The Continental football bonanza gets underway and fierce competition is expected, with nations bring forth their best talent to the stage.
16 teams among them host Gabon are set to light up the stage for the next couple of weeks. Gabonese lightning-quick striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will shoulder the hopes of his nation, who hope to at least grace the finals, if not lift the continental diadem. Algeria will also be hoping that fleet footed Ryad Mahrez caps a magnificent 12 months with a show stopping performance for his nation. The West African giants in Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Senegal will also be in business trying to conquer the continent.
But who are expected to conquer the group stages?
Pick: Gabon, Cameroon.
Hosts Gabon are straight favourites to win the group. Being the host, there is certainly the 12th man impact that will propel Gabon. The last time Gabon co-hosted the tourney, they managed a quarter-finals berth, and this time, they will be looking to get things moving. Aubameyang is certainly the star player and we expect him to run down defenses, and net a couple of goals for his side. His pedigree is unmatched and he is certainly here for business.
Cameroon is expected to come second behind the hosts. Having qualified for the past two World Cups and with majority of its players playing in Europe, this is a side beaming with experience and quality. Besiktas forward Vincent Aboubakar will lead his team from the front, with 14 goals in 38 appearances.
Guinea-Bissau national team is making its first appearance at AFCON and is expected to be the group’s punching bag.
Pick: Senegal, Algeria
This is one of the most fiercely contested groups. Looking at the individual quality and the pedigree of each team, expect a bare-knuckle contest here, where only the strongest will survive.
Algeria is however an edge over the rest, and hence a good pick for top group finisher. A plethora of stars lead the Algerian outfit with Mahrez and Slimani (Leicester), Brahimi (Porto), Soudani (Din.Zagabria) and Bentaleb (Schalke) in the fold.
The second spot will be a fierce contest between Tunisia and Senegal. Tunisia has been silently going about its business, though cannot be underrated. In 5 of the last 7 editions of the tournament, the Tunisians have reached the quarters and hence are no pushovers here.
Senegal hasn't been spectacular over the past editions. It however, has a talented squad led by Liverpool’s Sadio Mane. In the last AFCON edition, they were pooled in the Group of death, in this edition hasn't been any forgiving. Considering the quality within the team, there’s reason to believe that the Senegalese can progress beyond the group stages.Everton’s Idrissa Gana Gueye, Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf, Newcastle’s Mohamed Diame and West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate lead a star-studded side expected to cause ripples in the tournament.
Zimbabwe has a number of great players from the PSL amongst them Mamelodi Sundown’s hotshot Khama Billiat. We hence can expect them to bow out, albeit honourably.
Pick: Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco
Another of the most fiercely contested groups!
This is one of the groups we expect to produce a finalist. Ivory Coast’s golden generation finally won the AFCON in amazing fashion, after years of trying and a lot has changed since then. Manager Hervé Renard has switched allegiance to Morocco, while a couple of key players like the Toure brothers, Doumbia and Gervinho are no longer part of the team. The addition of Wilfried Zaha to an already elite team beefs up the Elephant’s chances. Make no mistake. They are in for top honours.
Morocco is a surprise package in this tournament and doesn't have a lot of elite players in its fold. However, tactician Herve Renard who has won the AFCON two straight times with two different nations is the secret weapon that Morocco and should guide them to second in the group.
DR Congo finished third in the last edition of the tourney, and will attempt to reach the finals in this one. The team has immense quality and talent from Europe but will certainly greatly miss injured Yannick Bolasie and Bournemouth’s Benik Afobe. Nonetheless, the team has a bunch of potential cup winners in Norwich’s Youssouf Mulumbu, Hull’s Dieumerci Mbokani and Newcastle’s Chancel Mbemba.
Togo is in a very tough group, and despite including Emmanuel Adebayor in there, they have little chance to qualify.
Pick: Ghana, Egypt
Big boys Ghana and Egypt have a perfect chance to progress and earn a pace on the podium.
Ghana, currently managed by Avram Grant has had some bitter losses in recent years, and will be looking to win the trophy this year. The team has a class of quality players , and the West African nation will hope that Lady Luck smiles this year. The Ayew brothers are a key part of the team alongside other top players in Asamoah Gyan. Expect Ghana to stroll to victory in this group.
Egypt is an exciting pick. After season’s in the cold, Egypt is back and expect them to rumble. The Pharaohs are in good mentum and has defeated Ghana in the Group Stages in qualification. The team has also great quality and has potential to cause ripples in the continental showpiece.
Mali is a darkhorse in the tournament, and are capable of pulling any tricks out of the bag. Not to be completely written off considering their experience and quality.
Uganda is making a long return to the tournament. That in itself has send the nation into rapture. Most players are new at this stage, and they should bow out early.
With fans expecting the group stages expected to be a no-holds barred contest, we are tipping an extremely tightly contested final between Ghana and Algeria, with Algeria lifting the diadem.