Sam Crocker examines the entertaining Ivory Coast, the stultifying Mali, the remodelled Cameroon and the incredible Guinea...
- Nickname: The Elephants
- Captain: Yaya Toure
- FIFA ranking: 28
- Honours: AFCON 1992
Reasons to be optimistic lie in the attack, which remains relatively unaffected by recent retirements. Although Didier Drogba's international retirement means the Elephants lose his leadership skills, Man City new-boy Wilfried Bony's rise to prominence has helped on the pitch and Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and Yaya Toure face their fifth Cup of Nations with their talents showing no signs of waning. Fans will hope they overcome their own defensive frailties to see them through the group.
The pessimism around the Ivory Coast squad is largely down to their absolutely abhorrent defensive record.
While they scored more goals (13) in the qualifying groups than anyone else, they also conceded more (11) than any other qualifiers: their group matches averaged four goals per game. Good for the neutrals, terrifying for their fans, the team's defence has long reacted like the Red Sea to Moses, and has only got worse since Didier Zokora's retirement has left Liverpool's Kolo Toure alone to marshal those around him.
With their reputation as one of the premier sides in Africa, many will still expect Ivory Coast to challenge for the Cup of Nations title, despite the plethora of recent failures. Whether their noticeable decline (and nominal defence) will allow his remains to be seen.
Did you know?
Manager Herve Renard tried in vain attempt to tempt Zokora out of retirement for the tournament.
Quarter-final exit. Likely to finish behind Cameroon, the team they face from the Group of Death in the knockouts should take advantage of that leaky defence.
- Nickname: The Eagles
- Captain: Seydou Keita
- FIFA ranking: 49
- Honours: None
Mali know how to hang around: they have reached the semi-finals in five of their last seven AFCON tournaments. Thing is, they've lost all five. The third-placed play-off regulars never really ever look like winning, but have been consistent in their ability to get out of the group – and their turgid style certainly suits knockout football.
With Cheick Diabate being ruled out of the competition, Mali are on a desperate search for a goalscorer. The Bordeaux man has been in top form in Ligue 1 this season, and Mali require a specific type of striker to take on the mantle, given their “aerial” style of play.
Wolves striker Bakary Sako may have to shoulder some of the burden.
Despite this injury setback, another run deep into the tournament would be expected of Mali. Various forwards have filled in when Diabate is off-form with reasonable effect, and their defensive, awful-to-watch football is ideal for grinding out knockout stage wins.
Did you know?
Polish manager Henryk Kasperczak is to manage in his fifth Africa Cup of Nations.
Group stage exit. Landed in a tough group after a series of easy draws in previous tournaments, Mali may find their success in this competition comes to a grinding halt.
- Nickname: The Indomitable Lions
- Captain: Stephane Mbia
- FIFA ranking: 42
- Honours: AFCON 1984, 1988, 2000, 2002
Cameroon go into AFCON 2015 as arguably the most in-form of the competition. Excellent in qualifying from a difficult group, they are the polar opposite side to the side globally mocked during the World Cup. The new group of players that manager Volker Finke has put together have gelled wonderfully.
Whilst a squad purge ousting the likes of Samuel Eto'o, Alex Song and Benoit Assou-Ekotto has been productive, it has removed a lot of experience.
Cameroon lack players who have been there and done it, and with responsibility shifted onto the fairly young shoulders of Vincent Aboubakar and Eric Choupo-Moting it's certainly reasonable to ask whether the new breed can handle the pressure.
With the form they are in and footballing heritage they possess, Cameroon should be reaching the semi-finals. Despite an undoubtedly difficult team awaiting them in the first round of knock-outs, many are seeing the Indomitable Lions as the team to beat in Equatorial Guinea.
Did you know?
Only nine of the 23 players Finke took to the World Cup six months ago made this AFCON squad.
Semi-finals. Drawn on the tough side of the draw, Cameroon are likely to have to beat Algeria to make it to the final – an obstacle that is probably beyond them.
- Nickname: National Elephants
- Captain: Kamil Zayatte
- FIFA ranking: 39
- Honours: None
After the terrifically difficult circumstances they endured to make it this far – having been forced to play all their “home” games in Morocco because of Ebola – Guinea have fostered an excellent togetherness amongst the team. Growing stronger in adversity, Guinea will be playing for the people back home as they try to overcome one of the most challenging periods in their history.
Whilst they have been impressive in attack, the defence is the worry for Guinea.
Although marshalled by experienced Sheffield Wednesday centre-back Kamil Zayatte, they have struggled to stop conceding goals in recent times, and with a number of offensively strong sides in their group, it has the potential to get embarrassing at some point.
To be honest, there aren't any really. They've done incredibly well to get this far, and are more deserving of their place in the tournament than any team. Just to be here is probably enough.
Did you know?
Due to paranoia about Ebola, Uganda prevented Guinea bringing more than 25 people to Uganda for their qualifying game in Kampala – meaning members of the squad and FA were forced to drop out.
Group stage exit. Whilst it would be an incredible story, Guinea's tough group means they probably are unlikely to get past the obstacles in front of them.
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