Africa Cup of Nations: team by team guide
Co-hosting in 2012 inspired Les Panthères, as they won all three group games in Libreville before squeezing past Tunisia on penalties to make the quarter-finals. They should fancy their chances in a weak group this time round but, even with talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabon were underwhelming at Afcon 2015, losing to Equatorial Guinea to ensure an early end to their tournament. Juve’s Mario Lemina has been added to midfield and the hosts have pace to spare. Much will depend on whether Jose Antonio Camacho, appointed manager in December, can create a structure in which Aubameyang flourishes – and the degree to which the home fans choose to embrace a competition many Gabonese feel isn’t a national priority at a time of economic stress and political flux.
Player to watch: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
A spectacular run to the final in 2013 proved a peak from which Les Étalons have since gently declined. They managed just a point in the group stage in Equatorial Guinea two years ago, including a 2-0 defeat to Gabon. Jonathan Pitropia was shackled and failed to respond. Nonetheless, the potential for progress remains, not least because it’s still largely the same group of players who stunned the tournament four years ago. Coach Paolo Duarte will be at his third Cup of Nations and should Gabon freeze and Cameroon falter, Burkina Faso will be well placed to take advantage. The pressure’s off for a squad who know the ropes.
Player to watch: Jonathan Pitroipa
Preparations have been defined by dropouts and retirements, including Schalke striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Ironically, despite an unspectacular squad, Cameroon won’t need to do much to improve on their dismal showing in 2015 when they finished bottom of an admittedly tough group. Recent form is decent but this is not a vintage generation. Any advance will be more grind than great.
Player to watch: Benjamin Moukandjo
There’s something to be said for arriving as an underdog with form and momentum, unburdened by expectation. The fittingly nicknamed Djurtus, whose memorable 3-2 win over Zambia secured qualification, are not expected to advance above Gabon and Cameroon but midfielders Zezinho and Toni Silva may take the chance to shine. At their country’s first Cup of Nations, Guinea-Bissau’s management have productively scoured the world for eligible talent, unsurprisingly in the lower reaches of the Portuguese leagues. An injury to leading striker Cicero has come as a blow, however. A heavy defeat in the opening game against hosts Gabon on 14 January would prove fatal.
Player to watch: Zezinho
For the second tournament running, Algeria arrive boasting Africa’s leading footballer. In 2015, it was Yacine Brahimi, who flitted and flirted in Equatorial Guinea but couldn’t ultimately drag his country beyond their perennial status as quarter-finalists. This year, Riyad Mahrez returns with enhanced credentials and the team’s ever-attractive, intricate passing style will require the higher gear only he provides. Leicester team-mate Islam Slimani will lead the line and, with talent liberally strewn elsewhere, the challenge of winning their first Afcon since 1990 may rest on shaking off the psychological shackles. Preparations have not been ideal, with two managers falling by the wayside last year amid player unrest and patchy World Cup qualifier results. Georges Leekens is now seeking to restore stability.
Player to watch: Riyad Mahrez
One of the least edifying sights of Afcon 2015 was defensive Tunisia taking the darker arts of football to new extremes – although Les Aigles de Carthage had decent cause to be upset during their controversial quarter-final defeat to Equatorial Guinea, when a series of extraordinary refereeing decisions led to clashes on and off the pitch. Tunisia can once again be expected to bring more caution than flair but – in a difficult group – it’s unlikely to be enough.
Player to watch: Wahbi Khazri
Second favourites to win Afcon, Les Lions will need to ally their usual defensive solidity with the ability to penetrate the leading teams. Sadio Mane has pace and trickery but deep backlines and a more constrained team system will pose challenges. A 2-1 defeat to South Africa in World Cup qualifying at the end of 2016 marred an unblemished competitive record for the year but manager (and former captain) Aliou Cisse will need to show his side can step up against better sides. As in 2015, Senegal are in a tricky group and need to make sure Tunisia don’t edge them out.
Player to watch: Sadio Mane
They are rank outsiders even if they hadn’t landed in the toughest group. Zimbabwe will do well to stay competitive. Preparations have been marred by embarrassing disputes between players and the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa). The team boycotted a send-off dinner in Harare, complaining of unpaid bonuses and demanding $5,000 per appearance in Gabon. Knowledge Musona and Khama Billiat provide the firepower but what happens behind them is cause for pessimism.
Player to watch: Knowledge Musona
After finally ending their long wait for the title in the most dramatic of circumstances, Ivory Coast may proceed as confident champions or find their hunger for success a little diminished. Without the retired Touré brothers, Gervinho injured and Herve Renard now managing Morocco, leadership will need to come from elsewhere. Wilfried Zaha will look to make the sort of impact Yannick Bolasie had for DRC in 2015 while Manchester United’s Eric Bailly should be fit to anchor the defence. Nice’s Jean-Michael Seri will pull strings from midfield. The tag of favourites is predictable but, with goals hardly flowing recently, there is a sense that Les Éléphants need a positive opening to keep doubts at bay.
Player to watch: Wilfried Zaha
Democratic Republic of Congo
Last time out, DRC embarked on a wonderful journey to third place, including a hard-to-fathom, topsy-turvy 4-2 win over Congo in the quarter-finals. But the long-term injury suffered by winger Yannick Bolasie will force manager Florent Ibenge to modify his attacking options. Dieumerci Mbokani may labour upfront without sufficient support but DRC will have pace in their ranks to ensure that doesn’t happen. Second spot is there for the taking.
Player to watch: Cedric Bakambu
The last-minute decision to withdraw from hosting the 2015 tournament, citing concerns over Ebola, was met with predictable wrath by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) who banned the Atlas Lions from the next three Africa Cup of Nations. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, however, allowed Morocco’s appeal – and, to add insult to CAF’s injury, dramatically reduced the fine too. So Morocco return to Afcon action, this time managed by Hervė Renard, the Frenchman who led both Zambia and Ivory Coast to the title. Even his powers of charm and motivation may be tested by a limited Moroccan playing squad. Nordin Amrabat and Younes Belhanda should offer some thrust but the loss of Sofiane Boufal to injury is significant.
Player to watch: Nordin Amrabat
Claude Le Roy, the grand old man of Afcon, is managing at his ninth tournament. After taking unfancied Congo to the quarter-finals in 2015, he will need all his wiles to negotiate Togo’s passage from Group C. Emmanuel Adebayor, despite not having a club side, has been enticed back into the fold. Kossi Agassa will be between the sticks once more. Experience, on and off the pitch, will be their biggest asset.
Player to watch: Emmanuel Adebayor
A defining image of Afcon 2015 was Andre Ayew inconsolably weeping after the 9-8 penalty shoot-out defeat to Ivory Coast. There was some history there: not just his country’s three-and-a-half decade wait for another title but his father, the legendary Abedi Pele, missing out through suspension on the final in 1992, also a defeat to Les Elephants. The Black Stars are among the favourites again. But there is ongoing domestic discontent with manager Avram Grant’s cautious approach and a forward line which looks strong on paper has been short on actual goals.
Player to watch: Andre Ayew
An Afcon squad without Seydou Keita means Mali’s next generation need to step up. A strong recent record is unlikely to be bettered in Gabon, although there is quality in the squad through Kalifa Coulibaly, Bakary Sako and Moussa Marega. Monaco’s Adama Traore will need to run things in the middle of the park.
Player to watch: Adama Traore
Having beaten Nigeria to top spot in qualifying, seven-time winners Egypt are back after a seven year absence. The Pharoahs will look to Roma winger Mohamed Salah for creativity and Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny for midfield balance. Domestic football has been through chaos and crisis since the Arab Spring – this tournament may be an opportunity to relive past glories. But question marks remain over whether this side can cope in the latter stages.
Player to watch: Mohamed Salah
It’s been 38 years since the Cranes graced an Afcon finals, with many a qualification cliff-edge trauma, not least when failure to beat Kenya at home meant missing out in 2015. Serbian manager Milutin Sredojevic’s challenge is to mould the young talent of Farouk Miya alongside older heads likes Tony Mawejje. Goalkeeper Dennis Onyango was voted CAF’s Africa-based player of the year in 2016. There’s enough obduracy and spirit for the Cranes to at least make a play for second place.
Player to watch: Farouk Miya