Cup history beckons for Benin, Mozambique
Victory for the Beninese Squirrels or Mozambican Snakes will be their first in the biennial continental football showcase while a draw gives the west Africans a first tournament point. Not that a share of the points will satisfy either minnow with a win needed to have any chance of mocking a form book which suggests defending champions Egypt and Nigeria will cruise into the quarter-finals.
Mozambique, back at the Cup after a 12-year absence, need to overcome disappointing warm-up results with a home loss to Malawi followed by further reverses in South Africa against Zambia and Gabon. The Snakes have proved a match for the best on their artificial Maputo pitch, holding Ivory Coast and Nigeria before defeating Tunisia to deprive the north Africans of a 2010 FIFA World Cup™ place.
But away form is far less impressive with a string of losses suggesting the three-time qualifiers will struggle in what appears the least intriguing of four first round mini-leagues. Dutch coach Mart Nooij, who has received widespread praise from his squad for lifting Mozambique out of the football doldrums, is not convinced travel sickness will upset his team.
"In Angola there will be 14 teams playing away which makes the refereeing and conditions similar for all the teams and I would be delighted with a quarter-finals place," he told reporters. "My philosophy is that keeping the ball is the best defence as your rival cannot score. The players love this style because it matches their skills and they can demonstrate to the fans how good they are."
Veteran striker and captain Manuel 'Tico Tico' Bucuane remains an inspirational figure for Mozambique while much is expected of young midfield 'destroyer' Simao Mate from Greek giants Panathinaikos. Just qualifying was a memorable achievement for the tiny west African state of Benin, who eliminated 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifiers Angola in the second round and finished above Mali in third.
However, like Mozambique, they have been unable to recapture Cotonou form on foreign fields, resulting in two Nations Cup campaigns that delivered six consecutive defeats and a 2-15 goal tally. Benin are guided by pragmatic Frenchman Michel Dussuyer, whose key players are both France-based, Paris Saint Germain midfielder Stephane Sessegnon and Metz striker Razak Omotoyossi.
"When you talk of Benin football his name (Sessegnon) immediately comes to mind. There are other good players in the squad like Razak, but Stephane has taken his image to another level which is good for the team," the coach said. Dussuyer will be appearing at his third Nations Cup having steered Guinea to the 2004 quarter-finals and worked as a 'spy' for Côte d'Ivoire coach Henri Michel in Egypt two years later.