Record Africa Cup of Nations winners Egypt should be much more than a team of Mohamed Salah and 10 others, yet all the members of this current generation of fairly talented Egyptian footballers have done little else than reaffirm their impotence when unable to call on the gifts of the Liverpool ace. The good news for the Pharaohs is that when Salah is fit and on form, he is sufficient to carry this team to places it would not dream of. That certainly was the case when the forward inspired a first World Cup qualification in three decades, only months after he had helped the team to the Afcon 2017 final. The Egyptians had already qualified for this year’s showpiece before they were asked to take over hosting duties from Cameroon, and with home advantage and Salah to count on in 2019, it would be foolhardy to bet against them going all the way, given their superb Afcon home record—they have won three of the four tournaments they have hosted
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s reemergence as a force in African football has mirrored the recent upturn in the fortunes of Congolese clubs in continental competition—think TP Mazembe in particular. The Leopards free-spirited approach at the 2015 Afcon had neutrals excited before the team bowed out to eventual winners Ivory Coast in the semi-finals. In Gabon in 2017, the Congolese once again showed their quality in topping a group which also had Morocco and Ivory Coast. Although qualification for the 2019 edition was not exactly straight forward, the marriage of home-based talents with foreign-based stars lends DR Congo the quality and experience to make the Leopards shoo-ins to join Egypt as one of the two Group A teams certain of a place in the knockout stages. Then again, Zimbabwe and Uganda might have other ideas.
Cedric Bakambu (Beijing Guoan)
Coach: Florent Ibenge
Afcon appearances: 18
What will work in their favour: A lot of quality in the attacking positions means goals should come easy.
What could work against them: Against the better sides DR Congo’s backline will be found out.
Much has been made of the fact that Zimbabwe’s Warriors stormed Kinshasa during the qualifiers for the 2019 Afcon and came away with three points in an impressive 2-1 win. This should be anything but surprising; the Warriors marked their return to African football’s high table in 2017 by making Algeria sweat for a 2-2 draw before their lack of experience and the gaping holes in defence started to show. Zimbabwe might have faded badly after a promising start to their third Nations Cup appearance two years ago in Gabon, but several of the ingredients which made them exciting to watch are still in place, with the attacking talents of Khama Billiat and Knowledge Musona holding up the banner for all things good about this Zimbabwean team. With even third-placed teams in with a chance to appear to make the knockout stages, the Warriors certainly have a better chance than most, but that is only if they do not import any of their often generous defending into Egypt.
Khama Billiat (Kaizer Chiefs)
Coach: Sunday Chidzambwa
Afcon appearances: 3
What will work in their favour: A good blend of youth and experience, as well as a potent attack.
What could work against them: While more solid during qualifiers, questions remain over the defence.
It is a mark of how unfamiliar Ugandans are with their team losing a game so comprehensively—as the team did in its final qualifier with Tanzania, that some were demanding an inquest into the 3-0 defeat that secured the Taifa Stars’ own qualification for Egypt. What Ugandan fans are getting familiar with, however, are appearances at the biennial African football competition. The Tanzania result aside, the Cranes’ qualification was essentially achieved on the strength of the team’s away performances; a 1-0 win away to Cape Verde meant Uganda gave itself the edge in the race to top the group, while another authoritative 2-0 win away to Lesotho is what essentially confirmed Uganda was serious about making back-to-back appearances at Afcon. Make no mistake though, the Ugandan team’s displays are not the kind that will stick in the memory for their beauty, because that is a quality that is in short supply with the Cranes. This team, however, has learnt to be difficult to beat and refusing to get beaten in Egypt might be all that is required to get into the knockout stages.
Denis Onyango (Mamelodi Sundowns)
Coach: Sebastien Desabre
Afcon appearances: 6
What will work in their favour: There is a lot of team stability and Onyango in goal catches everything.
What could work against them: There are simply not enough goals in this Cranes team.