Group B: Ivory Coast, Angola, Sudan & Burkina Faso
We've been talking about last chances for a while now. But this, surely, is Ivory Coast's final, final chance for their gifted generation Ã¢ÂÂ perhaps the most gifted any African nation has ever known Ã¢ÂÂ to win something. Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora Ã¢ÂÂ it's a list of explosive talent few countries in the world can match, and yet so far they have never quite delivered. At World Cups, Ivory Coast have twice been undone by cruelly difficult draws; at Cups of Nations, luck has repeatedly been against them.
In 2006, for instance, they reached the final, but then faced the hosts Egypt in front of a hostile, passionate crowd in Cairo. Drogba missed a sitter that would have won it late on, and then saw his penalty saved as the Ivorians lost in a shootout. In 2008, Egypt were again their nemeses, producing probably the best performance of their six-year reign as African champions to beat them 4-1 in the semi-final.
Then, two years ago in Angola, they went 2-1 up in the 89th minute of a quarter-final they had dominated against Algeria, conceded in injury-time, conceded again early in extra-time and, emotionally shattered, couldn't raise themselves to find an equaliser. Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked as coach for what he referred to as "one minute of madness" from his side, and the familiar story of instability and short-termism went on as Sven-Goran Eriksson took Ivory Coast to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The question mark about Ivory Coast was always whether the players had the imagination to get the best out of their power, but Gervinho offers the team an inventiveness from wide areas Ã¢ÂÂ something that has long been a failing not only for Ivory Coast, but for west African football as a whole. He remains inconsistent and his final ball can be wayward, but at least now Ivory Coast have a variety of approach.
Additionally, in CSKA Moscow's Seydou Doumbia they also have one of the most natural young finishers in the world right now. And since his move to Manchester City from Barcelona, the newly liberated Yaya Toure has emerged as one of the few multi-purpose midfielders at the highest level of the game.
Qualifying was a breeze, with six wins out of six and 19 goals scored, but the key, as ever for Ivory Coast, is whether they can convert that into silverware in the finals.
Coach Francois Zahoui
After a disappointing World Cup under Eriksson, Ivory Coast turned to Zahoui, who made his name as coach of Abidjan club Africa Sports. His record cannot be faulted, but indications are that new federation chief Augustin Sidy Diallo would prefer a big-name European coach.
Key player Yaya Toure
Four years ago, when Kolo Toure suggested that his brother Ã¢ÂÂ whom he compared to Patrick Vieira Ã¢ÂÂ was the better player, most thought it was fraternal generosity speaking. It turns out he was right. The midfielder has developed into a combative presence who plays box-to-box, distributing well and contributing his share of goals.
Key game vs Sudan, Malabo, Jan 22
Angola will likely be their hardest test, but Ivory Coast should have qualified by the time the teams meet in the third game. The key will be getting off to a good start against a big, awkward Sudan side.
Samuel Eto'o predicts...
They will have one priority in this Cup of Nations: to win it. They've often missed the last step to hold the trophy but I think this time they can achieve their dreams.
Petrodollars were supposed to equal progress, but it hasn't quite worked out like that for Angola.
After two qualifications for the Cup of Nations in the '90s, they stunned Nigeria by qualifying ahead of them for the 2006 World Cup. Captain Fabrice Akwa told anyone who'd listen that the World Cup was the perfect stage to prove Angola wasn't "just about oil, war and poverty". Maybe not, but it was a stretch to suggest it was suddenly about football.
With draws against Mexico and Iran, Angola certainly didn't embarrass themselves in Germany, but they were eliminated at the group stage in the 2006 Cup of Nations and were stodgy in reaching the last eight in Ghana two years later. Even on home soil last time out they only flickered, and lacked the wherewithal to break down a solid Ghana in the quarter-final.
Since Luis Goncalves left in 2008, Angola have had a flurry of coaches, with two defeats in six qualifiers hardly a ringing endorsement of their quality going into this tournament.
Coach Lito Vidigal
The brother of ex-Portugal international Luis Vidigal replaced Zeca Amaral 12 months ago, becoming Angola's fifth coach in three years. Once a defender for Campomaiorense and Belenenses, Lito played for Angola in the 1998 ACoN.
Key player Gilberto
The 29-year-old left-winger missed the 2006 World Cup through injury, but was Angola's most impressive player at the Cup of Nations in 2010. Now at Lierse in Belgium, he became a star at Al-Ahly where he won six Egyptian titles and three African Champions Leagues.
Samuel Eto'o predicts...
Their experiences from Germany 2006 and the 2010 Cup of Nations will help. A good chance of making the quarters.
The only east African side to qualify for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Sudan have a far prouder history than their FIFA ranking of 112 suggests.
They hosted the inaugural tournament in 1957, finished runners-up in 1959 and 1963 and won on home soil in 1970. But living up to that past has proved difficult with the economic and political turmoil that has beset the country. Since 1976, Sudan had qualified only once before this tournament Ã¢ÂÂ in 2008, when they lost all three games and failed to score a goal. Only Ghana took points off them in qualifying, though, as they went through as a best runner-up.
Coach Mohamed Abdalla Ahmed
Ahmed was coach at the 2008 ACN and led the team to third at the 2011 CHAN (the competition restricted to players based in their home country's league).
Key player Haitham Mustafa
One figure bestrides Sudanese football. Captain and record caps holder, the astute midfielder has won 11 Sudanese Premier League titles with Al-Hilal.
Samuel Eto'o predicts...
With young players coming through, just improving on 2008 will be Sudan's aim.
Mauritania's withdrawal left Burkina Faso with just Gambia and Namibia to overcome in qualifying. They did that with ease, averaging three goals per game and only dropping points away to Gambia having already qualified.
Having made five ACoNs in a row, they missed the next three after finishing fourth on home soil in 1998. But this second qualification in a row, with a side just coming to maturity, suggests they are a nation on the up. They have pace, strikers Aristide Bance and Moumouni Dagano are potent and defender Bakary Kone was solid enough at Guingamp to earn a move to Lyon last summer.
Coach Paulo Duarte
After a part-time stint at Le Mans, the 42-year-old Portuguese former defender is now fully focused on the Stallions, whom he led to Angola in 2010.
Key player Jonathan Pitroipa
A lightning-fast winger or midfielder, Pitroipa made his name at Freiburg and Hamburg before moving to Rennes for ÃÂ£3.2m in 2011, scoring two on his debut.
Samuel Eto'o predicts...
Their target is second place. Although possible, I think it will be tough for them.