The 31st edition of the African Cup of Nations kicks off today at 18h00 when hosts Gabon clash with Guinea-Bissau. The showpiece tournament will take place in a politically charged environment but the hope is that football will be the ultimate talking point.
Giants Ghana, Senegal, Algeria and Egypt will fancy their chances with the Super Eagles of Nigeria conspicuous by their absence having failed to qualify. That failure reinforces the unpredictability and inconsistency in African football; anything can and probably will happen in Gabon when Africa’s most dazzling talents fight for the continent’s ultimate prize.
It’s notoriously difficult to predict a winner at the best of times but there are a few standout nations with an abundance of talented players proving their worth in Europe. Ghana are managed by Avram Grant who is tasked with leading the underachieving side to a title that they haven’t won since 1982.
Ivory Coast won the tournament in 2015 but key players have since moved on or been excluded. Both Touré brothers are no longer in the fold and neither is goalkeeper Boubacar Barry (his heroics in the penalty shootout were key in their win over Ghana in the final two years ago). The onus now is on exciting youngsters Eric Bailly and Wilfried Zaha to forge a new identity for Côte d’Ivoire.
Egypt, who have qualified after failing to do so for 7 years, look a strong unit with top performers in Europe including Mohamed Elneny, Mohamed Salah and Ramadan Sobhi. Fellow North Africans Algeria boast the attacking prowess of Yacine Brahimi, Islam Slimani and the continent’s finest player Riyad Mahrez.
Players to watch
Newly-crowned African Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez will be the key man in a potentially exciting Algerian frontline. The Leicester man will team up with club-mate Islam Slimani in a strong group that also includes Tunisia, Senegal and Zimbabwe. His flamboyant skills and dribbling ability should be a joy to behold in Gabon.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Africa’s Player of the Year in 2015, will carry the weight of a nation on his shoulders. The 27-year-old Borussia Dortmund hitman is one of the most sought after strikers in Europe and will have to fire if Gabon are to have any hope of exiting the group stages.
Sadio Mané’s scintillating start to the season for Liverpool has underlined his importance to Senegal during AFCON 2017. The versatile attacker is his club’s top scorer in the Premier League and with Senegal the highest-ranked African side in the world at 33, Mané will undoubtedly be one to watch; much of Senegal’s attacking impetus will flow through the exciting 24-year-old.
Expect the unexpected
The last five AFCON finals have features seven different teams.
Egypt have missed the last 6 editions of the tournament despite being its most decorated country with 7 titles.
Nigeria won the tournament in 2013, failed to qualify in 2015 and have also failed to qualify this year.
PicksClickabet offered odds of 7.79 on Guinea-Bissau defeating hosts Gabon in tonight’s encounter. Tournament openers are usually tough to call and those odds should prove tempting in a highly unpredictable setting.