By Ed Dove
Some months ago I would have identified the trio of André Ayew, Adel Taarabt, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as possible players of the tournament – however, sadly for the African audience, none of the three will be present in South Africa; Gabon failed to qualify, and Ayew and Taarabt haven’t made the plane, for various reasons.
So, in light of their absence, I am going to plump for Kwadwo Asamoah – another Ghanaian star well and truly on the rise. Currently at Juventus, and providing effective contributions often from the left flank, ‘Asa’ will relish being back in the middle of the park, pulling the strings in the Black Stars’ midfield, battling alongside best buddy Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, and also contributing to Ghana’s creative, attacking approach. Now a bona fide star in the European context, could this be the tournament where the former Udinese man finally outgrows Black Star heroes Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien?
Also a quick mention for Zambian Rainford Kalaba, I am a huge fan, and am excited to see the TP Mazembe midfielder pit his wits against the continent’s finest once more.
One thing I am particularly looking forward to in this tournament is seeing how some of Africa’s younger players fare under the intense glare of the continental centrepiece. Zambian duo Stoppila Sunzu and Nathan Sinkala already have experience of playing in (and winning) the Cup of Nations, and I expect their stock to rise during the tournament.
Much has been written and said about two of the continent’s finest emerging players, Christian Atsu – the Ghanaian Messi, and Chelsea’s Nigerian forward Victor Moses. I believe that both of these players can go on to play a massive part in their respective nations’ advance through the tournament. Both offer direct running and lighting pace, and are more than capable of troubling defences. This could be the occasion for the pair to confirm their place among the continent’s most eminent stars.
Wow – what a field of attackers to choose from, and what a multitude of African attacking talent on display to brighten up the fields of South Africa and strike fear into the heart of the continent’s defenders! Asamoah Gyan and Didier Drogba may be favourites among the bookies to bag the golden boot, but I expect great things from some of Africa’s less heralded frontmen.
Nigeria's Ikechukwu Uche can, on his day, score against any opposition, and with support from the likes of Ahmed Musa and Moses, could score a hatful against some of the tournament’s weaker defences in Group C. Wilfried Bony – on hot form for club side Vitesse – could help see Cote d’Ivoire’s Golden Generation to the tournament’s latter phases.
I am also excited to see what kind of impact Dieumerci Mbokani can have on the tournament, as well as Malian powerhouse Cheick Diabaté.
It’s got to be the DRC for me. Sneaking into the tournament under the radar of just about everyone, and coached by iconic manager Claude Le Roy (who's just announced his resignation), 2013 could be the perfect readmission to the continental high table for one of Africa’s greatest footballing nations. With Trésor Mputu supporting the aforementioned Mbokani up top, and with Youssouf Mulumbu, one of the Premier League’s in-form midfielders, dominating the centre of the park – the Leopards could be a match for anyone. If they can sneak past Mali to qualify from Group B along with Ghana, then the Congolese could upset one or two of the big boys, prompting celebration from Katanga to Kinshasa.
I fear that Zambia may struggle to live up to the high standards they set for themselves in 2012, and I would be surprised if, in South Africa, and shorn of the magical nostalgia and spiritual euphoria that accompanied their legendary victory, they were able to replicate their passage to the final. Sometimes things just come together, both team and luck, and it’s hard to see lightning striking twice. However, I hesitate to bet against the assured and astute management of Hervé Renard, as well as the experience and maturity afforded to some of the younger campaigners of the last Afcon.
Despite tipping South Africa to qualify from their group, I am also slightly concerned about the hosts’ chances ahead of Saturday’s kick off. A Morocco side laced with stars, and a rejuvenated Algeria may well up their game to battle Bafana Bafana on home turf, and what of Cape Verde? The minnows may have been overlooked by many, but after ousting Cameroon and showing tremendous organisation and resiliency against Nigeria in a recent friendly, they could be in pole position to spoil the opening party.
Also, on a personal note, I am fairly apprehensive about John Obi Mikel’s Afcon prospects. Whilst I will the Chelsea man on with every fibre of my being, doubts linger as to whether the midfielder can step it up on the continental stage, and whether he can live up to his enormous potential and begin dictating and even dominating games for the Super Eagles. I fear that the pressure and demand might be too much for Mikel when accountable for the aspirations of 170 million Naija fans.
Please, John, prove me wrong!
Due to their strength in depth, their powerful midfield, and sturdy backline – as well as the fact that they go into the tournament settled, and having played together for a number of years, I back the Black Stars to go all the way and claim their first continental honour since 1982. Last year, questions were raised about Ghana’s ability to take the game to teams, and their capacity to provide a cutting edge to their dominance of possession. Whilst this let them down in their semi-final against Zambia, where they were unable to break Chipolopolo down and conceded on the counter attack, I feel that the wrongs could be righted this year.
Asamoah has grown in stature, ability, and experience within the last year, and could be in a position to dominate the centre of the park. The addition of Christian Atsu is also hard to overstate, the winger adds directness and creativity, as well as the handy knack of knowing where the goal is. He can be a devastating option for the Black Stars, and could well see them claim their fourth Afcon title.
Follow Ed Dove on