Nick Ames focuses his attentions on "undercooked" hosts Equatorial Guinea, Auba's Gabon, Claude Le Roy-led Congo and brilliant Burkina Faso...
- Nickname: National Thunder
- Captain: Emilio Nsue
- FIFA ranking: 120
- Honours: None
Equatorial Guinea certainly know how to add an element of surprise. Having seemingly overcome Mauritania in the first round of the qualifying competition, they were thrown out for fielding the ineligible Thierry Fidjeu. Now they've been given a reprieve, few really know what to expect. They have a new coach, Esteban Becker, and a side that includes a number of naturalised Spanish-based players whose presence has caused controversy in the past. In reaching the quarter-finals in 2012, overcoming Senegal and Libya in the process, they proved themselves to be technically competent and sharp on the counter.
A friendly draw with Cape Verde last week suggested that they may be able to hold their own once more and players such as Middlesbrough right-back Emilio Nsue, Greek-based midfielder Randy, veteran playmaker Juvenal and the giant striker Ivan Bolado may have the know how to give them a chance.
The basic problem appears to be a lack of quality, with few of the players bar Juvenal and Nsue having an especially convincing track record at club level. Aside from that, the team has barely played together since the Mauritania debacle and, having been drafted in at such a late stage, risks being undercooked in comparison to its rivals.
It is hard to gauge levels of expectation within Equatorial Guinea, a country from which little news emerges bar the government line, but it is difficult to believe that anyone is getting ahead of themselves. A respectable performance and perhaps a repeat of their quarter-final appearance of 2012 seems to be the sum of the home nation’s hopes.
Did you know?
Argentine boss Becker does have previous when it comes to succeeding with Equatorial Guinea: between 2012 and 2014 he was coach of the national women’s side, which has won two of the last three CAF Women’s Championships and played in the 2011 World Cup.
They showed three years ago that they cannot be underestimated, but surely the hosts can't make it through the group stage again even if the draw has been relatively kind. An early exit beckons.
- Nickname: The Panthers
- Captain: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
- FIFA ranking: 62
- Honours: None
Gabon served warning of their strengths in reaching the quarter-finals three years ago, when they co-hosted the competition. Back then, they played with a muscularity and intensity that was never dull even if it lacked poise at times – and benefited from the emergence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a talismanic figure in attack. Beyond the Borussia Dortmund forward, Jorge Costa’s side lacks star names but showed in qualifying – pipping Burkina Faso to the top of their group – that they have the talent to accommodate for any lack of experience.
There are doubts about where the goals will come from if anything happens to Aubameyang, and there is also the concern – recurrent in several of this year’s competitors – that a lack of experience may prove their undoing when it comes to the crunch. Remarkably, they don't have a single outfield player aged over 26.
Progress from the group seems like a must, especially with the prospect of decent support from across the border, and Gabonese fans will sense an opportunity to go a step or two further than that in the weaker half of the draw.
Did you know?
Gabon’s under-23 side won the continental championship in 2011 – perhaps signposting that success at senior level isn't far away.
Gabon should come through Group A, setting up what would look a closely-matched quarter-final against opponents from Group B. They have the ability to negotiate that and reach the last four.
Republic of Congo
- Nickname: Red Devils
- Captain: Oscar Ewolo
- FIFA ranking: 61
- Honours: AFCON 1972
This one is easy. The remarkable Claude Le Roy, now taking a team to the Africa Cup of Nations for the eighth time, could write the definitive book on this tournament and his experience will certainly give his side extra impetus – even if it couldn't prevent seven of his players apparently having to do without a hotel room upon arrival in Bata this week. Congo actually got lucky in qualifying, losing on penalties to Rwanda in the second qualifying round but getting a second bite of the cherry when their vanquishers were disqualified through apparently fielding an ineligible player.
They took their second chance spectacularly, winning away in Nigeria on the first matchday, and victory in Sudan in their final game was enough to see them to their first finals since 1974. Key to their qualification was a lively attack that included former West Brom player Thievy Bifouma, who scored twice in Nigeria.
Congo are a mixed bag, as their defeat to Rwanda and home reverses against the Nigerians and South Africa showed. Although they have great pace and no little improvisation on the counter, their defensive record was far from flawless during qualifying and it is doubtful that they have the application to shut three different opponents out. They smack of a side that can beat anyone on their day – but not on several consecutive outings.
Congo weren't handed the toughest of groups, and the draw could open up for them if they progress, but a quarter-final berth would probably be seen as a good outcome.
Did you know?
Le Roy has won the Africa Cup of Nations before – back in 1988 with Cameroon, two years after guiding them to the runners-up spot.
No Le Roy operation can be ruled out, but Congo will probably need results against both Gabon and Burkina Faso in order to progress. That will probably be beyond even the wily old hand.
- Nickname: The Stallions
- Captain: Charles Kabore
- FIFA ranking: 64
- Honours: None
The 2013 runners-up are fondly remembered for their positive, fluid style of play and the unforgettable performances of players like Aristide Bance and Jonathan Pitroipa. Although they just missed out on a first World Cup appearance after losing a horrible game of football in Algeria, Paul Put’s side has hardly changed in the last two years – in contrast to several of this year’s other contenders. He also has the benefit of playing the first two games in Bata, the tournament’s biggest venue, rather than the smaller towns out east.
On the pitch, Al-Jazira winger Pitroipa is still unplayable on his day, Bance is still a handful and there is the added bonus that Alain Traore, the superb Lorient talent, is back in the fold after missing much of last term. His brother Bertrand, on loan at Vitesse from Chelsea, is another for whom this could be a big tournament.
It is legitimate to wonder whether Burkina Faso can be effective if the towering impact of Bance is snuffed out. The centre-forward is a cult figure but is playing his club football in Finland for a reason and simply doesn't score enough goals. Although he leads the line energetically and acts as a superb foil for Pitroipa and Almeria’s Jonathan Zongo, the worry is that there is no alternative focal point.
Why not go all the way again? Although they still don't quite qualify as giants, Burkina Faso have a very doable pathway to the semis and, on their day, could give likely opponents Ivory Coast or Cameroon something more than a headache.
Did you know?
Put spent four years in charge of Gambia, to relatively little effect, before masterminding Burkina Faso’s incredible turnaround.
Semi-finals. Burkina Faso will reach the last four of a tournament that could yet be perfectly set up for them in relative comfort, but will probably fall just short of another shot at glory.
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