It’s finally time for the much-delayed 2021 African Cup of Nations to be played. The 33rd installment of the competition will be played out in Cameroon from Sunday 9th January to Sunday 6th February. The competition has been the subject of a lot of discourse over the past month with many clubs and individuals opposing its timing and others refusing their players from participating. Emmanuel Dennis comes to mind with his struggling Watford denying him permission to represent the Super eagles. Though the timing may not be ideal, we should take Crystal manager Patrick Viera’s advice and give this competition the respect it deserves. After all, the best player in the world right now is playing in it. Additionally, there are not many crowds more passionate than that of the Africans.
So, in preparation let’s take a look at the groups, fixtures, and players to watch.
Round 1; Cameroon vs Burkina Faso Ethiopia vs Cape Verde
Round 2; Cameroon v Ethiopia
Cape Verde v Burkina Faso
Round 3; Burkina Faso v Ethiopia
Cape Verde v Cameroon
Group A has the hosts who open up the competition on Sunday evening against supposed dark horses Burkina Faso.
Cameroon is not short of talent. They’ll have been boosted by the fact that Andre Onana can play for them. Andre-Frank Anguissa of Napoli is likely to hold the midfield for them and the home crowd will inevitably be a big boost for the home team.
As for Burkina Faso, they seem to have built their team around Aston Villa forward Bertrand Traore and they have some underrated players such as their goalkeeper Herve Koffi who has impressed previously.
Cape Verde islands are waiting on some late covid tests before the games begin. With their coach in isolation and having been dealt such a group it’s already looking daunting But having already beaten the host nation in the qualifiers, the blue sharks will be looking to cause a major upset.
For Ethiopia, any position other than 4th is looking challenging. But this is football we are talking about. Having only barely made it through thanks to Madagascar, Wubetu Abate’s men would have to sharpen their goal-scoring skills if they are to make it to the knockouts.
Round 1; Senegal v Zimbabwe
Guinea v Malawi
Round 2; Senegal v Guinea
Malawi v Zimbabwe
Round 3; Malawi v Senegal
Zimbabwe v Guinea
Group B is home to most people favorites, Senegal. On paper they definitely have one of the most stacked squads in the competition. Their spine is one of the strongest starting with in form Chelsea shot stopper Mendy. The center back pairing of Koulibaly and Diallo is on of the most solid in the competition. With Idrissa Gueye in Midfield and the attacking promise of premier league forward Sadio Mane, Senegal are looking like overwhelming favorites in the group and the competition in general
Guinea are the closest to their West African counterparts but are one of the teams hit by the virus before the games begin with their defender Dyrestam testing positive. They are not short of their fair share of stars with the likes of Mohammed Bayo and Naby Keita.
Malawi are making their first appearance at AFCON for the first time since 2010. Their active scorer, Chiukepo Msowoya, will be looking to fire his team into the knockouts.Gabadinho Mhango is another star to keep an eye out for in the coming games.
Wrapping up the group are South African warriours Zimbabwe who were dealt the worst cards by embarking their ACON journey against the Senegalese. But whispers about their poor tournament preparation already sets them way behind but having been dealt a somewhat manageable group they still have a fighting chance.
Round 1; Morocco v Ghana
Comoros v Gabon
Round 2; Morocco v Comoros
Gabon v Ghana
Round 3; Gabon v Morocco
Ghana v Comoros
Morocco is another team to watch out for very carefully. Even though they’re missing one of their talismen in Hakim Ziyech, they still have the likes of Achraf Hakimi, Illias Chair and Roman Saiss. Not to mention that Morocco had the best defence in 2019 AFCON group stages and have conceded one goal in their last 11 games. We are all looking forward to seeing Hakimi bomb forward on that right flank and the flair of the likes of Sofiane Boufal but they will hope to covert if they are to go all the way.
Morocco’s first day opponents Ghana are not looking as confident as the games begin. With a large number of the players in the squad making their AFCON debut’s the mentality will have to be high to make it out of such a group. Ghana still have a myriad
of talents in their squad the likes of Thomas Partey, Andrew Ayew and Mohammed Salisu.
Gabon are another unfortunate team to have their stars contract COVID. Aubameyang and Mario Lemina are likely to miss at least the first game of AFCON which is a big big blow to the Gabonese. The eyes would now turn to the likes of Denis Bouanga to help the team proceed.
The weakest team in the supposed Group of Death, Comoros would be lucky to leave with a point. Amir Abdou would have to motivate these players as Comoros makes its debut in this competition.
Round 1; Nigeria v Egypt
Sudan v Guinea-Bissau
Round 2; Nigeria v Sudan
Guinea-Bissau v Egypt
Round 3; Egypt v Sudan
Guinea-Bissau v Nigeria
Another very interesting Group to watch with two heavy weights taking on each other. Arguably the match to watch in the opening round of fixtures. Egypt vs Nigeria. Two of the favorites take the stage for one nights as we once again get to watch the current best player in the world take on different colours as he fights for more silverware.After a stunning beginning to the season, Mohammed Salah will be looking to do it in his own continent with the assistance of his able team mates such as Mhammed Elneny and Trezeguet. However Egypt have also fallen victim to COVID 19 cases. Their goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach the latest.
This is what the likes of Samuel Chukweze, Kelechi Iheanacho and Victor Osimhen will be looking forward to taking advantage of. Nigeria are another squad spoiled for choice. Nigerians howeve rhave expressed concern over the missing Ighalo and Emmanuel Dennis. Will they miss them ?
The obvious strengths of Egypt and Nigeria makes it hard to make a case for Guinea-Bissau and Sudan. It’s very exciting to see Sudan who have a pretty young team with their striker Mohamed Abdelrahman a very obvious threat.
Round 1; Algeria v Sierra Leone
Equatorial Guinea v Ivory Coast
Round 2; Ivory Coast v Sierra Leone Algeria v Equatorial Guinea
Round 3; Ivory Coast v Algeria
Sierra Leone v Equatorial Guinea
The holders of AFCON, Algeria, kick of their campaign against Sierra Leone. Algeria
can be labeled second favorites but with the current form of their captain, Riyad Mahrez, underrate them at your own risk. Algeria can also boast great depth an advantage they have over many of their opponents. They look like overwhelming favorites in the group.
However you simply cannot look past Ivory Coast with players like Wilfred Zaha, Maxwell Cornet, Willy Bolly, Nicolas Pepe, Eric Bailly and the in form Sebastian Haller.
Round 1; Tunisia v Mali
Mauritania v Gambia
Round 2; Gambia v Mali
Tunisia v Mauritania
Round 3; Gambia v Tunisia
Mali v Mauritania
The last group consists of very decent teams who could be classed as dark horses.
Gambia could be a surprise package. After their great campaign in AFCON U20 It would be a mistake to overlook them but their three counterparts in the group look very good themselves.
Tunisia have impressed recently in the Arab cup but will be missing their young ManUnited star, Hannibal Mejbri, as he tested positive of corona virus. Their best player, Wahbi Khazri, is likely to impress once more. With their ferocious attacking football, Tunisia will be looking to build on their 2019 semi final finish.
Mali are another solid team that are slowly rising in the ranks.They pride themselves on conceding very few and playing compact neat football and this has provided good recent results. Their first game against Tunisia looks interesting because it’s a classic Attack v Defence. They are very potent on the counter however with Djenepo and Traore on the wings and this could help them in the knockouts should they make it.
Mauritania are now attending their second AFCON in a row. They boast the youngest player in the tournament in Lekoueiry Beyatt born in 2005. They hope that their trust in young blood can help them battle the two favorites for a knockout spot.
That concludes a brief overview of the twenty four teams and I personally can’t wait for the stories about to unfold in Cameroon. Personally, I’m #TeamNigeria and believe Victor Osimhen will be a goal scorer to watch. Enjoy the games from wherever you are.