The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on January 14th when hosts Gabon will take on Guinea-Bissau (16:00 GMT). All of us here at TFF are looking forward to it and we will be bringing you coverage throughout the tournament. Things all get going with Group A and below we will be taking a look at the teams involved and assess their chances.
The 2012 joint hosts are once again taking on the responsibility of hosting Africa’s premier football competition. This will be their 8th appearance at the finals and they have now qualified for four of the last five editions, only missing out in 2013. José Camacho’s side will be hoping that home advantage will help them to improve on their 2015 performance which saw them eliminated at the group stage with a single win. Incidentally, that win came against Burkina Faso, who they face again this time around. They are currently unbeaten in World Cup qualifying albeit with consecutive 0-0 draws against Morocco and Mail and are expected to make a strong challenge to qualify from this group. The names Bruno Ecuélé Manga (Cardiff) and Didier Ndong (Sunderland) may be familiar to English fans but undoubtedly this squad is led by Borussia Dortmund sensation, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Key player- Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Needs no introduction and is one of the most recognisable players at the tournament. The 2015 African footballer of the year has had another fantastic year. The Dortmund man is known for his electric pace and cool finishing and he used it to plunder 25 goals in 31 Bundesliga games last season and 39 in 49 in all competitions. This earned him the Bundesliga Player of the Year award and he has already continued in the same vein this season, scoring 17 goals in 16 Bundesliga games. His performances over the year earned him the runners-up spot in the African Player of the Year award behind only Riyad Mahrez. To draw a comparison, Gabon are similar to Portugal, their fortunes are intrinsically linked to the way Aubameyang plays, the fans will be praying he brings his best form to the tournament.
One to watch- Malick Evouna
While Gabon can set up to play around Aubemayang, they will need goals from other areas as well. They could well come from 24-year-old striker Malick Evouna. He currently plays for Tianjin Teda in the Chinese Super League after signing for £6m in the summer, the highest fee ever paid to an African club (Al Ahly). He averages around a goal every two games in his club career and has been prolific on the international stage so far, scoring 12 goals in 22 games, including a crucial goal against Burkina Faso in the 2015 tournament. Certainly expect to see him on the scoresheet again this tournament.
The Stallions have had an extremely up and down relationship with this competition in the past. Before 1996, the 1978 edition was the only one of 17 editions that they had qualified for. Since then, they have qualified for 10 of the last 12 editions and the last five in a row. However, in their 11 previous appearances, they have been eliminated at the group stage nine times but when they do progress past the group they usually thrive. Their only two qualifications out of their group came in 1998, when they were the hosts and went on to achieve fourth place and in 2013 when they went all the way to the final but were just edged out 1-0 by Nigeria on the night.
Their 2015 performance was another disappointment though as they finished bottom of their group with a single point and finished ranked 16th out of 16 teams in the competition. They will be keen to put things right this time around, especially as they once again face Gabon, who beat them 2-0 last time out. Paulo Duarte will be very excited to take charge of his first major tournament with his side but at the same time is plotting their course to their first ever World Cup finals. They currently sit top of their group after playing well in their opening two qualifiers. Refreshingly, there are no dramas with the squad and all of their big names, Bakary Koné, Chares Kaboré, Alain Traoré, Bertrand Traoré and Jonathan Pitroipa are present. With this said, Burkina Faso will be disappointed should they not progress to the next round.
Key player- Jonathon Pitroipa
The 30-year-old pacy, skilful winger is Burkina Faso’s star man and was in fact, one of the country’s first footballing stars. He made his name in Europe with spells at Freiburg, Hamburg and Rennes, his performances earned him attention from the Premier League and in 2014 he was in discussions with Stoke on deadline day but the deal just fell foul of the deadline. Instead, later in the year, he moved to Al-Jazira and he now plies his trade for Middle-East outfit Al-Nasr. He was the star man in his county’s run to the final in 2013 and earned himself a place in the team of the tournament. Once again, his nation will look towards him.
One to watch- Bertrand Traoré
The Chelsea winger, currently on loan at Ajax, made his debut for his country at just 15-years-old and at the age of just 21, already has 28 caps to his name. In his appearances for Chelsea, he has shown he has a real eye for goal, after making his debut for the club, he went on a run of scoring four goals in five games, including a 20-yard thunderbolt against Stoke. His opportunities were certainly limited but he took them when they came along and he is impressing in the Eredivisie this season. Expect Burkina Faso to cause teams plenty of problems with Pitroipa and Traoré on the wings.
Prediction: Group winners
Cameroon can only dream of the stress-free build-ups Gabon and Burkina Faso have had. They are floundering in World Cup qualifying, four points adrift of Nigeria at the top of the group after only two games and their squad for this tournament has been rocked by a mass walkout. André Onana (Ajax), Guy N’dy Assembé (Nancy), Allan Nyom (West Brom), André Zambo Anguissa (Marseille), Ibrahim Amadou (Lille) and Eric Choupo-Moting (Schalke) have all pulled out of the squad for fear of losing their places at their club sides, while Liverpool’s Joel Matip has cited bad experiences at previous tournaments with the Indomitable Lions for the reason behind his withdrawal and Maxime Poundjé is chasing a call-up for France instead.
Head Coach, Hugo Broos has cobbled together a side firmly in the knowledge that the glory days of Roger Milla, Rigobert Song and Samuel Eto’o are over. For a country of their stature, four times AFCON champions, their recent performances have been nothing short of disgraceful. They failed to even qualify in 2012 and 2013 and when they did make it in 2015, they failed to win a single match and finished at the bottom of their group. Broos has a big task on his hands getting a good performance from this side as it is clearly so much weaker than Cameroon sides in recent years. This could well go down as yet another frustrating and ultimately disappointing African Cup of Nations for the country.
Key Player- Nicolas Nkoulou
One of the country’s only stars that will appear at the tournament. After the withdrawals of Matip and Choupo-Moting, all eyes will fall on Nkoulou. With Cameroon lacking firepower up front, it’s going to be up to the defence to give them a chance in games. Nkoulou has distinguished himself over a number of years in France, firstly for Monaco but most famously for Marseille. His exploits in the league and Champions League have seen him linked with numerous Premier league clubs in the past but earned him a move to Lyon over the summer. His strength and skill on the ball will be vital to ensuring Cameroon keep it tight at the back.
One to Watch- Fabrice Ondoa
Ondoa’s career certainly is an interesting one. The 21-year-old started his career at Barcelona but in 2015 he moved to Spanish 4th tier side Pobla Mafumet, where he made five appearances before moving to Gimnàstic de Tarragona in the Segunda division a year later. The same year he was loaned to Sevilla Atlético (Sevilla B) but as yet has failed to make an appearance for either club. This means that his only club appearances are the five he racked up for Pobla Mafumet. Incredibly though, he is a regular for his country. He made his international debut in September 2014 and has been a mainstay ever since, earning 21 caps. He also appeared in the 2015 edition of this tournament where he impressed with his agility and acrobatics. He looks a great young ‘keeper and it must only be a matter of time before his club career takes off like his international one has.
Prediction: Eliminated, 3rd place
The unknown quantity of the group. African football is certainly no stranger to a shock and this is one of its biggest. Guinea-Bissau came from absolutely nowhere and have earnt themselves a place at this tournament. They qualified courtesy of topping a group consisting of 2012 Champions Zambia, 2015 quarter-finalists and 1972 winners Congo as well as Victor Wanyama’s Kenya. The achievement of Baciro Candé’s side is all the more incredible when you consider that in January 2016, Guinea-Bissau were ranked 146th in the FIFA rankings. Their exploits moved them up 78 places over the calendar year and meant they ended the year as FIFA’s biggest movers. They now sit 68th, the 15th best in Africa.
The small West African country have qualified for their first-ever major tournament despite having no real footballing pedigree. The most caps any player in the current squad has is 20 (Jonas Mendes, Zezinho and Bocundji Cá) and their record goal scorer, Cícero, has just six goals to his name. Most of their squad is based in Europe with the majority of those playing in the Portuguese league system. Their lack of experience is further evident by the fact that nine members of their preliminary squad, including former Everton youngster Francisco Júnior, are uncapped. Expect them to enjoy their time at the tournament but if it lasts beyond the group stage it would be a major upset.
Key Player- Bocundji Ca
The 30-year-old central midfielder is the captain of his country. He has spent the entirety of his career so far in France, playing for clubs such as Nantes, Tours, Nancy and most recently Paris FC. However, he finds himself as a free agent at the moment but that hasn’t deterred his national coach from selecting him. He doesn’t get forward too much, instead preferring to sit back and break up play, the Bissau-Guinean N’Golo Kante if you will. Expect Guinea-Bissau not to see too much of the ball in their matches, so the influence of Ca in front of the back four could prove crucial.
One to Watch- Toni Silva
Difficult to pick due to the lack of international experience in the squad. Silva is coming into the tournament with only two caps to his name. Yet, he sensationally grabbed the headlines on his international debut against Zambia last year. He came off the bench to score in the 97th minute to give his nation a dramatic 3-2 win which sent them to their first ever major finals. He can play anywhere along the forward line and has experience in England with Liverpool, Northampton, Barnsley and Dagenham and Redbridge. He now plays in Greece for Levadiakos and has four goals and an assist in 11 matches this season. If he operates in a wide area, he will have an important role to play in order to help Guinea-Bissau break out and attack on the counter.
Prediction: Eliminated, 4th place
14 January– Gabon vs Guinea-Bissau- 16:00, British Eurosport 2 / British Eurosport 2 HD / ITV 4
14 January– Burkina Faso vs Cameroon- 19:00, British Eurosport 2 / British Eurosport 2 HD / ITV 4
18 January– Gabon vs Burkina Faso- 16:00, British Eurosport / British Eurosport HD / ITV 4
18 January– Cameroon vs Guinea-Bissau- 19:00, British Eurosport / British Eurosport HD / ITV 4
22 January– Cameroon vs Gabon- 19:00, British Eurosport TBC / ITV TBC
22 January– Guinea-Bissau vs Burkina Faso- 19:00, British Eurosport TBC / ITV TBC