KAMPALA. If teams were to be judged solely on the quality and depth of the squads they are sending to Egypt for the Afcon this June, Senegal would have no equal whatsoever.
From defence to midfield to attack, the Lions of Teranga brim with the kind of resources most of their opponents can only dream of. Aliou Cisse, the Senegalese coach, must therefore have the best and worst job heading into Afcon.
With Kalidou Koulibaly to marshal the defence, Idrissa Gueye patrolling midfield and Sadio Mane to spearhead attack, what else could a manager ask for? Additionally, a coach who can also call on the likes of Ismaila Sarr, Keita Balde and M’Baye Diagne to support the superstar cast headlined by Mane should have few admissible explanations for failure.
After a straightforward qualification campaign, the weight of expectation on the Lions of Teranga is enormous not just because they need to make amends for their disappointing shows at the 2017 Afcon and 2018 World Cup, but also because they head to Egypt in much better shape than all their potential title rivals. If everything clicks, Senegal should be champions of Africa in mid-July. Anything other than a top-two finish should be considered failure.
Let’s go back in time a little shall we? It is 2014 and Algeria have just put up a series of stirring shows to emerge from their World Cup group in Brazil. The Desert Foxes are even cocky enough to push the team that would eventually emerge champions—Germany—all the way in the Round of 16 before settling for glorious failure. Those heroics were contrived by a very promising collection led by Porto’s midfield star Yacine Brahimi, with the likes of Islam Slimani and Sofiane Feghouli in support. Fast forward to 2019 and all these players are a but a pale shadow of their younger, very promising selves; a story of what could have been—but might never be. So too Algeria. The downturn in fortunes for most of the country’s best players in recent years has been perfectly mirrored by that of the Desert Foxes, whose struggles appear much less of a surprise with every passing year, even when on paper the Algerians still boast one of the most formidable squads heading into the 2019 Afcon tournament. Don’t be fooled. They are not as good as they look. This Algerian team has stalled, and the only way now is down.
Riyad Mahrez (Man City)
Coach: Djamel Belmadi
Nickname: Desert Foxes
Afcon appearances: 17
What will work in their favour: Algeria is a very experienced side, with genuine quality in some areas.
What could work against them: The head coach is the weakest link, plus the team has gone stale.
Kenya returns to the Africa Cup of Nations as one of the beneficiaries of the expansion of the tourney from 16 to 24 teams. If not for the increase in the number of the available slots, it is highly unlikely the Harambee Stars would have made it, considering that they tend to win only the games at home and lose nearly all the games they play away.
That doesn’t bode very well for a team which finds itself in a group that also has Senegal and Algeria. From the outset, it appears the derby fixture against Tanzania will be a shootout for which team finishes third, and potentially sneaks into the knockout round, with the other results permitting. The team’s most recognisable face might be Tottenham’s Victor Wanyama, but the player most likely to stand out is Michael Olunga, the striker responsible for half of the goals in a paltry return of four for the Harambee Stars. With in-form forward Allan Wanga omitted, the signs aren’t very good for Kenya’s attack, although the fact the team conceded only once in qualifying.
Victor Wanyama (Tottenham )
Coach: Sébastien Migné
Nickname: Harambee Stars
Afcon appearances: 5
What will work in their favour: Wanyama will bring know-how in terms of playing at the highest level.
What could work against them: Fairly weak in the creative areas, so goals could be hard to come by.
The Taifa Stars were the last of a strong East African contingent to book their place at Afcon 2019, but they still did that with aplomb, winning 3-0 in a derby against Uganda to seal their return to the African football high table after a 39-year absence. That, for Tanzania unfortunately, was the easier part. They will soon find out that more seasoned opponents, like Senegal and Algeria, can be very unforgiving to those who bring nothing to the party beyond natural ability and innocent desire—as Taifa Stars most likely will. While the fortunes of Tanzania have improved and the team has become more tactically disciplined since Nigerian coach Emmanuel Amunike took over, a good old defensive meltdown is never far away for this Tanzanian team. What you can be sure of, however, is that they will be nothing close to boring: the attacking talents of Simon Msuva, John Bocco and Mbwana Samatta will not let that happen. The derby game against Kenya should be particularly electrifying.
Mbwana Samatta (Genk)
Coach: Emmanuel Amunike
Nickname: Taifa Stars
Afcon appearances: 1
What will work in their favour: Exciting going forward, with attacking talents to open up most defences.
What could work against them: Taifa Stars can be defensively naïve, and coupled with the inexperience, that could put paid to their hopes of getting past the group stage.
What will work in their favour:
The Lions of Teranga have quality all around, more so in attacking areas.
What could work against them: It remains to be seen if Senegal can handle the pressure of being one of the tournament’s top favourites. In the past they have collapsed under the burden of expectation.
Star man: Sadio Mane (Liverpool)Coach: Aliou Cisse
Nickname: Lions of Teranga
Afcon appearances: 14
June 23 Senegal vs Tanzania
June 23 Algeria vs Kenya
June 27 Senegal vs Algeria
June 27 Kenya vs Tanzania
July 01 Tanzania vs Algeria
July 01 Kenya vs Senegal