Preview: Crowded field of contenders jostling to dethrone Sadio Mané’s Senegal

AP , Friday 12 Jan 2024

Even for a tournament that is always unpredictable, there is an unusually large number of title contenders looking to dethrone Sadio Mané’s Senegal when the latest edition of the Africa Cup of Nations starts Saturday.

Sadio Mane
File Photo: Senegal s forward Sadio Mane controls the ball during the World Cup African Qualifiers match against Egypt at Cairo International Stadium in the Egyptian capital on March 25, 2022. AFP

Morocco is looking to build on its unprecedented World Cup success after becoming the first African team to reach the semifinals. Seven-time champion Egypt will hope Mohammed Salah can help the team go one better after losing the 2021 Africa Cup final on penalties. Nigeria has African player of the year Victor Osimhen, Ghana is led by Mohammed Kudus as it goes for its fifth title and Ivory Coast can count on strong home support.

“This competition will be one of the strongest since I started playing in it because all the big countries are here,” said Mané, who scored the winning penalty for Senegal in the final win over Egypt in the previous edition.

The 34th edition of the biennial tournament was supposed to be played in June and July last year but was postponed to avoid Ivory Coast’s tropical rainy season.

That means it is once again being played in the middle of the European league season, forcing many top clubs to be without some of their best players for up to a month.

Napoli will have to do without Osimhen, Liverpool without Salah, and German league leader Bayer Leverkusen will be without four players — Victor Boniface (Nigeria), Amine Adli (Morocco), Odilon Kossounou (Ivory Coast) and Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso) — potentially undermining its bid to pip Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title.

Safety will again be an issue after eight people were killed and 38 injured in a stadium crush at the last edition in Cameroon.

The 24-team tournament will feature six groups, with games spread across six stadiums in five cities, with the final to be played at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan on Feb. 12. The top two in each group and the four best third-placed teams will progress to the knockout stage.

Here is a look at the six groups.

GROUP A (IVORY COAST, NIGERIA, EQUATORIAL GUINEA, GUINEA-BISSAU)

Host nation Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau play the tournament’s opening game on Saturday, with Nigeria playing Equatorial Guinea the next day. Ivory Coast then hosts three-time champion Nigeria on Jan. 18 for a game that could decide which team tops the group.

Nigeria is always among the tournament favorites but hasn’t won since 2013. Osimhen will lead the “Super Eagles” on their 20th appearance, supported by a cast that includes Leverkusen's Boniface and AC Milan’s Samuel Chukwueze.

Ivory Coast is aiming for its third title and is led by Borussia Dortmund forward Sébastien Haller, who overcame testicular cancer last year but has struggled so far this season with just two goals in 14 appearances. Sporting Lisbon's 20-year-old defender Ousmane Diomande is a player to watch.

Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are both making their fourth appearance at the tournament.

All the group games will be played in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city.

GROUP B (EGYPT, GHANA, CAPE VERDE, MOZAMBIQUE)

Egypt and Ghana are the heavyweights in this group, and they play each other in a potential group-decider on Jan. 18. Ghana's “Black Stars” will be coached by former Ireland international Chris Hughton. Athletic Bilbao forward Iñaki Williams was able to join the team after recovering from illness.

Cape Verde and Mozambique are making their fourth and fifth appearances, respectively.

All games will be played in Abidjan.

GROUP C (SENEGAL, CAMEROON, GUINEA, GAMBIA)

Senegal faces a difficult task to retain its title and first has to navigate a group that includes five-time champion Cameroon.

Senegal is again led by Mané, the star of the team who missed out on the World Cup last year because of a leg injury sustained while playing for Bayern Munich shortly before the tournament in Qatar. The 31-year-old Mané has since joined Saudi Arabian team Al Nassr.

The “Indomitable Lions” of Cameroon are returning to where they won the first of their five titles in 1984, having finished third two years ago. Beşiktaş forward Vincent Aboubakar, the top scorer at the 2021 Africa Cup with eight goals, is team captain. Manchester United goalkeeper André Onana is back, having quit the team after being sent home from the World Cup following a dispute with coach Rigobert Song.

Guinea is making its 14th appearance and will be relying on Stuttgart forward Serhou Guirassy for goals after he started the season by netting 17 times in 14 Bundesliga appearances.

Gambia is making just its second appearance reaching the quarterfinals in 2021.

All games will be played in Yamoussoukro, except for Gambia vs. Cameroon on Jan. 23 in Bouaké.

GROUP D (ALGERIA, BURKINA FASO, MAURITANIA, ANGOLA)

Despite having a talented team led by former Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez, Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi has played down his team’s chances of a third Africa Cup title. Algeria exited at the group stage in the last tournament, then failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Burkina Faso is looking for its first title at the 13th attempt, led from the back by serene Leverkusen defender Edmond Tapsoba, one of the German team’s key players this season.

The “Stallions” finished fourth in 2021 after placing third at the previous tournament and runner-up in 2013.

All the games will be played in Bouaké, except Burkina Faso vs. Angola in Yamoussoukro on Jan. 23.

GROUP E (TUNISIA, MALI, SOUTH AFRICA, NAMIBIA)

Both Tunisia and South Africa are going for their second titles after wins in 2004 and 1996, respectively.

Tunisia will look to experienced captain Youssef Msakni for goals and is strong in midfield with Eintracht Frankfurt’s Ellyes Skhiri, Manchester United’s Hannibal Mejbri and Union Berlin’s Aïssa Laïdouni providing the platform for the team’s attack.

South Africa will be led by Percy Tau, a forward who plays for Egyptian club Al Ahly, while veteran Themba Zwane was included in the squad after he was initially overlooked by Belgian coach Hugo Broos.

Broos, who led Cameroon to the title in 2017, said it had been a mistake to omit the now 34-year-old Zwane when he took over the “Bafana Bafana” in May 2021, but that he had been trying to prioritize younger players at the time.

Mali is making its 13th appearance and Namibia its fourth.

The games will be played in Korhogo, except Namibia vs. Mali in San Pedro on Jan. 24.

GROUP F (MOROCCO, CONGO, ZAMBIA, TANZANIA)

After becoming the first African team to reach the World Cup semifinals in Qatar last year, Morocco is now hoping to add just its second Africa Cup title.

Walid Regragui’s team defeated Belgium, Spain and Portugal before losing to eventual finalist France at the World Cup in Qatar.

Regragui was less than six months old when the “Atlas Lions” won their only Africa Cup in 1976. Now he’s targeting a repeat, helped by Paris Saint-Germain star Achraf Hakimi from the back.

Congo is taking part for the 20th time and is bidding for a third title after wins in 1968 and 1974.

Zambia, which won the trophy in 2012, is coached by Avram Grant, who guided Ghana to the final in 2015, then fourth place two years later.

Tanzania is appearing for just the third time.

Matches will be played in San Pedro, except Tanzania vs. Congo on Jan. 24.

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