Nick Ames assesses the chances of Algeria, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa – four nations who'll all fancy their chances of causing a commotion in Equatorial Guinea...
- Nickname: Fennec Foxes
- Captain: Madjid Bougherra
- FIFA ranking: 18
- Honours: AFCON 1990
Algeria showed what they are all about at the World Cup. A well-drilled and compact side, they have speed and verve on the counter-attack and have demonstrated that they can control possession when required, particularly against lesser teams. Much of their success in Brazil was attributed to Vahid Halilhodzic, who took the Fennec Foxes into the knockout stages against expectations. He has now moved on, but successor Christian Gourcuff hasn't changed much and qualification was secured in the unflashy but ruthless style that this squad has honed well.
Their attacking midfield options are mouthwatering: Sofiane Feghouli, Yacine Brahimi and the Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez should all start, with Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb one of two holding players backing them up. If they hit some early form, Algeria will be hard to stop.
Despite fine goalscoring form for club (Sporting Lisbon) and country, Islam Slimani may not be the ideal centre-forward to complement the wealth of movement and running around him. They may find the conditions tough, too, playing their first two games in the jungle town of Mongomo and having to jostle with their group rivals for plum training times with facilities limited.
Although this looks a very open tournament, Algeria have been installed as favourites – rightly so, given their World Cup form and swift qualification. Those back home will be expecting a first title since 1990.
Did you know?
Algeria and group rivals Ghana were joint-top scorers in qualifying, with 11 goals apiece.
Favourites they may be, but Algeria were not dealt a kind hand opposition - or location-wise in the group – and that might tell if they face Ivory Coast or a resurgent Cameroon in the last eight. That will be as far as they get this time.
- Nickname: Black Stars
- Captain: Asamoah Gyan
- FIFA ranking: 37
- Honours: AFCON 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982
Ghana are difficult to assess given the amount of flux they have been through since a letdown of a World Cup campaign blighted by squabbling. The one certainty is that they have individuals capable of producing the goods on a given day, with the Ayew brothers – Jordan and Andre – sure to figure and Asamoah Gyan still an outstanding centre-forward despite whiling away his club career in the Middle East. They can also call on Christian Atsu, who should be fairly fresh having hardly figured while on loan at Everton from Chelsea.
The likes of Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Michael Essien are no longer around and the former pair’s absence, in particular, may work well for squad unity.
Ghana should exude freshness and positivity – this will be a young squad – and have a few intriguing wildcards up their sleeve such as striker Kwesi Appiah, currently on loan at lowly Cambridge United from Crystal Palace.
Ghana didn't qualify in particular comfort despite winning their group – defeat in Uganda on the fifth matchday kept things interesting until the final game. There is a sense that they can be got at easily, and the loss of Juventus’s outstanding Kwadwo Asamoah, who would probably have played at left-back, is a significant blow.
The Black Stars tend to rank among the favourites almost by default and, after two successive third-place finishes, will be looking to at least reach the final. But with Grant, who is taking his first position in Africa, lacking experience in this environment and the team itself in something of a transition, there is an acknowledgement that they could have done with being in the weaker half of the draw.
Did you know?
Since starting out at Ebbsfleet, Kwesi Appiah’s career has taken in 14 clubs, many of them on loan. He is still only 24.
A tournament too soon for Grant, whose team should come through the group but will struggle against their quarter-final opponents from Group D.
- Nickname: Lions of Teranga
- Captain: Bouna Coundoul
- FIFA ranking: 35
- Honours: None
Senegal are tough to score against, let alone defeat. The only goal Alain Giresse’s side conceded in qualifying was a 90th-minute winner for Tunisia on the fifth matchday, and this is a side capable of dominating opponents physically with West Ham’s Chiekhou Kouyate patrolling the centre of midfield. But the Teranga Lions are even better known for their riches up front, which are sufficient to render the non-selection of Demba Ba relatively unproblematic even if Giresse would surely have liked Diafra Sakho, a revelation at West Ham this season, to be fit.
Papiss Cisse of Newcastle, Dame N’Doye, Moussa Sow and Stoke's Mame Biram Diouf provide firepower enough, and that is before Sadio Mane – the Southampton forward whose fitness remains in doubt – comes into the equation.
Similarly to their campaign in 2012, when they flopped at the first hurdle last time the tournament took place in Equatorial Guinea, there is a concern about the amount of ammunition their excellent strikers will receive. Much may depend on whether Mane is fit to provide sparkle between the lines; otherwise, options behind the centre-forward appear rather stodgy. Senegal still seems stuck in the era, 10 years or so ago, that saw Patrick Vieira or Papa Bouba Diop imitations demanded of its production line.
Senegal will fancy their chances of taking something from at least one of Algeria and Ghana, and would have been a decent bet to progress from a less fiendish-looking group. A place in the knockout stages will be demanded back home, especially given the improvement under Giresse, and the impression is still that Senegal are a sleeping giant on this stage.
Did you know?
It's 13 years, and seven AFCONs, since Senegal last progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the tournament.
Anything could happen if Senegal’s front men hit it off, and they are unlikely to give much away further back, but their squad feels rather two-dimensional and a group stage exit seems likely.
- Nickname: Bafana Bafana
- Captain: Dean Furman
- FIFA ranking: 52
- Honours: AFCON 1996
South Africa have improved dramatically since Shakes Mashaba was appointed national team coach for the second time in July. The team had flopped under predecessor Gordon Igesund, losing to Mali in the quarter-finals of an AFCON they hosted in 2013 and failing to mount a genuine challenge for World Cup qualification.
Mashaba has turned things around and Bafana Bafana have yet to lose under his tenure, performing solidly in the qualifiers to outshine – and eventually knock out – reigning champions Nigeria.
Like Ghana, this team lacks some of the star names of old but compensates for that with energy, pace and work ethic.
The death of their much-loved goalkeeper, Senzo Meyiwa, late last year cast a tragic light over their achievements and a stunning victory in his memory would certainly be fitting.
No other side in this tournament relies as much on domestic-based players as South Africa, 18 of whose 23-man squad play in the local league. They include an 18-year-old defender – Rivaldo Coetzee from Ajax Cape Town – and, while the squad’s average age is five or six years older than that, the roster looks very inexperienced at this level. A figure like Steven Pienaar, Kagisho Dikgacoi or even the axed Ajax midfielder Thulani Serero could have had a steadying influence but much will instead rest on the shoulders of Doncaster Rovers midfielder Dean Furman and Bournemouth striker Tokelo Rantie.
South Africa’s recent fine form has sparked some optimism, and the country has underachieved enormously at continental level since the turn of the century so a whiff of promise has led to a few suggestions that they could progress far. Most would be delighted with qualification from a group that will provide a work in progress with its sternest-ever test, though.
Did you know?
Mashaba’s first stint in charge of the national side ended ignominiously in January 2004 when he was suspended, and subsequently sacked, by the country’s FA – largely because of fallings-out with big-name players.
A group stage exit is the probable outcome despite South Africa’s recent form and undoubted motivation, with this squad lacking the kind of nous needed for an intensive tournament played in challenging conditions.
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