Bournemouth. Defending champions, Ivory Coast will be without veteran winger, Gervinho, who is nursing an injury. Morocco will be without Younes Belhanda who has failed to recover in time for the competition. Ghana will be without midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah after he asked to be left out to fully recover from a knee injury. Liverpool’s Joel Matip completes the list of notable players that will miss the 2017 AFCON after deciding to remain at Merseyside.

AFCON has never disappointed in terms of flair and absolute beauty having witnessed a number of breath-taking goals in recent editions, and with the quality of the players that will be paraded by teams, we can expect to have a really beautiful tournament. With the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Andrew Ayew and Wilfred Zaha pulling the strings from the wings, the wing game will be an exciting one to watch.

If there is any player to watch presently, it is no other player but Gabon’s Borussia Dortmund striker, Pierre Aubameyang. The Gabonese captain has been in imperial form since he joined Dortmund in 2013, and with 20 goals in 19 appearances in the current season, he keeps getting better by each game. He was recently awarded the best player at Half Season in Bundesliga. Even though he finished runners-up at the CAF AWARDS, the fact that Aubameyang is one of the best in his position in Europe is no gainsaying. As the captain of the host nation, you can trust home not to disappoint. If there is one thing Auba can assure his fans, it is goals; expect them plenty.

Saido Mane, particularly, Riyad Mahrez, Wilfred Zaha, and Andre Ayew are other regulars we can expect to light up the competition. However, there could be a surprise package in Burkina Faso’s Ajax winger, Bertrand Traore. The youngster who has scored four goals in twelve appearances this season could be the secret weapon for Burkina Faso.

Predictions

The top teams are better spread across the four groups to limit the possibility of surprises at this year’s tournament. However, as much as that could be the reality on the long run, it appears we might still be having a number of surprises from one or two groups. With teams in Group A almost evenly rated, Burkina Faso and Gabon could send Cameroon back to Yaounde at the end of match day 3. That is just the level of unpredictability of the group. Nonetheless, Cameroon are better placed to finish the group as winners, with Burkina Faso most likely to follow suit. However, we never can rule out the power of home support for Gabon.

There will not be any surprises from Group B as Algeria and Senegal will definitely be the top two teams that will advance from the group. Tunisia will not go down without a fight though, but the other two teams appear to be strong for them. In group C, the elephants Cote d’ívoire are tipped to top the group, with DR Congo most likely to win the three horse race with Morocco and Togo for the runners up position. Egypt and Ghana will most definitely come through as the top two teams from group D. Both teams will be two powerful for Mali and newcomers, Uganda.

We will most likely be seeing Ivory coast, Algeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, Egypt, Burkina Faso, and DR Congo in the quarter-finals.

For the eventual winners of the 2017 AFCON, there will be a pleasant surprise, and it looks most unlikely that Ivory Coast will have a successful defence of their title. For one, even though they are the second best team presently on the continent, they do not look formidable enough to go all the way with Egypt and Algeria both looking to get a steal on the trophy. A new champion will emerge and it will not be Algeria; it is safe enough to bet on Egypt, but Senegal will go far, maybe all the way.

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