Libreville - Gabon witnessed one of the most sensational
finishes to an Africa Cup of Nations tournament when no-hopers Zambia stunned
the Ivory Coast to win the 2012 final.
Zambia failed to qualify this time, but the Ivorians will be
among the favourites again when the competition returns to the central African
state with the first fixtures scheduled for Saturday.
AFP Sport rates the chances of the 16 challengers for the $4
million (3.8 million euros) first prize (last three competitive results in
brackets with W denoting a win, D a draw and L a loss):
Back among the elite and in good form. After winning three
consecutive Cup of Nations titles, they failed to qualify for the past three
tournaments. At 43, Essam El Hadary remains among the best African goalkeepers
while Mohamed Salah is the star player.
A work-in-progress team after time caught up with the
'golden generation' of Kolo and Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora and Didier Drogba.
Doggedness as much as anything else won the title two years ago and they will
need even more of that quality to remain champions.
Being coached by French wizard Herve Renard automatically
places them among the favourites as he has won the title twice in three
attempts with Zambia and the Ivory Coast. A Mehdi Benatia-marshalled defence is
among the best, but Youssef El Arabi must recapture his scoring form.
African pundits insist they are among the likeliest title
winners despite only one win from six matches in their past two tournament
appearances. Their attack appears potent with Sadio Mane and Keita Balde, but
many of the victories last year were against weak opposition.
Also read: AFCON 2017 winner to pocket $4 million
A slump during World Cup qualifiers has cast doubts over the
'Desert Foxes' with a home draw against Cameroon followed by an away loss to
Nigeria. New African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez is less threatening
than six months ago and coaching changes have not helped.
Looked strong as they walloped a resurgent Central African
Republic to seal Cup of Nations qualification, then trounced Libya and won a
tricky challenge in Guinea in World Cup ties. They have plenty of potential
match-winners and a constantly improving coach in Florent Ibenge.
Cup of Nations hosts regularly box above their weight --
most recently in 2015 when star-less Equatorial Guinea reached the semi-finals
despite hiring a coach just a couple of weeks before the kick-off. Gabon boast
a star striker in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and that gives them a chance.
Midfielder Andre 'Dede' Ayew says they are among the
favourites, and Ghana must hope his return from injury will end a rotten run
with home draws against Rwanda and Uganda followed by a beating in Egypt. Skipper-cum-striker
Asamoah Gyan has been a shadow of his former self.
Among the great Cup of Nations unpredictables. Reached 2013
final having started as no-hopers, then exited after first round two years ago
without a win. The brute force of Aristide Bance and dribbling of Jonathan
Pitroipa could spell trouble for defences.
Liverpool defender Joel Matip was among seven of the
preliminary squad who opted out, saying their club careers across Europe were
more important than the Cup of Nations. An erratic side with a good draw away
to Algeria followed by a poor draw at home against Zambia.
Would be among the 'no-hopers' but for one man, veteran
French coach Claude Le Roy. He has gone to the Cup of Nations eight times and
reached the knockout phase on all but one occasion. Clubless striker Emmanuel
Adebayor desperate to prove that he is not a spent force.
Making unparallelled 13th consecutive appearance at the
tournament, but have only one set of gold medals to show for it. Could win the
tournament, or be out after first round. Coach Henryk Kasperczak took them to
second place 21 years ago during a previous spell in charge.
Coach Baciro Cande insists they are more shocks to come from
a team captained by midfielder Bocundji Ca that topped a group they were widely
expected to prop up as the opposition included former champions Congo
Brazzaville and Zambia, and Kenya.
After years relying considerably on the stealth of
midfielder Seydou Keita and the strength of striker Cheik Diabate, both have
passed their sell-by date and the cupboard looks bare. A goalless home draw
with Gabon in their last competitive match does not inspire confidence.
Back at the Cup of Nations 39 years after finishing
runners-up to hosts Ghana in a then eight-team competition. Another bunch of
silver medals is a highly unlikely scenario, though, even if they boast the new
Africa-based Footballer of the Year in goalkeeper Denis Onyango.
A couple of first-round exits was the fate of Zimbabwe
during two previous appearances and it is hard to see them avoiding another early
flight home despite a powerful attack starring Khama Billiat and Belgium-based
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