Group D: Ghana, Mali, Guinea & Botswana
GHANATwo years ago Ghana arrived in Angola with a young, highly promising squad that had allowed coach Milovan Rajevac to impose a strict discipline.
The absence of Sulley Muntari spoke volumes: mess Rajevac around and no matter how established you were, he had no qualms about turning to youth. The result was a side in harmony, who clearly enjoyed each other's company and played to a strict tactical discipline, which usually meant Asamoah Gyan being deployed as a lone Ã¢ÂÂ and often lonely Ã¢ÂÂ striker.
Although beaten 3-1 by Ivory Coast in their opener, 1-0 wins over Burkina Faso, hosts Angola and Nigeria saw them to the final where they were defeated Ã¢ÂÂ 1-0 Ã¢ÂÂ by Egypt. They carried that form into the World Cup, and were within a Luis Suarez handball of becoming the first African side ever to reach a World Cup semi-final.
The question now is how they'll cope with increased expectation, and if their counter-attacking style can still function when they are expected to take the game to the opposition. A mere two dropped points in qualifying suggests few problems, but the goalless draw at home to Sudan raised that very question about their capacity to break down well-organised defences.
The method, essentially, is simple. Gyan operates as a roving targetman, with Kwadwo Asamoah just off him and Andre Ayew to the left as part of a creative trident. Anthony Annan holds in front of the back four, with Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu alongside him as the shuttling midfielder.
Kevin-Prince Boateng could have occupied that role Ã¢ÂÂ or played slightly further forward with Asamoah moving to the right Ã¢ÂÂ but the AC Milan midfielder recently retired from international football. As in South Africa, they'll again be without long-term knee injury victim Michael Essien, denying Ghana a player of genuine class, but the midfield is an area in which they still have plenty of options. Gyan showed in the World Cup how brilliantly he can play the lone frontman role, too, holding the ball up and manufacturing chances or set-plays from seemingly impossible situations.
Having been the best African side in the past two World Cups, and with the squad that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2010 to draw on, there is every possibility that Ghana, who in the 1960s were probably the first great African side, could go on to dominate African football for several years.
Then again, it's not that long ago we were saying something similar about Ivory Coast.
Coach Goran StevanovicAfter reaching the World Cup's last eight under Rajevac, Ghana turned to another Serbian when he left for the Middle East. Stevanovic, a one-cap wonder for Yugoslavia, had been an assistant with Serbia & Montenegro and coach at Partizan. His record is underwhelming, but his 4-2-3-1 philosophy does ensure continuity with his predecessor.
Key player Asamoah GyanWhen Ghana hosted the 2008 ACoN, a tearful Gyan was close to walking out after barracking by home fans. Two years on, he was the major reason for Ghana's success. His edge may have been blunted, however, by quitting the Premier League for the UAE.
Key game vs Mali, Franceville, Jan 28Mali vs Guinea should be a straight shootout for second, but Ghana will need to win it to avoid a nervy final group game against Guinea.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... They were so tough against us in 2008, and although we beat them they are now at a higher level. With Gyan, they have a real chance. Finalists.
MALISolid in midfield with Fredi Kanoute upfront, Mali should have made more of an impression in recent tournaments. After semi-final appearances in 2002 and 2004, they failed even to qualify in 2006, and were eliminated in the first round in each of the last two tournaments Ã¢ÂÂ despite an astonishing opener in 2010, in which they came from 4-0 down to force a draw with Angola.
Kanoute retired after that tournament, with Momo Sissoko also calling a halt to his international career. The Mali midfield remains strong, however, with Monaco's Mahamadou Diarra partnering Barcelona's Seydou Keita.
Qualifying was less than emphatic, though, a draw against Liberia in their final game meaning Mali progressed ahead of Cape Verde only because of a better head-to-head record, a 3-0 win in Bamako overcoming a 1-0 deficit from the match in Praia.
Coach Alain GiresseOne of the great midfielders of his generation and part of the France side that won the European Championship in 1984, Giresse has had an unorthodox coaching career, following up stints with Toulouse and PSG by going to Morocco with FAR Rabat. He moved into international management with Georgia before inspiring Gabon's rise.
Key player Seydou KeitaThere is a tendency to regard Keita as a holding player, but in fact he is more than that, and at Barcelona usually plays alongside Sergio Busquets rather than instead of him. An intelligent passer, effectively the playmaker, he sets the tempo for the Mali midfield.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... Progressing will be hard, but as they showed against Angola in 2010, they are capable of pulling off something special.
GUINEAAfter reaching three quarter-finals in a row, Guinea failed to reach the last ACoN. But the core of the side, notably attacking duo Ismael Bangoura and Pascal Feindouno, that performed so creditably in 2008, has stayed together. Even ex-Celtic defender Bobo Balde, now 36 and playing for Arles-Avignon, is rolled out now and again.
They were unbeaten in qualifying, a record they preserved by scraping a late equaliser away to Nigeria in their final game, eliminating the Super Eagles. Senegal beat them 3-0 and 4-1 in friendlies last year, though, and there was also a 2-1 defeat to Venezuela.
Coach Michel DussuyerThe former keeper is in his second spell with Guinea. He coached Benin in 2010, but was sacked with all other coaching and playing staff after a first-round exit.
Key player Pascal FeindounoThe schemer is the captain and main creative force. Having missed the quarter-final thrashing by Ivory Coast in 2008, he has unfinished business Ã¢ÂÂ and a great shop window as he approaches his 31st birthday: he became a free agent this month and can sign for whomever he chooses after the tournament.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... With the return of Dussuyer, they have a real chance of making the quarters.
BOTSWANABotswana surprised everyone by being the first team to qualify for this year's Cup of Nations, but given their squad depth, they have it all to do now.
Not only have they never qualified for a major finals before, they've not even come close. Botswana didn't play their first international until 1968, and it was only in the '90s that they began trying to qualify for the World Cup and ACN. All but six of the squad are domestically based, and those exceptions play in neighbouring South Africa. But conceding just seven goals in eight qualifiers shows resilience, and they beat Tunisia home and away, losing only after qualification had been secured.
Coach Stanley TshosaneThe shaven-headed reason for the remarkable upsurge in Botswana's fortunes says: "It's the same as in school: prepare well for exams and you'll pass."
Key player Dipsy SelolwaneThe 33-year-old, who spent four years in the MLS, is Botswana's all-time top scorer with 15 goals. He often plays in midfield but they need his sharpness upfront.
Samuel Eto'o predicts...No frontrunner, but will want to prove they are ready for such a stage as this.