SENEGALA certain date is scored deep into the consciousness of Senegalese football: October 11, 2008. That was when it hit rock bottom.
The Lions of Teranga needed only to win at home against their generally disregarded neighbours Gambia (the Senegalese call it "a suppository in the a**e of Africa" because of the country's curious shape, snaking along the banks of the river which shares its name) to reach the second phase of World Cup qualifying. They drew 1-1, and so missed out on both South Africa and the 2010 Cup of Nations.
For a side that had been one of the coming forces of the new century, that had beaten France in the World Cup, that had lost the 2002 Cup of Nations Final only on penalties, that had been controversially beaten in the semi-final by hosts Egypt in 2006, it was some setback. Tony Sylva, Khalilou Fadiga, Salif Diao and El-Hadji Diouf, veterans of the 2002 World Cup, had all played in that game, but there was clear need for rejuvenation.
Not surprisingly, it was Diouf whose departure proved hardest to manage. As turbulent as he is, his energy, tireless front-running and imagination had been a key factor in Senegal's rise. He remains the greatest icon Senegalese football has ever produced, but it seemed that his personality had become too dominant in the dressing room.
Last July, Diouf effectively made the Senegalese management's decision for them. Having missed a disciplinary hearing convened to investigate claims he had made about corruption in African football, he vowed to "go to war" with the Senegalese federation if they attempted to impose any sanction. They banned him for five years.
The suspicion, though, is that Senegal don't actually need him. They have attacking options aplenty, with Demba Ba, Mamadou Niang, Dame N'Doye and Souleymane Camara all battling for the striking roles in Amara Traore's attacking 4-4-2, in which the forward Moussa Sow, such a key figure in Lille's French title win last season, tends to be forced out to play on either flank.
The defence perhaps does not quite have the same depth of quality, and following successive friendly defeats to Colombia, Peru and Morocco, expectations have been dampened. But Senegal's forward line means that if they can discover defensive solidity Ã¢ÂÂ and they conceded just twice in qualifying, despite a tough group including Cameroon and DR Congo Ã¢ÂÂ they will prove a serious threat.
Coach Amara TraoreTraore was 36 when he went to the 2002 World Cup and didn't play one minute. But few would quibble with the job he has done in trying to restore dignity to Senegalese football since replacing Lamine N'Diaye in December 2009.
Key player Moussa SowSow, who turns 26 two days before the ACN begins, was top scorer in France last season with 25 goals, including three hat-tricks, as Lille won the title. Although he was a part of France's Under-19 European Championship-winning side in 2005, he committed to Senegal in 2009. Given Senegal's attacking resources, he often finds himself out wide, trying to add goalscoring thrust from midfield.
Key game vs Zambia, Bata, Jan 21 Ahead of a World Cup qualifier between the two teams in 1993, Zambia's team were killed in a plane crash. This will be a poignant meeting of the group's best teams.
Samuel Eto'o predicts...After missing out on two tournaments in 2010, Senegal will be highly motivated. Should make at least the semi-finals.ZAMBIATwo years ago in Angola, Zambia dominated their quarter-final against Nigeria but lost on penalties.
As the Super Eagles sleepwalked Ã¢ÂÂ yet again Ã¢ÂÂ to third place and Zambia coach Herve Renard was lured away by the wealthier Angolan federation, it was hard to see much future for a team that had impressed with its vibrancy. But now Renard is back and Zambia look a force.
The question is whether Renard should be back; although his departure felt traumatic, he was only reappointed in October, and it was Dario Bonetti, once of Roma, Milan and Juventus, who led them through qualifying Ã¢ÂÂ only to be fired.
Although Zambia lost away to Libya in their second qualifier, that was their only defeat, and a record of just two goals conceded Ã¢ÂÂ one of them, weirdly, away to tiny island nation Comoros Ã¢ÂÂ speaks of a solid, balanced team. Like 2010, this is a team lacking stars, made up of players based largely in Africa, including six from 2010 African Champions League winners TP Mazembe of DR Congo.
Coach Herve RenardRenard's first head coaching role at a professional club came at Cambridge United, where he was dismissed after winning just four of 25 matches. He only lasted six months as coach of Angola after abandoning Zambia for them in 2010, returning to the Chipolopolo following a stint at USM Alger.
Key player Christopher KatongoUtrecht forward Jacob Mulenga is the only player at a western European club, but the experienced Katongo of Chinese side Henan Jianye is Zambia's key figure, offering creativity from either flank.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... Not to be underestimated. We only beat a solid Zambia in the last minute in 2010.
EQUATORIAL GUINEAEquatorial Guinea have never qualified before, and their failure to qualify in 2002 was only their second attempt.
The co-hosts have put in a team for every tournament since, but a FIFA ranking of 151 tells its own story. They climbed to 64th in 2008, but the more stable Elo rankings never had them higher than 141st. A trawl of Spain for players with Equatoguinean heritage has bolstered the squad, and a 3-2 aggregate victory over Madagascar saw them make the second phase of World Cup qualifying, confirming the positive signs left by a draw against Cameroon and a 3-0 win over the Central African Republic.
Coach Henri MichelThe 64-year-old is one of the most respected coaches in Africa. He managed France at the 1986 World Cup and has coached Cameroon, Morocco (twice), UAE, Tunisia and Ivory Coast.
Key player RandyLas Palmas left-winger Iban Iyanga Ã¢ÂÂ or Randy Ã¢ÂÂ is one of the recent call-ups based in Spain. His mother is from the Canaries; his father, Equatorial Guinea.
Samuel Eto'o predicts... They've been inconsistent, so will need to turn things around fast to get through.
LIBYAGiven Libya have only appeared at two Cups of Nations Ã¢ÂÂ finishing runners-up as hosts in 1982, followed much later by a winless showing in Egypt in 2006 Ã¢ÂÂ qualifying was eye-catching even without the knowledge of what the country has been through recently.
Pride in the new nation Ã¢ÂÂ the kit has been changed to red and black to reflect the flag of the National Transitional Council Ã¢ÂÂ has clearly been an inspiration. Despite having to play home qualifiers in Egypt, Libya secured second place in their group with an emotional 0-0 draw away to Zambia and qualified unbeaten as one of the best-placed runners-up.
Coach Marcos PaquetaThe 53-year-old won the Under-17 and Under-20 World Championships in 2003 as coach of Brazil, and led Saudi Arabia in their poor 2006 World Cup campaign.
Key player Samir AboudThe goalkeeper is the most successful player in Libyan history, winning nine Libyan Premier League titles with Al-Ittihad. He played in an African Champions League semi-final in 2007.
Samuel Eto'o predicts...Will have special motivation to succeed. Libya could well get through this group.