AFCON Group C Preview: Big four battle it out

It was clear when the draw was completed that Group C would hog the limelight during the early stages of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations.

With Algeria having reached the World Cup knockout phase, many are tipping them to top the group. However, they will not have things all their own way given the wealth of competition provided by four-time champions Ghana, Senegal and 1996 winners South Africa.

The favourites - Algeria, Ghana  

Under Vahid Halilhodzic, Algeria were one of the star turns of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. Their 4-2 win over South Korea and courageous draw in the high-stakes decider with Russia led the north African nation to the knockout rounds for the first time.

A narrow extra-time defeat by eventual winners Germany saw them leave South America with their heads held high and a similar performance level in Equatorial Guinea for Christian Gourcuff's side could well see them take home the trophy.

With the likes of Valencia's Sofiane Feghouli and Sporting Lisbon's explosive striker, Islam Slimani, to call upon, the French coach has the kind of firepower that much of the continent craves. With plenty of experience at the back in the likes of skipper Madjid Bougherra and former AC Milan full-back Djamel Mesbah, their quality is by no means limited to forward departments, either.

Ghana were actually the number one seeds in the draw and will look to the likes of Asamoah Gyan, Andre Ayew and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu to lead them out of the tough opening stage.

The Black Stars struggled at times in Brazil last year and were not entirely convincing in AFCON qualifying but Avram Grant will hope that their recent form in this competition, which has seen them reach at least the semi-finals in the last four editions, will provide a platform for them to go deep once more.

The outsiders - Senegal, South Africa

There was a good reason for Senegal being the Pot 4 team whom nobody wanted to draw, with their status as Africa's fourth-highest ranked nation ignored by CAF administrators because they finished runners-up in a tough qualifying group that saw Egypt miss out. 

They promise to give Algeria and Ghana a real run for their money, with many of their players enjoying successful seasons with impressive European clubs. Much may depend on the fitness of Southampton's in-form Sadio Mane in the final reckoning, though.

Ephraim Mashaba's South Africa have nothing like the cosmopolitan feel of the Senegalese, with the focus placed on home-based players. Compared to recent competitions, there is far less expectation surrounding Bafana Bafana this time around, while the tragedy of goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa's October 2014 murder lives fresh in the memory.

However, Mashaba has turned around the nation's fortunes, having topped their qualifying group and prevented Nigeria from defending their title.

Star Player - Asamoah Gyan (Ghana)

While much is expected of Algeria's Slimani in front of goal, Gyan's form could well hold the key to Ghana's entire campaign. It is highly likely that a good tournament for Ghana will be dependent on the Al-Ain forward.

The 29-year-old captain has netted six goals in four previous visits to the finals, with his three strikes in 2010 including the winners in the quarter-final and semi-final. He has a similarly lofty level of club experience gained during spells in the top divisions of Italy, France and England, which makes him the Black Stars' go-to man.

Crunch match - Ghana v Senegal

There will be no time for teams to get comfortable in this group, with every point key given the competitive nature of the competition, and the opening game of the pool on January 19 could well prove to be the decider as the group pans out. While losing the first fixture is not always fatal, the team coming out second best in Mongomo will be playing catch-up with Algeria still to play - an unenviable position in anyone's book. As a result, defeat is not an option for either side.

Matches

19 January 2015 - Ghana v Senegal, Mongomo / Algeria v South Africa, Mongomo

23 January 2015 - Ghana v Algeria, Mongomo / South Africa v Senegal, Mongomo

27 January 2015 - South Africa v Ghana, Mongomo / Senegal v Algeria, Malabo

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