The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on June 21st in Egypt. Last time Egypt were the hosts, back in 2006, they won the tournament.

It was their first of three back-to-back AFCON titles, but the four African Cup of Nations tournaments since then have seen four different winners, including 2012’s surprise winners Zambia, who didn’t even qualify for the expanded 2019 tournament.

There could be another surprise winner this year, but here’s a preview of what to expect from the frontrunners at AFCON 2019.

Egypt

As many as 90,000 fans in the Borg el Arab Stadium erupted in November 2017 when Mohamed Salah’s last minute penalty against Congo sent Egypt to the World Cup. But following a disappointing performance at Russia 2018, Egypt changed their manager, bringing in former Mexico and Atletico Madrid head coach Javier Aguirre. He has got the team scoring lots of goals and playing entertaining soccer. Egypt have scored 20 goals in their last eight matches. The home nation won’t accept anything less than a win at the tournament, but their defense isn’t the strongest and is often left exposed by their attacking style of play.

Senegal

Senegal are Africa’s number one team according to FIFA’s ranking system, but have never actually won the Cup of Nations. Could this be their year? Senegal come into the competition on form, winning their last six games, and keeping five clean sheets in the process. They have Liverpool’s Sadio Mane up front, but tournament success is often built on a strong defense, and there aren’t many better defenders in the world than Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, who heads up probably the best back line in the tournament.

Nigeria

If it’s goals you’re after, Nigeria might be your best bet. They have lightning-fast wingers like Ahmed Musa and a range of different styles of attacking player that’ll keep any opponent guessing. Creating chances against the Super Eagles won’t be easy with Wilfred Ndidi screening the defense. Nigeria didn’t qualify for the last two AFCON tournaments, but the last time they did qualify, they won the whole thing.

The draw has been kind on Nigeria, who face Guinea and AFCON debutantes Madagascar and Burundi in the group stage. Madagascar’s defense let in more goals than anyone else who qualified for the tournament, so Nigeria’s strikeforce must be looking at that fixture as a chance to fill their boots.

Ghana

Ghana have plenty of quality in their side, but as star midfielder Thomas Partey told the BBC, “quality is not enough”. Soccer in Ghana has been riddled with scandals, and the national team also hasn’t had a smooth ride of late, with the manager’s authority being questioned and former captain Asamoah Gyan quitting the side over the captaincy, before rejoining Ghana later. Ghana often make the final four, but are off-form and could easily implode.

Morocco

Morocco’s boss Herve Renard has lifted the African Cup of Nations, not once, but twice, with Ivory Coast and Zambia. He will be hoping to lift it a third time and his Morocco side, led by Ajax player of the season Hakim Ziyech, looked unstoppable. Until their last three games, which all ended in defeat. Before then, there had only been two losses, to Iran and Portugal, in Morocco’s previous 27.

Morocco’s high intensity pressing, which led them to sprint more than any other team in the World Cup group stage, makes them very watchable, and Renard’s loyalty to a small group of 15 players has made Morocco very organized. But their style of play might not be well suited to the heat of Egypt, and they may be regretting the African soccer confederation’s decision to move the tournament from winter to summer.

Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast were 2015 AFCON champions, but several players in their star-studded side have something to prove, from Jean Michael Seri, who underwhelmed at Fulham last season, to Wilfred Bony who finds himself without a club. A strong tournament could be a chance for Bony, and others like Burundi’s Saido Berahino, to put themselves in the shop window.

They aren’t the only ones hoping to get noticed. Mauritania boss Corentin Martins says “The selection has really become a showcase,” and that qualifications for recent tournaments have helped many of his players find clubs abroad.

Cameroon

Current AFCON champions Cameroon were stripped of the hosting rights to this year’s tournament, and big-name coach Clarence Seedorf has had a difficult start to his spell in charge, with his decision (now reversed) to not select players based in China leading to Benjamin Moukandjo retiring as Cameroon struggled through the qualification stage. Cameroon lack a bit of creativity, but do possess the best goalkeeper at the tournament in Ajax’s Andre Onana.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo are probably the best of the rest. They’ve kept their head coach Florent Ibenge for five years, which has brought them stability and a third place finish in 2015. Cedric Bakambu, Britt Assombalonga and Yannick Bolasie provide a real attacking threat too. They are in a tough group with Egypt and two well-organized counter-attacking sides in Zimbabwe and Uganda so the knockout rounds aren’t something that should be taken for granted.

Possible Contenders

Algeria, who are unbeaten in their last six games, and Tunisia, who are the second highest African side in FIFA’s rankings, could also be considered outsiders for the title. Tunisia beat Croatia away recently, no easy feat, and their style of play is very easy on the eye, even if they lack a clinical edge to their game.

Guinea went through qualification unbeaten, but their hopes at the tournament will depend much on the fitness of star player Naby Keita. Mali were almost suspended from the tournament by FIFA, but their appearance will give Southampton fans a chance to check out Moussa Djenepo, who joined the Saints from Standard Liege this summer. Mali performed well at this summer’s Under-20 World Cup, and their AFCON side also has former under-20 Golden Boot winner Adama Traore in its ranks.

The 2019 African Cup of Nations has already being moved from Cameroon to Egypt, and then had the schedule changed so that it avoids Ramadan. And there’s plenty of scope for something to go wrong given the farce of the African Champions League final, which had to be replayed due to a faulty VAR system. But even if it goes without a hitch, the African Cup of Nations is likely to have plenty of shocks and upsets along the way.

Source: Steve Price

www.sports24ghana.com