Less than 12 months after Zambia’s against-all-odds trimuph, the African Cup of Nations returns. Fans around the world rejoice at the bonus of a mid-season major tournament, while managers despair at having to cope without key players for a month! Ivory Coast, Ghana, and hosts South Africa are obvious contenders, but could there be another surprise winner? Here are three sides who could challenge the favourites…
Morocco have had a troubled few months in ensuring they qualified for South Africa 2013. An embarrassing 2-0 loss to Mozambique left the Lions with an uphill struggle, but a change of manager helped them win 4-0 in the return leg. Their FIFA ranking of 74 would also suggest they are rank outsiders – group rivals the Cape Verde Islands are five places above them! They have an inexperience squad in terms of international caps, yet their squad is brimming with European quality.
Towering Udinese defender Mehdi Benatia leads the back line, and the classy centre half has impressed top clubs from England and Spain in recent months. English fans will be familiar with Aston Villa’s Karim El Ahmadi, who has a vital job protecting the defence, and allowing Morocco’s wealth of attacking talent to create. Barrada, Belhanda, and Chafni all have the ability to carve open quality opposition. I feel that one of their strikers must start to replicate their club form if they are to really shine.
Mali may not be the first nation that springs to mind, but their FIFA ranking of 25 shows they should not be underestimated – five places ahead of group rivals Ghana. Their squad comprises a wealth of French Ligue 1 talent, as well as vastly experienced captain Seydou Keita. The Eagles have never won the Cup of Nations, but have their best chance for many a year in 2013.
West Ham’s hit and miss striker Modibo Maiga and Bordeaux’s Cheick Diabate will carry the scoring hopes of Mali – Diabate’s international record of 11 goals in 23 appearances is particularly impressive. Adama Coulibaly is the experienced rock at the back, while their midfield has an excellent blend of caution and excitement. The deciding group game against Congo DR could tell us much more about The Eagles’ potential.
Group D would appear to be the Group of Death. Tournament favourites Ivory Coast must battle against Tunisia, Togo, and my final outside pick: Algeria. The Fennec Foxes may have a tough group to negotiate, but their maturing squad has plenty of options. With no players younger than 21, veteran Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic has the opportunity to more than make up for not appearing in last year’s event.
Their starting XI is difficulty to predict. After a starring role in the ill-tempered qualification match against Libya, Rais M’Bolhi is likely to start in goal. Rafik Halliche is likely to martial the defence, who will be hoping to replicate their impressive 2010 World Cup performance. In midfield, they have exciting players who will vie for the chance to shine: Feghouli and Boudebouz have impressed at times this season, but new Marseilles signing Foued Kadir will be the player to watch. His form for Valenciennes was exceptional in the first half of the season, and the 29-year-old will be desperately seeking to make his mark on a major tournament for the first time.
Let the African party commence…