The 32nd edition of Africa’s biennial competition kicks off on Friday with record winners Egypt hosting the continent in four cities – Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and Ismaila. The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations features the continent’s best sides in what should be an intriguing tournament. Who will win AFCON 2019? Who are the AFCON favorites?
Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Zimbabwe
Egypt booked their place in this tournament finishing second in qualifying Group J before being named hosts. The Pharaohs started the qualifiers with a defeat to Tunisia in Rades but rallied with four straight victories to secure qualification. Zimbabwe and DR Congo both advanced from Group G in the qualifying series. The Warriors won the group ahead of the Leopards and didn’t lose to their closest rival taking four points from their fellow AFCON participants in qualifiers. Uganda was the best team in their qualifying group; the Cranes waltzed through Group L comfortably until the last match-day when they lost 3-0 to Tanzania in Dar es Salaam.
Hosts Egypt has in their ranks 2018 African Footballer of Year – Mohamed Salah. Will the Pharaohs be solely dependent on their talisman? The Liverpool attacker has scored at an impressive rate of 0.62 goals per match for his national side, however his 39 goals almost match the totals of the rest of the squad combined (42 international goals). They will need him fit and firing to make the most of their home advantage. Zimbabwe’s Alec Mudimu of Cefn Druids is primed for this competition; the 6’2 versatile midfielder has been used in various defensive roles for his country, lately he has been protecting a promising defensive duo of Teenage Hadebe and Marshall Munetsi, having previously been deployed in defence himself. It will be fascinating to see how the Wrexham-based left-footer fares against Africa’s biggest names.
Any upset on the cards? Pretty high. The Cranes of Uganda were impressive during the qualifying series and are well organized under Sebastien Desabre. They are hard-working and defensively strong; almost went through the AFCON qualifying group without conceding until the final day. Egypt have shown in recent times they are a one-man team. Mo Salah faded during the 2017 final as the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon found a way to squeeze him out. Does Javier Aguirre have an alternate plan if Salah is targeted and marked out?
Nigeria, Guinea, Madagascar, Burundi
2013 AFCON champions – Nigeria are back to compete against the best in Africa having missed the last two editions. The West African footballing giants booked their place in Egypt winning Group E in the qualifiers after a false start, losing the opening qualifiers at home in Uyo to South Africa. The Super Eagles soared back to win the group with an amazing run in the remaining five games. Madagascar and Burundi are making their AFCON debuts; the former were the first team to book their ticket after taking 10 points from their opening four matches, while Les Hirondelles saw off Gabon led by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to hoist their flag in Egypt. Syli Nationale of Guinea finished as group winners in Group H ahead of 2015 winners Ivory Coast without losing a group game in the qualifiers. It is interesting to note that Paul Pit – the Belgian born Guinea coach took Burkina Faso to the 2013 AFCON final.
Guinea Amadou Diawara and Naby Keita are high-class performers. These technical midfielders will be crucial to their team so Keita’s recovery from his injury is critical ahead of the tournament. Super Eagles captain and midfield maestro John Mikel Obi is probably Nigeria best player, the 2013 winner will shoulder the responsibility of his team providing leadership and vision on and off the pitch for a youthful but talented squad. He is one of the most experienced and successful African players in the game, though Mikel controversially opted not to play for the Super Eagles in the 10 months since the last FIFA World Cup but his return should provide guidance for Samuel Chukwueze, Alex Iwobi and Victor Osimhen – some of the talented players in the Super Eagles ranks.
Any upset on the cards? Not likely. The group seems pretty straightforward between two strong sides and two debutants. However, Madagascar held Senegal at home during the qualifiers, while Burundi were undefeated in double-headers against both Mali and Gabon. Both ‘small fry’ have proved that they can get the job done against much more established sides, and both are capable of creating an upset. The Super Eagles of Nigeria have shown they are a side who can run out of ideas. Coach Gernot Rohr’s team will need to be wary of these sides who can be spoilers in the group.
Senegal, Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania
Senegal are well equipped with a very strong squad. Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the best defenders in Europe while Sadio Mane’s attacking qualities are well known on the continent and in Europe. The Terranga Lions qualified as Group A winners and were among the top seeds for the draw. Aliou Cissé team had the best run in the qualifying series picking up 16 points in six games. Algeria were less impressive in their qualifying campaign despite being in a fairly easy group; they lost to Benin and could only manage two draws against Gambia. In a restructured group, the Harambee Stars of Kenya finished second behind Ghana taking a big scalp by defeating the Black Stars in Nairobi. Tanzania are returning to the big stage after almost four decades on missing out on Africa’s biggest football showpiece. The Taifa Stars battled their way in a tricky group to finish as runners up behind Uganda.
The Terranga Lions team is a star studded team reminiscent of the 2002 team that took the surprised the continent in Mali losing on penalties in the final and were very enterprising at their maiden FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan. Belgium-based Mbwana Samatta is Tanzania’s star man, but the energetic Simon Msuva is the brain behind the team and is thriving under new Taifa Stars coach Emmanuel Amuneke. Riyad Mahrez, Aïssa Mandi and Yacine Brahimi are some of the key players in the Desert Warriors team that possess genuine quality. Captain Victor Wanyama is the shining armor of the Harambee Stars.
Any upset on the cards? High. Despite their wealth of creative, attacking resources, Algeria failed to beat Gambia home or away in qualifying, and will have to improve significantly against a Kenya defence that conceded just one in four to reach Egypt. Djamel Belmadi will be under significant pressure to improve on the poor outing in Gabon where they crashed out in the group stage.
Can Senegal win their first AFCON title? The Teranga Lions have a star-studded side, arguably boasting the best defence on the continent and – in Sadio Mane – one of Africa’s top forward and a golden boot winner in the just concluded English Premier League season. However, they’ve had talented generations in the past and failed to win the big one, so must prove they can pull it all together when it matters most.
Morocco, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Namibia
Three previous winners – Morocco, Ivory Coast and South Africa with Namibia make up the Group of Death. The Atlas Lions lost the opening group game to Cameroon in June 2017 but bounced back to the top Group A while Ivory Coast made it to Egypt as Group H runners-up behind Guinea. South Africa needed a final-match day victory over Libya to progress after failing to win in Seychelles. The Brave Warriors of Namibia have their work cut out in this difficult group. It is their first qualification since 2008 and could play a pivotal role in determining qualification having battled their way in the qualifying series overcoming 2012 Champions – Zambia.
The Atlas Lions team is a talented squad that has all the requirements for glory in Egypt. Youssef En-Nesyri has shown good progress this year and will have the impressive Hakim Ziyech and Younès Belhanda to provide him with service and Medhi Benatia leading the team from the back. Jean Seri and Franck Kessie already ensure that the Ivory Coast have one of the best midfields in Africa, but replacing the ageing Serey Die with Toulouse’s Ibrahim Sangare would take things up another notch. The towering defensive midfielder has been a revelation in Ligue 1 this season, dominating opponents in the French top flight and averaging a league-high four retrievals per match. The Ivory Coast are one team that potentially have a stronger side featuring an attack with Nicolas Pepe, Wilfired Zaha, and Maxwel Cornet.
Any upset on the cards? It’s hard to see Namibia troubling the other three teams, but South Africa’s defensive solidity could make life difficult for either of the group’s other big sides. If they can finish above Morocco or the Ivory Coast, then one of these giants could be forced to face Group A or B in the Round of 16. Herve Renard, the Frenchman ended the Ivorians’ wait for a Nations Cup crown in 2015, he’s been the nemesis of those who once adored him. Renard’s Zambia defeated the Elephants in the 2012 final, while his Morocco team eliminated the Elephants from the 2017 tournament in Gabon, ended their 2018 World Cup dreams, and now face them again in the 2019 group stage. Is it finally time for the West Africans to gain a measure of revenge on their former coach?
Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Angola
Tunisia won their qualifying group convincingly securing 15 points from a possible 18 with one defeat to Egypt in Alexandria. The Carthage Eagles blew away other rivals (Niger and Eswatini) in the group to book their place in Egypt. Mali won qualifying Group C without losing a single game; Angola were Group I winners as well while debutant Mauritania finished on same points with Angola in their qualifying group with four wins and two defeats.
Eupen’s Youssef Msakni has the opportunity to make up for missing the last FIFA World Cup in Russi having picked up a knee injury last May. He is one of the several prodigious talents who is yet to fulfill is enormous potential. He would be expected to lift a struggling Tunisia side that lacks creativity in the final third. Moussa Marega, 20 caps is one of Mohamed Magassouba most experienced player in a team filled with several youngsters.
Any upset on the cards? Mali were one of five teams who went through qualifying unbeaten, while Tunisia’s will be expected to progress considering the group’s weaker duo. The North Africans have reached the knockouts in nine of their last 12 AFCONs. Tunisia will have to be ready for stiffer tests. Four of the six group winners will face off against one of the best third-placed teams in the Round of 16, the winners of Groups F and E will face runners-up (of Groups E and D respectively). Tunisia may sail through a fairly straightforward group, but with potentially either Morocco or the Ivory Coast lying in wait, their mettle will be tested before too long.
Cameroon, Ghana, Benin, Guinea-Bissau
Defending champions – Cameroon were originally scheduled to host 2019 AFCON but were stripped due to several tournament preparation issues. They participated in the qualification series and finished runners up in Group B behind Morocco. Ghana were unimpressive during the qualifiers though they managed to win their makeshift group ahead of Kenya while Benin and Guinea-Bissau both qualified on final match-day. The Djurtus of Bissau finished as Group K winners in a competitive group while the Squirrels put up a remarkable challenge to finish behind Algeria but comfortably ahead of Gambia and Togo as they make a return to the biggest stage on the continent since 2010.
Veteran Asamoah Gyan’s attitude and leadership style will be under focus in the Ghanaian camp during this tournament, he almost walked out in the team over a disagreement of captainship issue with his coach. It took the intervention of the country president to persuade him to return. Karl Toko Ekambi and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will lead the Indomitable Lions attack as they prepare for their title defense in Egypt.
Any upset on the cards? Neither Ghana nor Cameroon were particularly convincing in qualifying, with two new managers taking their time to embed new players and a fresh strategic approach. However, while Benin boast a few wily veterans, and Guinea-Bissau should have learned from their maiden tournament in Gabon two years ago, both of the heavyweights should progress.
The Black Stars have been remarkably consistent in recent AFCONs, reaching the final four in the last six tournaments. If they progress from the group – particularly with a win against the holders – the talk won’t just be about them reaching the semis for a seventh time, but about whether they can end their near-four-decade wait for continental gold.
Who will win the tournament?
There are five teams tipped as favorites – Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Egypt have one the favorites tag and boast perhaps the tournament’s best player in Mohamed Salah. The Pharaohs will need him fit and firing to make the most of their home advantage having won three of the last four they have hosted. Senegal possesses arguably the strongest squad with Kalidou Koulibaly leading a solid backline and skipper Sadio Mane headlining one of the most threatening attacks. The Ivory Coast are one team that have the potential to go all the way. With an attack featuring Nicolas Pepe, Wilfired Zaha, and Maxwel Cornet, they are a threat to any team. However, the team may struggle defensively against the continent’s better sides. Eric Baily’s absence through injury leaves Serge Aurier to lead a backline inexperienced at the top level. Morocco are another side who can contest for the trophy. Coach Herve Renard has two AFCON wins already, most impressively with Zambia in 2012, so certainly has some pedigree in this competition.
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