AFCON kicks off again this Saturday in the Ivory Coast, with the host nation among four sides which BBC Sport Africa’s Rob Stevens expects to sit above the rest and contend at its conclusion.
If la Côte D’ivoire’s Elephants are to lift the trophy at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpé on February 11 they’ll have to defy the curious recent trend that has beset the past eight hosts, with Egypt the last home side to salute in 2006.
Nevertheless, Stevens believes veteran French manager Jean-Louis Gasset has the tools to lead the side out of a quiet decade that has followed the golden years of Didier Drogba, Solomon Kalou and the Toure brothers, which saw three consecutive World Cup appearances from 2006-14 and an AFCON title in 2015.
‘They’re definitely one of the standouts. They have got a few worries, their main striker Sébastian Haller has been lacking goals this season for Borussia Dortmund, but perhaps at the moment they’re more driven by their midfield of Seko Fofana, Franck Kessié and Ibrahim Sangaré.
‘They’ve been in decent form, although haven’t necessarily played any big guns in World Cup qualification. They beat the Seychelles 9-0 and then warmed up over the weekend beating Sierra Leone 5-1.
‘The one to watch is Karim Kounaté, a teenager at RB Salzburg who’s scored eight in seventeen so far this season in Austria. I think they’ve got the strength in midfield and up forward to go deep.’
Stevens nominated holders Senegal as having the toughest group, composed of Cameroon, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, but expects them to contend again given their experienced core retained by long-time manager Aliou Cissé.
‘Their squad isn’t too much changed from a couple of years ago, although one concern raised is three key players, Sadio Mané, Kalidou Koulibali and Édouard Mendy are all now playing in Saudi Arabia, and there are question marks over the level of that league compared to the European leagues they were playing in beforehand.
‘They’ve definitely got one of the best coaches on the continent in Cissé, and once again they have a strong spine. They’ve got the nous of having made the final in 2019 and then winning the last tournament in Cameroon, so they’ll have enough experience to get through that group.’
Viewers of Senegal’s triumph last time around will recall the highly-conservative approach of their opponents in the final, Egypt, who reached the decider off the back of four goals scored across the entire tournament, and two shootout victories following goalless stalemates.
That approach frustrated at the time given the seven-time champions featured one of the world’s great attacking weapons in Mo Salah, and mercifully Stevens expects to see he and teammates less-shackled this time.
‘They’ve still got so many players from last time, they’ve lost two of the past three finals and are on form at the moment. For me, Salah is the best player in Africa, so it’s about driving forward with him.
‘Perhaps under Rui Vitoria they’ve shed a bit more of the caution and defensiveness they had under Carlos Queiroz last time, so for me this Egypt may be slightly more forward looking.’
The final of Steven’s quartet is Morocco, with the memory of their history-making run to the semi-finals of the Qatar World Cup still fresh in the memory just over a year on. Walid Regragui remains as manager, as do Mazraoui, Hakimi et al., but the challenge does present differently.
‘At the World Cup their play was based on being strong defensively and threatening on the counter attack – now it’s up to them to take games by the scruff of the neck, go forward themselves, take the game on against teams perhaps sitting back against them, with DR Congo, Tanzania and Zambia in their group. Can Morocco break those teams down and dominate themselves?’
AFCON kicks off this Saturday evening (Australian time) with Ivory Coast meeting Guinea-Bissau in Abidjan, with the decider to be played at the same venue on February 11.