Mahrez stands in way of Mane, Salah

What you need to know:

  • The star man is Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez. His impact, even at City – where he is top scorer this season with 12 goals, can sometimes go under the radar but no one enjoys making stealthy big contributions like Mahrez.

Champions Algeria are still the in-form team following their recent Arab Cup triumph. The Desert Foxes are on a 39-match unbeaten run and are confident of defending the Africa Cup of Nations that kicks off tomorrow in Cameroon.

The star man is Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez. His impact, even at City – where he is top scorer this season with 12 goals, can sometimes go under the radar but no one enjoys making stealthy big contributions like Mahrez.

Mane and star-studded Senegal

Going hard against Algeria will be fellow 2019 finalists Senegal, for whom coach Alliou Cisse led to qualification with an unbeaten record and are in a favourable group with Zimbabwe and Guinea in disarray.

Spearheading their attack is Liverpool star Sadio Mane, who is rejuvenated after a tough 2020/21 season.

The squad’s spine also includes Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, Napoli’s defender Kalidou Koulibaly and PSG’s midfielder Idrissa Gueye.

Salah-Queiroz combo?

To complete the favourites’ podium is Mohamed Salah’s Egypt – the most successful team in the history of the tournament, winning an unprecedented third consecutive Nations Cup in 2010 to claim their seventh title.

But despite all these records, there is still work to do for the Pharaohs after their dream for an eighth crown was shattered in 2019 when they, as hosts, were knocked out by South Africa in the last 16.

In Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz, they have a manager who has made a good reputation without necessarily winning anything major on his own. He made his mark as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United but has struggled to be his own man.

Queiroz loves counter-attacking football, which should suit the Egyptian talisman in Salah. Whether that will suit the entire set-up is the concern.

Home pressure

Questions also linger for hosts Cameroon, whose Africa Cup history has entirely been created away from home. Five trophies and the tournament overall top scorer in Samuel Eto’o (18 goals) would be enough for most countries.

But the Indomitable Lions, with Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana, Fulham midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Bayern Munich striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, will be tasked to give home fans something to feed on.

Mali – eternal underdog

Mali are one of the nations that have good memories about the 1972 Afcon in Cameroon. 1972 was their first appearance and in 1972 they ended with a runners-up medal that probably set The Eagles up as perennial dark horses.

They have been to 11 finals – making the knockout stages seven times. Three of them have ended in podium finishes.

Mali have one of the youngest squads albeit with well-exposed players. Some of them are U-17 African champions, silver medallists at the U-17 World Cup and U-20 World Cup bronze medallists between 2015 and 2017.

Anything goes for Ivory Coast

Another side that has been blowing hot and cold are the 2015 champions Ivory Coast. They will battle it out with Algeria for top spot in Group E but remain a major drop off from their ‘Golden Generation’.

The Elephants squad features highly rated but inconsistent players like Manchester United defender Eric Bailly, AC Milan’s Franck Kessie, Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Arsenal’s Nicholas Pepe. The shining light is perhaps current Uefa Champions League top scorer Sebastian Haller.

Moroccan failures

Morocco also retain a huge reputation despite not winning Afcon since 1976 and not appearing on the podium since 2004.

Coach Vahid Halilhodzic was appointed right after another set back that saw them eliminated in the last 16 by Benin at Afcon 2019. The Bosnian manager, however fell out with dropped Chelsea forward Hakim Ziyech and will now hope that the winger’s ability to unlock defences is not missed in Cameroon.

While at it, his star man will be PSG’s summer signing Achraf Hakimi.

Another issue of concern is that Morocco have played most of their recent games like the World Cup qualifiers at home as their opponents suffered with stadium suspensions. Will the Atlas Lions be able to flourish after coming out of their den?

Nigeria without stars

It has been a disrupted build-up for Nigeria. First, they were dealt a huge blow as striker Victor Osmihen was ruled out due to Covid and a facial injury while they somehow connived to mismanage Watford striker Emmanuel Dennis’ summon.

As if that was not enough pre-tournament ‘wahala’, Nigerians further spread pepper on themselves by sacking coach Gernot Rohr just four weeks to the Nations Cup.

Former captain Austin Eguavoen takes charge for a third spell albeit on interim basis as new Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro travels as “an observer” and gets acquainted to a squad that still boasts of players like Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho, plus Everton winger Alex Iwobi.

Guinea to return state money

Unease is deep in Guinea, after World Cup qualifying was far from a smooth river. Coach Didier Six was dismissed after three games and his deputy, the former international Kaba Diawara, took over with hopes of turning their fortunes around.

While at it, President Mamady Doumbouya threw the spanner in the works by warning Naby Keita and co. that they must win the Nations Cup, or pay back the money used to help them prepare for the finals.

Debutants

Gambia, Comoros

There will be two countries making their Afcon debuts in Gambia and Comoros. Gambia qualified impressively by finishing top of a group with Gabon and DR Congo and are in a tough group with Mali and Tunisia.

Comoros are here after finishing second in their qualifying group behind Egypt, but Ugandan fans will remember them as the team Cranes beat to end a 39 year jinx ahead of Afcon 2017.

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