African Cup of Nations Preview – The Favourites

Sport

Once a team is branded with the term ‘golden generation’ there is almost an inevitability about their failure. Expectations begin to outweigh reality; youthful promise is mistaken for complete articles and it becomes increasingly difficult to establish an identity as the public expects a certain style of victory. The ‘golden generation’ of Ivory Coast footballers have certainly experienced this, failing to get past the group stage in the past two World Cups, admittedly due to tough groups, and choking in the African Cup of Nations for the last three tournaments. This despite having Didier Drogba, Salamon Kalou and the Toure brothers in their team.

Now they have another chance to win a major tournament; with South Africa, Cameroon, Egypt and Nigeria all absent they are one of the favourites to take home this year’s African Cup of Nations. Despite political troubles at home the side managed to qualify with a 100% record and are the highest ranked African country in FIFA’s world rankings. Manager Francois Zahoui generally prefers a 4-3-3 with Didier Drogba as a target man for the attacks, but the inclusion of Emmanuel Eboue in midfield allows for an easy switch to 4-2-3-1 with Eboue partnering African Player of the Year Yaya Toure in the defensive midfield roles, while Chiek Tiote’s recent form for Newcastle suggests he may be a better option than the ageing Eboue.

If Ivory Coast are to win the tournament for the first time in twenty years Gervinho will be key. The Arsenal forward is one of the few players to still possess pace in the Ivory Coast team and could well be the chief provider for Drogba. Although he has not yet established himself in England in the way many would have hoped the extra space he will probably be afforded by weaker defences should allow him to flourish.

Their nearest rivals will probably be Ghana. The team which were so cruelly denied a semi-final place by Luis Suarez’s goalkeeping in the 2010 World Cup is largely still intact, with only goalkeeper Richard Kingson and midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng no longer representing their country. However whether the players are the same is a different question. Asamoah Gyan, star of that world cup team, has been suffering with injuries whilst questions remain over his motivation after a move to Al Ain in the UAE left his bank account looking healthy but his time playing against high quality opponents shortened. This could prove a problem for the Black Stars as the 4-4-1-1 they used in qualifying places Udinese’s Kwadwo Asamoah alongside him. Although a great player Asamoah is more of a playmaker than a finisher – he has scored only one international goal in 37 games and is generally a creative link between the midfield and the attack.

Another issue is in goal since the three keepers selected in the squad have only 11 caps between them. Although Norwegian based Adam Kwarasey has proved himself capable so far the 7 caps he has may not give him the experience needed for dealing with the pressures of international tournaments. Aside from this Ghana’s squad is still impressive and their world cup performance will undoubtedly give them a belief that they can go one better than last time and win the tournament.

Of the other teams Morocco and Senegal are most likely to mount a serious challenge to the title. Senegal in particular look strong, with a front line consisting of Moussa Sow (top scorer in Ligue 1 last season), Mamadou Niang, and Newcastle’s new signing Papiss Cisse. With Demba Ba on the bench Senegal certainly don’t lack firepower up front and are likely to use it, playing an attacking 4-3-3 with tough tackling midfielders Mohamed Diame and Kader Mangane providing strength as well as flair for the team. Having never won the title before this side will be looking to go one better than the 2002 team that lost on penalties to Cameroon in the final. They will certainly be buoyed by recent form which has seen them only lose once in their last thirteen matches.

That defeat came against Morocco, who will also fancy their chances in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Without the same amount of quality as the other three they rely on an organised style under Belgian manager Eric Gerets. There is no doubt that he has united the team into a more cohesive unit than they’ve been for years, with the infighting that plagued previous regimes no longer affecting performances on the pitch. In Mehdi Benatia and Mbark Boussoufa they have two of the best defensive players in Europe, giving the team a good basis from which to launch their attacks. Benatia in particular looks to be a rising star in an impressive Udinese team. Up front Marouane Chamakh could be looking to use this tournament as a ‘shop window’ for his talent – a good performance could see him move away from Arsenal where he is so out of favour that even the lacklustre Arshavin is ahead of him.

In his strike partner Adel Taraabt Morocco have a player capable of either propelling the side to the final or derailing the entire campaign. Which Taraabt will turn up depends largely on whether he manages to reconcile his differences with Gerets – the two fell out after the striker was dropped for a qualifier in June last year and in response he decided to retire from international duty, only to reverse his decision a few months later. Ever forgiving, Gerets has brought him back into the side but his temperament remains a concern. He has also failed to score in the Premier League this season, suggesting that the Championship may be his highest level.

With so many of the historically more successful sides missing this is a great chance for these four sides to take home the continent’s trophy. Certainly they possess the players to do so, and it will be a shock if someone else triumphs. However if there’s one thing that African football provides its uncertainty. All four sides have some weaknesses and if the like of Zambia and Guinea manage to exploit these then we may see a new team emerge as Africa’s best.

PHOTO/KARL@FOOTYSPHERE

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