The tournament kicks off today, with the host nation, Cameroon, battling against Burkina Faso.
The cup has had a lot of criticism, particularly in Europe, where the busy fixture period and COVID-19 cases have caused clubs to suffer with a loss of players. Adding to this, a tournament where managers lose their best African talent and panic begins for some.
But this should rightly be a celebration of African soccer, as the Euros in the summer was for Europe. This tournament matters. Some of the world’s greatest players representing their nations to hopefully be crowned the kings of Africa. This should certainly not be perceived as an inconvenience, as some may proclaim.
So, as we watch the tournament unfold, what should we be looking out for? Who are the current stars and future stars? And which nation will have their hands around the coveted trophy?
Algeria is leading the way in African football. For a while they have shown they have what it takes to be the best, winning the previous tournament in Egypt. Boasting talents such as Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez, they possess tricky dribblers and great chemistry. Their team’s understanding and tactical ability has put them in tremendous form, they are only 3 games away from beating Italy’s 37 consecutive games without a loss.
They are a team that will be sticking around until the very end!
Senegal has by far the strongest squad. With a spine that includes Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy in goal; Napoli’s defensive leader, Koulibaly; PSG’s midfield rock, Idrissa Gueye; and Liverpool’s sharpshooter, Sadio Mané, leading the line. This is a side that, when at their best, could beat anybody! But they have struggled to combine and win silverware. A coach that has taken them as far as he can tactically, leading them to World Cup qualification in 2018 and the AFCON final in 2019.
They are arguably the strongest side on paper, but will have they have the mentality to drag themselves over the line?
Morocco, led by a unique manager, Vahid Halilhodzic. A man who once accidentally fired a pistol in to his behind, has made a firm stance against big personalities and poor discipline in his team. He has decided to not include Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech, Ajax’s Mazraoui and Marseille’s Harit. The dictator-like leadership may have left himself without some of his most exciting and talented players, but it has created a strong and robust side.
They are a team that will defend resolutely and look to attack on the break. Although this may not be particularly exciting soccer, we have seen with countless teams that a pragmatic approach can often be a winning one.
Cameroon, as hosts of the tournament, will have the local support. This has the ability to take an average side to lofty hights and Cameroon have not lost a competitive game at home since 1973! They are currently a team relying on experienced winners with captain, Vincent Aboubakar, Ngadeu-Ngadjui and Andre Onana who all won the tournament in 2017.
With Samuel Eto’o becoming president of Cameroonian soccer, there is an uplifting spirit and momentum for the side hosting the tournament.
Burkina Faso host a wealth of young talent, showing themselves as an exciting and energetic side. The coach, Kamou Malo is the father of their full back, Patrick Malo, and has put together a side that will be entertaining to watch. Adding to the youthful squad are proven talents, including Aston Villa’s Bertrand Traore and Bayer Leverkusen’s Edmond Tapsoba.
They may lack the experience to lift the trophy but as Alan Hanson famously discovered, you actually can win with kids!
Mali are a team packed with midfielders. Brighton’s Yves Bissouma plays alongside the German-based duo, Amadou Haidara and Diadie Samassekou. If they are able to utilise their midfield dominance and mix it with the tactical knowledge of coach Mohamed Magassouba then they may just find a winning formula.
Although lacking some finishing talent, they are certainly a team not to be underestimated.
Comoros feature in the tournament for the very first time. A small island nation located between mainland Africa and Madagascar. They will be looking to utilise their talents, who have settled in the south of France, including former Marseille players, Kassim Abdallah and Rafidine Abdullah.
They are more of an unknown quantity compared with African powerhouses such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast, and therefore could be the source of some giant killing.
As highlighted previously, there are a number of nations that boast a wealth of stars. Currently, some of the best players in the world will feature in the tournament. Senegal’s star-studded spine, Mahrez playing for Algeria and Aubameyang will hope that he can transform his current Arsenal woes into success for Gabon.
But arguably the greatest player in the world at the moment, Mohammed Salah, will take the stage and look to lead Egypt to glory. The “Egyptian King” has been in fine form for Liverpool this season and with his capabilities he will likely be the highlight in any game he plays. We can only hope that he can keep fit and quickly settle in the tournament, showcasing his immense talent as often as possible!
The African Cup of Nations has been rescheduled numerous times and has unfortunately been tainted by current COVID-19 issues. But despite this, it is an exciting time for African soccer, with so much talent at the tournament, it looks like it will be one of the most exciting and competitive competitions to date.
If anything, the tournament will give us a chance to immerse ourselves in great soccer, transporting us away from the drab of winter into and African festival of football.
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