Group Capsules for the African Cup of Nations
LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) — A look at the four groups at the African Cup of Nations, which starts Saturday (teams listed alphabetically by group):
Senegal is favored to win Group A if it can keep its nerve against three underdogs: Equatorial Guinea has home advantage, Libya has a strong team spirit and Zambia is dangerous despite missing key players.
A talented forward line of Newcastle striker Demba Ba, Lille forward Moussa Sow and Freiburg striker Papiss Demba Cisse should be good enough to push Senegal to the final stages. Newcomers and former France under-21 international midfielders Cheikh Mbengue and Armand Traore also add depth.
Equatorial Guinea was hit by the resignation of coach Henri Michel just before the tournament. The well-traveled Michel's experience was seen as crucial to the co-host's hopes on its African Cup debut, despite his controversial policy of picking foreign-born, naturalized players. He left last month claiming outside influences and Gilson Paulo was appointed weeks before kick off, giving the Brazilian little time to shape his own team.
Libya was the feel-good story of qualifying, going unbeaten despite not being able to play at home during the civil war. The Libyans will have few friends in Bata when they take on the co-host in the tournament's opening game but have a chance at a quarterfinal place. Will rely on veteran goalkeeper Samir Aboud and midfielder Djamal Mahamat of Portuguese club Braga but know what to expect from Zambia after a win and a draw against the southern Africans in qualifying.
Zambia will be hampered by the loss of FC Utrecht striker Jacob Mulenga and central midfielder Thomas Nyirenda, who missed out with injury. Should follow Senegal to the quarterfinals on performance and experience of previous tournaments but could face a tough challenge from a spirited Libya.
Ivory Coast, Africa's top-ranked team, is tipped for its second continental title and first in 20 years. Armed with a stack of players from England's Premier League, it should dominate Group B — and maybe the tournament — with defender Kolo Toure, 2011 African player of the year Yaya Toure and strikers Didier Drogba and Gervinho leading the way. There's also highly rated midfielder Cheick Tiote, Didier Ya Konan and Salomon Kalou.
The Elephants won six games from six in qualifying to underline their strength. Also desperate to end a disappointing recent run at the continental championship after a loss on penalties to host Egypt in the 2006 final, and then semifinal and quarterfinal exits at the last two.
Sudan showed signs of its best form in decades to reach just its fourth African Cup in 42 years since its one title. Has lost all nine of its games at the tournament since that 1970 triumph and starts against the tournament favorite this time. Captain and midfield playmaker Haitham Mustafa has a lot of responsibility on his 34-year-old shoulders.
Burkina Faso will be relieved just to have made it after a favorable ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the eligibility of Cameroon-born defender Herve Zengue. The team will need to win its first game at the finals in 14 years if it is to challenge Angola for a place in the quarterfinals behind the star-studded Ivorian team.
Auxerre midfielder Alain Traore is key for Burkina Faso, while his 16-year-old brother — young Chelsea prodigy Bertrand — was also picked by Portuguese coach Paulo Duarte.
Angola reached the 2006 World Cup and followed up by making the quarterfinals at the last two African Cups, so a place in the last eight is a minimum target. With Valladolid forward Manucho and FC Porto forward Djalma, Angola has the firepower to challenge for a spot in the knockout round.
Group C starts with North African rivals Morocco and Tunisia squaring off in Libreville. In the absence of seven-time African champion Egypt, the winner of the last three tournaments, both are seeking to step up.
Morocco has been impressive under Belgian coach Eric Gerets, and the 1976 champions are desperate to perform after missing the last African Cup in Angola in 2010. A fringe player at Arsenal so far this season, striker Marouane Chamakh has set his sights on the Cup of Nations as the stage to return to form.
Tunisia was the last team to win the African Cup before Egypt's three-peat, but the team has struggled for consistency recently, only just scraping through behind Botswana in qualifying and being outclassed by Ivory Coast in a recent warmup game. Midfielder Oussama Darragi was named the best player playing in Africa in 2011 and the Tunisians were further boosted by leading all-time scorer Issam Jemaa's recovery from injury.
Co-host Gabon and Niger, at its first African Cup, will aim to upset the North African pair and force their way into the quarterfinals. Gabon has an old score to settle after it lost to Tunisia in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals in South Africa in 1996, which is still the Panthers' best performance.
Niger beat out Egypt — for so long Africa's dominant force — and South Africa to qualify, one of the biggest shocks of recent times.
Even without Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien and AC Milan midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng, Ghana's strength in depth makes it the strongest challenger to Ivory Coast for the title. But dangerous underdogs Botswana and Guinea could give the Black Stars a tough challenge.
Essien hadn't played enough after another serious knee injury to make the squad, while Boateng decided to retire from international football. But there's still quality in experienced defender John Mensah, Inter Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari and striker Asamoah Gyan, who looks to be over a hamstring problem. Marseille's 22-year-old Andre Ayew, who can play as a winger or forward, will be a player to watch after impressing this season in France.
Mali hopes Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita can fit back in after he didn't play for his country for nearly two years and guide a relatively youthful Eagles team to the latter stages after first-round exits in 2008 and 2010. Injured Auxerre defender Amadou Sidibe is a big loss.
Botswana and Guinea can only hope for an upset against two of the tougher teams at the African Cup.
First-timer Botswana surprised everyone to be the first to come through qualifying, earning the side the African team of the year award. But recent instability in the camp when players threatened to strike over bonuses threatens to undermine their debut. Only veteran midfielder Dipsy Selolwane has played outside of Africa in a squad with no stars.
Guinea is a former finalist and recently a three-time quarterfinalist and proved how dangerous it can be by beating out two-time champion Nigeria in qualifying.