Held every two years, the CAF Africa Cup of Nations sets pulses racing across the entire continent and brings joy to the country that lifts the coveted trophy. The prestigious competition is being held this year in Gabon, which is putting on its best front in hosting the event. Aside from becoming kings of Africa, an honour currently enjoyed by 2015 winners Côte d’Ivoire, the 16 nations taking part have another objective in mind: to represent the CAF at the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 this coming June.

Running the rule over the leading contenders and the dark horses, not to mention the players looking to cement their reputations and the lesser-known names intent on announcing themselves to the wider world, FIFA.com looks ahead to the tournament, which kicks off in Libreville on Saturday.

The participants
Group A: Gabon, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau
Group B: Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Zimbabwe
Group C: Côte d’Ivoire, Congo DR, Morocco, Togo
Group D: Ghana, Mali, Egypt, Uganda

The favourites
While three-time African champions Nigeria are absent from the tournament line-up, along with fellow former winners South Africa, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan and Zambia, all the other sides that have hoisted the trophy aloft are present and correct in Gabon, among them defending champions Côte d’Ivoire. Hunting for their third continental title, Les Elephants face two other former winners in the group phase, one of whom is Morocco, who are coached by none other than Herve Renard, the man who led the Ivorians to glory in Equatorial Guinea in 2015, three years after steering Zambia to the title.

Having won the trophy on four occasions, Cameroon are intent on reviving their fortunes following Samuel Eto’o’s departure from the international scene. The Indomitable Lions will need to find their form quickly if they are to advance from a group that also features 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso and hosts Gabon, who will be banking on the support of their fans and on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reprising the goalscoring prowess he has shown over the last two years.

Africa’s leading performers at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Algeria have made a slow start to the final round of qualifying for Russia 2018 and will be anxious to rediscover their best form as they go in pursuit of a second continental crown. Les Fennecs also face stiff opposition in the group phase, with Senegal’s much vaunted attack and Tunisia’s organisation and tactical discipline representing the main threats to their progress.

The outsiders
Egypt
are lacking nothing in motivation as they prepare to make their 23rd Africa Cup of Nations appearance. Having won the title a record seven times, the Pharaohs are intent on bringing back the good times after missing the last three editions. The Egyptians will not have it easy on their return, however, with continental heavyweights Mali and four-time winners Ghana figuring among their group opponents.

African champions in 1968 and 1974, Congo DR are harbouring hopes of a third trophy win, not least because they possess a squad packed with talented and experienced players running out for domestic standard bearers TP Mazembe and leading European clubs.

Just qualifying for Gabon 2017 was an achievement in itself for Uganda, Togo and Zimbabwe, three nations who have been unaccustomed to mixing it with Africa’s best in recent years. Last but not least, Guinea-Bissau have already secured a place in the tournament’s annals by qualifying for the very first time. Os Djurtus will be thrust straight into the spotlight, having been handed the honour of taking on the hosts in the opening match at the Stade de l’Amitie in Libreville.

Players to watch
Winners of ten of the last 14 CAF African Footballer of the Year awards, Eto’o, Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba will be looking on from the sidelines, having all retired from international football. Happily, the last two players to collect the accolade will both be in action.

The 2015 recipient, Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, will be carrying the hopes of the host nation and will look to fulfil them by reproducing the form that has made him one of the leading players in the Bundesliga. Riyad Mahrez, the man who succeeded him as Africa’s top performer, has collected a string of individual honours since helping Leicester City secure the Premier League crown last season, among them the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award. The Algerian livewire will hope to add yet more silverware to his trophy cabinet by inspiring his country to the African title.

Aubameyang and Mahrez were mere youngsters dreaming of the big time when Emmanuel Adebayor was voted the continent’s outstanding player in 2008. Eight years on, the 33-year-old former Arsenal and Real Madrid goalscorer is without a club. Driven by a new challenge, however, Adebayor has worked hard on his fitness in a bid to fire Togo’s campaign.

A clutch of other promising players will be aiming to pick up the baton from their distinguished elders, such as Ivorian duo Eric Bailly and Serge Aurier and Cameroon’s Clinton N’Jie and Vincent Aboubakar. Egyptian front man Mohamed Salah has already made a name for himself in Europe thanks to his exploits with Basel, Fiorentina, Chelsea and now Roma. The experienced Salah can count on the support of a rising star of African football in 19-year-old Ramadan Sobhi, who recently signed for Stoke City after impressing at Al Ahly.

Also worth keeping a close eye on are the explosive attacks possessed by Congo DR, for whom Cedric Bakambu, Dieumerci Mbokani, Jeremy Bokila and the promising Jonathan Bolingi have all excelled, and Senegal. Lions of Teranga coach Aliou Cisse has the likes of the experienced Moussa Sow and Mame Biram Diouf at his disposal, as well as in-form attacking midfielder Sadio Mane, currently starring in the Premier League with Liverpool.

Tournament facts
The CAF Africa Cup of Nations Gabon 2017 is the 31st edition of the competition
Dates: 14 January-5 February 2017
Host cities: Libreville, Franceville, Port Gentil and Oyem
The winners will represent Africa at the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017