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Welcome back and AFCON 2022 preview
It's always fun at AFCON
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That out of the way, let’s jump right. With the African Cup of Nations on the horizon I thought it was the perfect place to jump in with bonus coverage on here. It will not be a daily topic on SoccerToday, but I am working on some initial plans to do a few Twitter Spaces to cover the tournament. This blog will provide another opportunity to do just that.
Today, we will begin with a preview and a preamble.
The preamble will be quick and it shouldn’t be needed. Alas, here we are. Whenever the AFCON takes place in January you hear the same old, boring stuff from the same old, boring people.
“Why is it happening,” they moan. “Why should we care?” they ask.
Because it’s a confederation championship is the answer to both. The oldest of them, to be specific. A confederation championship that was created to combat the clear disrespect that African football received from the powers that be that decided that a .5 spot in the World Cup was all that they deserved.
Sadly, that disrespect continues to this day.
Look, there is little doubt that the long suggested African breakthrough at the World Cup level has never came, but how much of that has to do with the colonial attitude European football has towards the continent. They sweep in, take the best resources and do nothing to help lift up what remains. Sports and politics often share the same pathways.
I also get how it’s frustrating to some that their best players are pulled from their favourite teams in the middle of a season. I support Manchester City. Losing Yaya Toure every other January back in the early teens was a challenge. However, it’s one you should accept if you believe in the importance of international soccer. That’s especially the case here in North America where we face the same prejudices against our international competitions.
That out of the way, lets jump in to the event, which kicks off Sunday in Cameroon.
Teams: Cameroon (host), Burkina Faso, Ethiopia & Cape Verde
Sunday 9 January: Cameroon v Burkina Faso, Ethiopia v Cape Verde
Thursday 13 January: Cameroon v Ethiopia, Cape Verde v Burkina Faso
Monday 17 January: Burkina Faso v Ethiopia, Cape Verde v Cameroon
In a tournament that can often be favourable for the host nations, Cameroon, already one of Africa’s giants, is well positioned with this draw. The clear favourite from the group, they should be exciting on the attack, paced by Napoli's Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa as well as Lyon’s Karl Toko Ekambi. They should win the group comfortably, but the round of 16 on will be a greater challenge for a team that has slipped behind the highs it experienced in the 1990s.
Still, they have to be considered one of the favourites in the tournament. As stated, being the host helps at AFCON.
As for the No 2 spot in the group, it’s pretty wide open. Ethiopia might be the least experienced (which is saying something considering Cape Verde is in the group), but do have some young stars. The previously mentioned Cape Verde has undergone a transformation of sorts over the last decade with a heavy investment into the sport. It’s an unlikely story – and one that peaked a few years ago – but this is still not a pushover. Meanwhile, Burkina Faso is back to its second straight AFCON after disappointing in the previous tournament despite being tipped as a dark horse. That experience could be the difference.
Cameroon 2. Burkina Faso 3. Cape Verde 4. Ethiopia
Teams: Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea & Malawi
Monday, 10 January; Senegal v Zimbabwe, Guinea v Malawi
Friday, 14 January: Senegal v Guinea, Malawi v Zimbabwe
Tuesday, 18 January: Malawi v Senegal, Zimbabwe v Guinea
Outlook: Lots of Sadio Mane goals.
Seriously, this is a very favourable group for the 2019 favourites. We’ll get into the mess that is the rest of the group in a minute, but first let’s focus on the positives: This team is good and it’s not just because of the Liverpool start (although he doesn’t hurt).
Fro Keeper Edouard Mendy on forward this team is solid down the spine and is arguable the best team in Africa – there’s a few in that conversation, but make no mistake that Senagal is having a Golden Generation and is one of the clear favourites to win it all.
It’s hard to imagines how they don’t win a group that is made up of a team currently facing an international ban (Zimbabwe), one FA that’s being run by a FIFA normalization committee (Guinea) and a just-happy-to-be-there Malawi, in only its third major tournament of its history.
To make matters worse, Zimbabwe has been devastated by injuries and Guinea by infighting. Maybe just happy to be there can take advantage of the situation?
Senegal, 2. Malawa, 3. Zimbabwe, 4. Guinea
Teams: Morocco, Ghana, Comoros & Gabon
Monday, 10 January: Morocco v Ghana, Comoros v Gabon
Friday, 14 January: Morocco v Comoros, Gabon v Ghana
Tuesday, 18 January: Gabon v Morocco, Ghana v Comoros
Outlook: The Group of Death (and the Union of the Comoros) should provide some of the most entertaining football of the group stage with several stars sprinkling the line-ups of the three powers in the group.
This, of course, includes Arsenal enigma Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who on his day can launch Gabon up into the conversation with the other two traditional African powers. Do not underestimate the pull of this tournament and how it may offer Aubameyang some redemption from what has been a difficult couple months for him (which I’m sure will make Gunners fans thrilled).
That’s especially the case when the other two powers are in a bit of a younger phase. Morocco has turned over much of the previous generation and has struggled to find time to build the new generation over the last couple years. Ghana, meanwhile, has gone real young, which might be a blessing for a team that has been snake bitten at this tournament since 1982.
If you’re looking to be a hipster, keep an eye out for the 17-year old Abdul Fatawu Issahaku, who has been tearing up the Ghana Premier League.
Gabon, 2. Ghana, 3. Morocco, 4. Comoros
Teams: Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan & Guinea-Bissau
Tuesday, 11 January: Nigeria v Egypt, Sudan v Guinea-Bissau
Saturday, 15 January: Nigeria v Sudan, Guinea-Bissau v Egypt
Wednesday, 19 January: Egypt v Sudan, Guinea-Bissau v Nigeria
Outlook: The biggest question in this group is whether Nigeria can stay out of its own way to press favourites Egypt to top the group.
Early indications are not great, with its top stars out of form and them deciding to fire their manager just four weeks out of the tournament. Nigeria is going to Nigeria, I guess.
Egypt is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2019 when they failed at home and look comfortable here. Having arguably the best player in the world in Mo Salah helps with that. This truly is a lopsided group and it seems unlikely that either Sudan or Guinea-Bissau can push for a top two spot.
Egypt, 2. Nigeria, 3. Sudan, 4. Guinea-Bissau
Teams: Algeria, Sierra Leone, Eq Guinea & Cote d'Ivoire
Tuesday, 11 January: Algeria v Sierra Leone
Wednesday, 12 January: Equatorial Guinea v Cote d'Ivoire
Sunday, 16 January: Cote d'Ivoire v Sierra Leone, Algeria v Equatorial Guinea
Thursday, 20 January: Cote d'Ivoire v Algeria, Sierra Leone v Equatorial Guinea
Outlook: The defending champions Algeria are the bookmakers' choice and it’s for good reason. They may break Italy’s record for consecutive games without a loss during the tournament and if a loss comes it does not seem likely to happen in the group stage where they are clear favourites.
Riyad Mahrez is the star, but it’s a deep and well drilled team that won a championship together three years ago.
Outside of Algeria, you ‘d have to look at Cote d’Ivorie as most likely, but, as always with the Elephants, you never quite know what you’re going to get until you see it on the pitch. Chemistry and desire are the questions.
Still, this is a team with the likes of Wilfried Zaha on it so second place in an otherwise weak group seems to be a minimal expectation.
As for the other two sides Equatorial Guinea is likely the weakest team on paper in the tournament and Sierra Leone is firmly in the happy to be there category. Long-time MLS fans will enjoy seeing Kei Kamara get a chance to play in a major tournament, however.
Algeria, 2. Cote d'Ivoire, 3. Sierra Leone, 4. Equatorial
Teams: Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania & The Gambia
Wednesday, 12 January: Tunisia v Mali, Mauritania v The Gambia
Sunday, 16 January: The Gambia v Mali, Tunisia v Mauritania
Thursday, 20 January: The Gambia v Tunisia, Mali v Mauritania
Outlook: This might be the most unpredictable of the groups, with no obvious favourite.
Historically speaking you’d tip Tunisia, but they have not impressed and have had fans questioning the direction of the program. Still, you’d expect the experience advantage to at least keep them in a top two conversation.
Mali might be the sleeper here, having had some good success at the youth levels. Avoiding a powerhouse in the group could allow the young team to grow into the tournament. They have been African u17 champs, runners-up at the U17 World Cup and third place finishers at the U20 World Cup all between 2015 and 2017. This is the first big test for that generatio at the senior level.
The Gambia is a true Cinderella story to simply make it and Mauritania will draw from the lower divisions of Europe. Both will likely make up the numbers.
Mali, 2. Tunisia, 3. Mauritania, 4. The Gambia
Overall predictions: It’s AFCON, so something unexpected will almost certainly happen along the way. That said…Senegal over Algeria.