With the likes of Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa failing to qualify for this year’s African Cup of Nations, the stage is set for some of the smaller nations to fight for glory. With the tournament to kick into full swing on Saturday with co-hosts Equatorial Guinea taking on Libya, ninetyminutesonline reviews all competitors and their chances of success.
Co-host nation Equatorial Guinea have never played in the finals of the competition, and will be spurred on by a favourable draw and home support. With Senegal almost sure to win Group A, Gilson Paulo’s men have a fighting chance of claiming second place again beatable opposition.
Friendly draws against South Africa and Cameroon at the tail-end of 2011 will boost the nation’s spirits; veteran striker Rodolfo Bodipo will be the side’s main attacking threat.
The Libyan side have done exceptionally well to qualify for the tournament given the political upheaval in the country over the last 12 months, but will go in as underdogs.
The entirety of Marcos Paqueta’s squad ply their trade in their homeland, apart from defensive midfielder Djamal Mahamat, who plays with Portuguese side Braga.
Amara Traore’s men are the favourites to win Group A and go into the competition as one of the frontrunners to lift the trophy. The Teranga Lions have won their last five games, and enter the tournament with momentum.
Senegal have a number of players that play for leading European clubs, but Newcastle strike partnership Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse and Lille hitman Moussa Sow will pose a significant threat to all opponents.
Zambia will most likely be in a straight shootout with Equatorial Guinea to finish in second place behind Senegal, but have only won one of their last five games leading up to the tournament.
Golden Arrows frontman Collins Mbesuma will lead the line for Herve Renard’s side; the striker has previously played in Europe for Portsmouth, Buraspor and Maritimo.
Ivory Coast’s squad is filled with talent from leading European clubs, and Francois Zahoui has been handed the task of winning the tournament; nothing less will satisfy. Unbeaten in nine games, the Elephants go into the event expecting glory.
The Ivory Coast squad is littered with Premier League stars such as Yaya and Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba, Gervinho, Cheik Tiote and Salomon Kalou, who should have too much quality for the other teams in the group.
Sudan have qualified for the African Cup of Nations for only the second time in 35 years, and will be discredited as underdogs in Group B.
The team is captained by 34-year-old midfielder Haitham Mustafa, who has made 120 appearances for his country.
Having played in the 2006 World Cup, Angola have been an African nation on the rise over the last ten years, and will be fancied to progress through this pool. Unbeaten in six games, Lito Vidigal’s men are famed in Africa for their attacking brand of football.
Angola have a number of players contracted to Portuguese sides, but the best known of their group is Manucho, who at one time represented Manchester United.
Burkina Faso will be Angola’s main rivals for second place in the pool, with the up-an-coming side progressing over recent years.
A youthful squad filled with players that play predominantly in Europe, Auxerre attacker Alain Traore scored important goals in qualification and is the side’s stand out performer.
Co-hosts Gabon have a tricky task in progressing to the knockout rounds of the competition, and will need to beat either Morocco or Tunisia to make the grade. The team will be buoyed on by enthusiastic home support, and put in a gutsy performance against Brazil in a friendly back in November.
Former Rangers striker Daniel Cousin is the nation’s best-known player, and will look to get the goals to help the hosts get through a difficult group.
Niger are another country making their first appearance at the tournament, and will be expected to be dealt an early exit.
Moussa Maazou is a key player for the emerging nation; the striker has played for CSKA Moscow, Monaco and Bordeaux and will be asked to find goals for his country.
The 2004 winners will be expected to be in a battle with northern African neighbours Morocco for top spot in Group C, but enter the tournament on the back of inconsistent form.
Most of Sami Trabelsi’s squad are home based, but Hannover defender Karim Haggui adds experience of playing in the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, and will be critical in orchestrating the side’s defence.
Morocco are an unpredictable side, and although they have sufficient quality in their squad to do well, must play as a team to succeed. Eric Geret’s men have had an inconsistent build up to the competition, but with a number of excellent players in their team must be considered as one of the favourites for the tournament.
Premier League players Adel Taarabt and Marouane Chamakh will look to fire Morocco to victory, while Udinese defender Mehdi Benatia will be a key figure at the back.
Ghana will fancy their chances in a relatively straight forward Group D, and with only two defeats in their last 13 games should be full of confidence.
Goran Stevanovic has a wealth of talent to pick from, with Marseille brothers Andre and Jordan Ayew the pick of the bunch. Look out for Udinese midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah also, who should form an exciting central midfield partnership with Inter’s Sulley Muntari.
Botswana are another country to make their African Cup of Nations bow this year, and it would be a surprise to see the minnows make it out of their group.
With the majority of the squad young and inexperienced, striker Diphetogo Selolwane will harbor the responsibility of getting goals; the 33-year-old has played in South Africa, Denmark and United States during his career.
Guinea will look to make the quarter finals of the tournament just like they did in 2004, 2006 and 2008, but enter the competition without a win in their last four fixtures.
27-year-old striker Ismael Bangoura will be charged with getting the side’s goals, and will call upon his experience of playing for Rennes and Dinamo Kiev.
Mali have only won two of their last seven games, but given the fact that they have a number of key players with experience of playing in Europe, coach Alain Giresse will want his team to make the quarter finals at least.
Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita is the standout player in the Mali squad, while the bulk of the remainder of the squad play in France.
So there you have it; the 2012 African Cup of Nations is set to be an enthralling event, with a number of exciting match ups. Look out for Ivory Coast, Morocco and Senegal, but my pick to lift the trophy is Ghana.