AFCON 2017: Group A outlook

The 2017 edition of the African Cup of Nations kicks off on Saturday January 14 in Gabon with the best football nations meeting to battle it out for the ultimate prize. takes a look at the various groups and how they would be fairing in the tournament.

GABON The Panthers will be playing in their seventh Africa Cup of Nations tournament when they host the rest of Africa in 2017. After exiting in the group stages last time out, Gabon will be aiming to, at least, go a step further this time around. Backed by Spanish tactician Jose Antonio Camacho – who took charge in early December – the Panthers are expected to make a major statement when the tournament begins in January. The former Real Madrid and Benfica manager is no novice to international football, having had brief stints with the Chinese and Spanish national teams. Gabon has not really had an impressive record when it comes to the Africa Cup of Nations, with their highest finishes being quarter-final appearances in 1996 and 2012. But the emergence of some quality players from the small Francophone country has generated huge excitement among the locals. For the first time in a long while the country has seen the rise of a talented crop who can genuinely challenge on the continent. Led by reigning African footballer of the year, Pierre Emerick Aubemeyang – who doubles as the skipper of the side – Gabon possesses the potency upfront to trouble any defense. The Borrussia Dortmund attacker is regarded as one of the best centre-forwards in the sport currently. Another player that has the ability to decide games is young Juventus midfielder Mario Lemina. The former France youth star has fitted into the midfield of the Panthers seamlessly with his trickery and eye for pass, and will be very instrumental to the exploits of his nation, come January. Gabon has lost just once in their last four games in all competitions. But have worryingly drawn in each of their last three, scoring just one goal in the process and Camacho would be hoping his charges get over that storm before the tournament kick-starts.
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CAMEROON Four-time Africa Cup of Nations champions, Cameroon boast a very rich history when it comes to the competition. Having last won the coveted trophy back-to-back in 2000 and 2002, the Central African nation has struggled to really make an impact in recent times. Cameroon’s highest finish in the succeeding tournaments was a runner-up finish to Egypt in 2008. Two years ago in Equatorial Guinea the story was not any different as Cameroon exited in the group stages, after failing to win a single game. But the Indomitable Lions have been a resurgent side under the guidance of Belgian tactician Hugo Broos. Cameroon’s performances were not overly convincing, but with Broos in charge the team has lost just once in all competitions since February – the loss coming in a friendly against France. The Belgian impressively engineered a way out of group M, containing the likes of South Africa, Mauritania and Gambia to seal qualification to the tournament with a game to spare. Squad-wise the Indomitable Lions do not boast of a star-studded side like they former did. And after Broos confirmed that seven senior players, including Lille’s Ibrahim Amadou and Liverpool defender Joel Matip, ha declined call-ups in the lead up to the tournament, Cameroon will no doubt be bereft of some of their best players in Gabon. That, coupled with the fact that players with the pedigree of Eto’o, Kameni and Alex Song are no longer with the squad should be a source of worry for Broos. However, the current squad is built on unity and their work-rate is unmatched. On-loan Porto striker Victor Aboubakar has helped to fill the void left by the Eto’o – although the attacking department still needs improvement. Dynamic Schalke O4 striker Choupo-Moting, who has scored 13 goals in 42 international appearances, has been consistent since joining the national team and goalkeeper Fabrice Andoa is finally coming of age between the sticks for the Indomitable Lions. The tournament will be a great test for this young Cameroonian squad.
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GUINEA-BISSAU The story of Guinea-Bissau’s qualification to the Africa Cup of Nations is more of a fairytale to many. The football minnows will be embarking on a maiden appearance in Africa’s flagship tournament. The Djurtus are in unfamiliar territory, having never played in tournament, but Gabon 2017 represents an opportunity for them to etch their name into African football folklore. The current crop of players are already national heroes after qualifying the tiny West African nation to her first tournament in history. The biggest surprise of the qualification process was when the Djurtus topped group E ahead of Congo, Zambia and Kenya with a game to spear. After a slow start to the qualification campaign which culminated in no wins from the first two games, the Djurtus bounced back with an impressive home and away victory over Kenya, before sealing qualification with a dramatic 3-2 victory over group favourites Zambia. As the only debutants in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, Guinea-Bissau are obviously underdogs and will be looking to avoid an early exit when they grace the tournament in Gabon. Coached by former Portuguese international, Paulo Torres, the Djurtus have exhibited a blend of physical  and counter-attacking football to bully their opponents into submission. And a player to watch from this Guinea-Bissau side will be Jose Luis Mendes Lopes who is nicknamed Zezinho. The 24-year-old Levadiakos midfielder was the top scorer of the side with three goals from six games during the qualifying rounds of the Africa Cup of Nations, and will be the main threat for the Djurtus as they battle host nation Gabon, Cameroon and Burkina Faso for supremacy in group A.
BURKINA FASO The Burkinabe national team has gradually managed to shake the minnows tag off their backs when it comes to the Africa Cup of Nations. The Stallions have been very consistent in the last two decades, failing to qualify just twice (2006 and 2008) out of the last 11 editions. Burkina Faso’s best finish was in 2013 when they finished as runners-up to Nigeria after narrowly losing 1-0 to the Super Eagles. But the last Africa Cup of Nations did not go as they would have wanted, as they could not even make it out of their group. However the road to Gabon 2017 was one the Stallions powered through with ease. Paired in group D together with Uganda, Botswana and Comoros, the Stallions qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations by topping the group with 13 points. In spite of the fact that they lost their first match of the qualifying series to Botswana, the team superbly recovered to go unbeaten in the following five matches, beating Uganda at home and drawing away in the process. Having won four of their last seven games, coach Paulo Duarte will be hoping to see his charges go into the Africa Cup of Nations with that sort of form. The Stallions seem to have found the winning formula with Duarte. But key to the ambitions of the Portuguese and his team will be Jonathan Patriopa, Aristide Bance and Alain Traore. The trio have been instrumental in the West African nation’s hope for a first ever trophy, chipping in with goals to bail out the Stallions in tight situations. The aforementioned players share over 48 international goals between them and are the anchormen of the Burkinabe team. Another player whose experience could come in handy is FC Krasnador midfielder Charles Kabore. The former Olympique Marseille man was part of the side that played in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations three years ago and his involvement will be invaluable to Burkina Faso.
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By Yaw Ofosu Larbi|TV3 Sports|Ghana Twitter: @3newsgh]]>