2013: The Year of the Elephants?

With just two days until Africa’s biggest tournament kicks off at Johannesburg’s gorgeous Soccer City stadium, every team involved fancies their chances of lifting the trophy. In the absence of some of the continent’s biggest names, this year’s Africa Cup of Nations competition could be the chance for young players to really show the big boys what they can do.

The hosts kick off the competition against giant-killers Cape Verde, hot on the heels of the Islanders’ qualification victory over 2000 and 2002 winners Cameroon. With Lille’s Ryan Mendes joining the impressive Heldon of Maritimo up front, this is a team that has shown they can score goals.

Whilst a South African squad lacking Everton winger Steven Pienaar, who has retired from international football, looks notably weaker than that which took on the world in 2010, they should still top their group with the speedy Thulani Serero and Siphewe Tshabalala joining Oldham’s Dean Furman in an impressive midfield. Bafana Bafana will again consider themselves lucky to have the chance to impress their vuvuzela-blowing supporters at home.

With record seven-time champions Egypt another notable absentee, Morocco should have been the team to watch from North Africa. However, with the improving Adel Taarabt losing his place in the squad due to disciplinary issues and the flamboyant Younes Belhanda a doubt for the tournament after a muscle injury, the team lacks creative potency, and could fall foul of an organised defensive line.

Across the equator, last year’s surprise winners Zambia are out to turn heads again. With a strike force containing the raw talents of Southampton’s Emmanuel Mayuka alongside BBC African Footballer of the Year Christopher Katongo, this is a team that can score goals. The defence, however, remains a question mark after poor performances across the board in the young team’s pre-season friendlies.

Not to be outdone, West Africa once again boasts a strong contingent in this year’s contest, with Nigeria’s Super Eagles joining Ghana’s Black Stars and the Sparrowhawks of Togo.

Chelsea’s Victor Moses joins club teammate John Obi Mikel in a Nigeria line-up that has divided opinion, with several established players such as Obafemi Martins omitted from the squad. The Super Eagles are an immensely frustrating team, able to take on the best on their day but pitifully inadequate at other times. Emmanuel Adebayor will provide Togo with something to aim for up front; the burly Tottenham forward has shown time and again that he can find the net when he wants to.

And then, of course, there’s the Ivory Coast. The Elephants came within a kick of winning the trophy last year, only for Gervinho to miss a vital penalty in the shootout and hand Zambia their first title.

Ivory Coast is still the best team in Africa on paper. With a midfield spearheaded by Manchester City’s Yaya Touré they are a force to be reckoned with, and Touré is joined by a slew of attacking talent. Last but not least, with a shiny Champions League winner’s medal now taking pride of place on his mantlepiece, there’s only one trophy Didier Drogba has yet to win. He’ll be ready to take his chance this January.

PHOTO/Benh Lieu Song