It’s no longer news that the defending champion of the Africa Cup of Nations will not be a part of the 30th edition of the continental showpiece due to her lackluster performance during the qualifiers that saw them crash out on the final match day to South Africa (who finished unbeaten in the group) and Congo Brazzaville. Another drama en-route the tournament was Morocco’s refusal to host the showpiece due to the Ebola outbreak in some parts of the continent and stepping up as replacements were Equatorial Guinea – who had initially been disqualified in the qualification series for fielding an ineligible player.
Away from all of the sitcom-like happenings, the Nations Cup is here and starting from Saturday, 17th January, 2015, one team will be looking to be victorious after six matches on 8th February, 2015 to be crowned as African champions.
The Equatoguinean government have taken measures to prevent Ebola from reaching their soil, including hiring the expertise of a team of Cuban doctors, but as for the football, many matches are likely to be played in front of largely empty grounds which has a total population of just over 700,000. The country does have experience of organizing the Nations Cup, having co-hosted the 2012 tournament with Gabon. The capital Malabo, on the island of Bioko in the Gulf of Guinea, and the largest city Bata, on the African mainland, both hosted games then and will do so again, with Bata the venue for the final.
Here is a daily team-by-team guide to Africa’s best soccer festival.
Equatorial Guinea – Fifa ranking: 120 – African Cup of Nations best: Quarter-finals 2012
Hosts Equatorial Guinea have dodged the biggest names in the tournament, but still find themselves in a tricky group. The Central Africans have limited time to prepare for the tourney but they have quite a handful of foreign based stars to bolster their chances. Their Coach, Esteban Becker was hired only a few days before the Jan. 7 deadline to submit a squad of 23 players. However, the Argentinian coach was employed as Equatorial Guinea’s technical director, so he has good knowledge of his players. Becker has also found success with the national women’s team, winning the 2012 Africa Women’s Championship.
Star Player is Juvenal, who was Equatorial Guinea’s standout player in 2012. A very good passer of the ball, Juvenal no longer has the legs to cover the ground he used to, but his 28 caps are a team high, so his accrued experience will be vital in Group A.
Burkina Faso – Fifa ranking: 63 – ACN best: Runners-up 2013
Burkina Faso have benefitted from a spell of stability and continuity as Paul Put renewed his contract with the Black Stallions. Put understands the importance of fielding a balanced outfit with talented forwards. He will pin his goalscoring hopes on Jonathan Pitroipa who led the continent in scoring with six conversions during qualifiers. Banished from his native Belgium in a match-fixing scandal, Coach Paul Put has found a second home in Burkina Faso and he has managed this side for about five years, guiding them to a second-place finish in the Cup of Nations two years ago, and just narrowly missing out on a World Cup appearance.
Star Player is Jonathan Pitroipa. The wiry winger has been a talismanic figure for the Black Stallions for several years now. Now Pitroipa seems to be in the form of his life, leading the continent in scoring during qualifiers with six goals. Aristide Bance is another striker to watch out for.
Gabon – Fifa ranking: 65 – ACN best: Quarterfinals 1996, 2012
Gabon are undoubtedly this tournament’s dark horses. The Black Panthers have quality up their spine from Bruno Manga in defence, to Ibrahim Ndong and Andre Poko in midfield, to Malick Evouna and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in attack. Coach Jorge Costa has revived the excitement around the Gabonese national team. Known as “The Tank” or “The Animal” in Portugal, Costa should be commended for developing a tricky 4-3-3 that makes Gabon Africa’s best counterattacking side.
Star Player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is one of the best players in the world at using his pace on the counterattack. His sheer speed and complementary relationship with Malick Evouna are sure to cause countless defences problems at the Afcon.
Congo – Fifa ranking: 61- ACN best: Winners 1972
Congo can count themselves lucky to be in Equatorial Guinea. Were it not for Rwanda fielding an ineligible player, Claude LeRoy and his men would have been eliminated in the preliminary rounds. Nevertheless the Red Devils bounced back admirably and with talented individuals they just might be able to spring a surprise. In Claude LeRoy, Congo has the most experienced tournament coach in Africa. His previous success with Cameroon inspires his players, who will make their first appearance at a Cup of Nations in 15 years.
Star Player: The arrival of striker Thievy Bifouma lifted Congo and his impact was immediately felt in the qualifiers.
17 January 2015 – Equatorial Guinea v Congo | Burkina Faso v Gabon (Bata)
21 January 2015 – Equatorial Guinea v Burkina Faso | Gabon v Congo, (Bata)
25 January 2015 – Gabon v Equatorial Guinea (Bata) | Congo v Burkina Faso (Ebebiyin)
HalftimeNG Prediction: Burkina Faso and Gabon to qualify from this group.