Teams to watch out for at the African Cup
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — For the first time in a long time, Ivory Coast isn’t the pre-tournament favorite to win the African Cup of Nations.
Instead, Algeria is expected to win its first title since 1990 after being the continent’s best performer at last year’s World Cup.
Ivory Coast — now without Didier Drogba — still can’t be written off, and Cameroon made a rapid recovery after a terrible World Cup to be surprisingly impressive in qualifying.
Here are some teams to watch out for at the 16-team African Cup in Equatorial Guinea, which starts this weekend:
Algeria took eventual champion Germany to extra time in the last 16 at the World Cup in Brazil, and won its first five games in qualifying for the Cup of Nations to underline its top ranking in Africa. A change in coach after the World Cup, when Christian Gourcuff replaced Vahid Halilhodzic, didn’t affect the momentum.
Algeria’s lightning-fast attacking game is based around the skilful trio of Yacine Brahimi, Sofiane Feghouli and Islam Slimani. To prove themselves, the Algerians must first deal with being drawn in the tournament’s toughest group with Ghana, Senegal and South Africa.
Ivory Coast goes to the African championship without retired striker Didier Drogba for the first time since 2002. So, more pressure falls on Manchester City midfielder and African player of the year Yaya Toure, who hasn’t always lived up to his big reputation at the African Cup.
Ivory Coast’s inability to win the title since its sole success in 1992 is becoming increasingly painful for a country rich in talent.
This time, the campaign will be directed by flamboyant French coach Herve Renard, who does know what it takes to lift the African Cup. He won as coach of unfancied Zambia in 2012, beating Ivory Coast in the final.
On the field, Toure will also be supported by in-form forwards Wilfried Bony and Gervinho.
Cameroon’s miserable World Cup was immediately shrugged off as the four-time African champions emerged as a dangerous force again late last year. Cameroon’s threat was epitomized by a powerful 4-1 qualifying win over Ivory Coast, which is in Cameroon’s group again at the final tournament.
Like Drogba, Cameroon’s leading striker, Samuel Eto’o, retired from international soccer after the World Cup. But a new goal-scoring threat has emerged in Vincent Aboubakar, and that may foster a more balanced team after Eto’o was so often the focus.
Cameroon supporters just hope the player bonus saga that spoiled their World Cup doesn’t play out again at the African Cup.
The only other North African team at the tournament, Tunisia might fly under the radar as Algeria gets all the attention.
Solid in qualifying to win a tough group containing Senegal and Egypt, Tunisia has quietly moved up to No. 2 in the continental rankings. The players and Belgian coach Georges Leekens can also be positive about being picked in a group with Zambia, Cape Verde and Congo, simpler than the early challenges awaiting Algeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
South Africa is perhaps the most positive it has been about the African Cup since it won in 1996 and made the final in 1998. Since then, Bafana Bafana has slid down the African football pecking order, and hasn’t got past the quarterfinals in 15 years.
Coach Ephraim Mashaba breathed new life into the team when he took over last year, and South Africa was unbeaten and eliminated defending champion Nigeria in qualifying.
Every tournament needs an underdog and Cape Verde might be the big surprise of the African Cup — again.
In its debut in 2013, the small Atlantic Ocean island nation made the quarterfinals ahead of Morocco, and gave Ghana a scare in the knockout stage.
That breakthrough wasn’t wasted and Cape Verde was the first team to guarantee its place at the 2015 tournament in Equatorial Guinea. Surprisingly, the team from a country of just 500,000 people is ranked No. 7 in Africa and in the top 40 in the world, above Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP