A showpiece rich on talent and thrills
© AFP

Going into this weekend’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations, talk has centred on the nations that will not be in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Missing are the continent’s most successful team and three-time defending champions, Egypt, as well as Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa, and of the last nine African champions, only one - Tunisia, who won as hosts in 2004 - has made it through.

This lack of traditional superpowers has focused attention squarely on Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, and the Elephants and the Black Stars are favoured to reach the final in Libreville on 12 February. Both west African giants are equally anxious to end AFCON trophy droughts that now stretch to two and three decades respectively.

The Ivorians in particular have captured the global imagination over the last decade with a cavalcade of exciting stars, but their ‘golden generation’ is aging - iconic targetman Didier Drogba is 34 in two months - and they are close to being saddled with an underachieving reputation on the continent. The Elephants have rallied behind coach Francois Zahoui, who has blamed past overconfidence for the lack of concrete results, and the former international can call on a range of experienced options both rugged and inventive. Newly crowned African player of the year Yaya Toure should boss the midfield alongside Cheik Tiote, while the young attacking quartet of Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, Seydou Doumbia and Wilfried Bony offer Zahoui plenty of punch.

Likewise, Ghana have a fine balance between attack and defence, although there are more questions about their ability to score goals. Striker Asamoah Gyan is recovering from a hamstring injury, but the precocious midfield duo of Andre Ayew and Kwadwo Asamoah can pull more than a few strings. The Black Stars are younger than the Ivorians, and they have proven themselves an admirable unit even without injury-plagued Michael Essien en route to finishing second in the last AFCON and missing out on the FIFA World Cup™ semi-finals last summer by the narrowest of margins. Captain John Mensah captured their unique outlook recently. "We share a love and unity, which is great going into such a competition,” said the 29-year-old defender. “There’s a strong bond that fills us with motivation to fight not as individuals but as a team.''

Chasing the big two
Ghana will start in a tough Group D alongside Botswana, Guinea and Mali. The Botswanans are one of three debutants in the event along with automatic qualifiers Equatorial Guinea and Niger, and the Zebras are a big question mark. Their preliminary campaign, in which they took 16 points from their first six matches, was undoubtedly impressive, but they managed only seven goals in eight matches, with diminutive forward Jerome Ramatlhakwane tallying five of them. Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic has tipped Alain Giresse’s Mali to be dark horses, but his biggest challenge is likely to come from Guinea, who took four points from Nigeria to keep the Super Eagles out of the competition. Ismael Bangoura will be the key attacking figure for the Syli National in the unexplained absence of striker Kevin Constant.

There’s a strong bond that fills us with motivation to fight not as individuals but as a team.
Ghana captain John Mensah on the team's togetherness

Côte d’Ivoire’s opening task is seemingly simpler in Group B, where Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola wait. Of the three, the Burkinabe have the potential to make the biggest impact. The veteran Sudanese side ran Ghana tough in qualifying, and Angola are making their fourth consecutive appearance in the finals, but the pair have few players in the same class as the Stallions’ France-based trio of Jonathan Pitroipa, Charles Kabore or Alain Traore. Burkina Faso have also enjoyed notable and unusual stability for an African national side, with respected Portuguese coach Paulo Duarte leading them at a second successive AFCON.

Of the two hosts, Gabon are expected to be more competitive, but Group C is also tricky. The section’s two favourites, Morocco and Tunisia, will meet in the opening match, and that result could go a long way in determining the final standings. The two met in the final of the 2004 edition, and that is the last time that the Moroccans managed to reach the knockout rounds. The Atlas Lions will be counting on a tight defence led by Mehdi Benatia and Badr El Kaddouri, while Tunisia could struggle to break them down without striker Issam Jemma, who is expected to miss out on the opening rounds through injury. Amazingly, Niger’s Mena and the talented Moussa Maazou outlasted Egypt and South Africa to reach the finals, and a top two place here would be equally shocking.

The only section without a previous winner, Group A features two sides that will realistically like their chances of reaching the last four in Senegal and Zambia. With an attack as strong as any, the Senegalese, finalists in 2002, might fancy themselves to do even better than that. Rampant Newcastle United striker Demba Ba, who has scored 15 goals in 19 Premier League matches, is just one explosive cog in a machine that also includes new club-mate Papiss Cisse, Moussa Sow and Mamadou Niang. The Zambians are expected to best Libya, who qualified in such brave fashion, and the Equatoguineans for a place in the knockout rounds, and coach Herve Renard says the two-time runners-up are ready for anything. "We can compete against anyone," he said.