The 2021 African Cup of Nations kicks off on Sunday in Cameroon with the best Arab teams in contention. Arab News looks at the contenders.
The top two from each of the six groups progress to the second round, along with four best-performing third-placed teams.
FIFA World Ranking: 29
Best AFCON performance: Champions (1990, 2019)
Group E: Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast
Star Player: Riyad Mahrez. The forward is the leading scorer at Manchester City and has found the target in the English champions’ last four games. If he shines Algeria will take some stopping.
Coach: Djamel Belmadi. Led a fancied Qatar team in a disastrous 2015 Asian Cup campaign but has not looked back since taking over Algeria in 2018. Has brought focus, discipline and tactical flexibility to a talented group.
The lowdown: As well as Mahrez, the Fennecs have strength in depth, with plenty of goals from the likes of Lyon’s Islam Slimani and solidity provided by AC Milan’s Ismael Bennacer in the defensive midfield role. The second-string side won the Arab Cup in impressive fashion last month and now the big guns have arrived. And there is the confidence of a 34-game unbeaten run which could break the world record of 37 in the coming weeks.
Prediction: Have never won outside North Africa and expectations may weigh heavily but Algeria have what it takes to defend their title.
FIFA World Ranking: 45
Best AFCON performance: Champions (1957, 1959, 1986, 1998, 2006, 2008, 2010)
Group D: Nigeria, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau
Star Player: Mohamed Saleh. The biggest name in the tournament and, quite simply, one of the best players in the world and in great form for Liverpool.
Coach: Carlos Queiroz. One of the most respected and experienced international coaches knows all about international tournaments.
The lowdown: It is not all about Salah, as there are top-class players such as centre-back Ahmed Hegazi and a strong contingent of players from African champions Al-Ahly. Under Queiroz, Egypt will be more organised and tactically aware than before and the former Real Madrid manager is already trying to remove the pressure by publicly focusing on qualifying for the World Cup.
Prediction: Should get far but it is debatable as to whether Salah can get the kind of service he enjoys at Liverpool. It could be that the Pharaohs don’t quite have the talent to lift trophy number eight.
FIFA WORLD Ranking: 28
Best AFCON performance: Champions (1976)
Group C: Ghana, Comoros, Gabon
Star Player: Achraf Hakimi. Only 23, but has already played for Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and now Paris Saint-Germain. Many believe he is the best right-back in the world and his attacking capabilities are also crucial for the Atlas Lions.
Coach: Vahid Halilhodzic. This strong character has been around the block, especially in Africa, leading Ivory Coast and Algeria to the World Cup, though he has yet to have success at this tournament.
The lowdown: The build-up has been overshadowed by the fact that Chelsea star Hakim Ziyech has been left out because, says Halilhodzic, of disciplinary reasons and a so-called lack of commitment. At least all knew it was coming. Ziyech will be missed, though there is still plenty of talent with striker Ryan Mmaee in good form and a defence well-marshalled by impressive Wolves star Romain Saiss.
Prediction: Morocco have underachieved in this tournament and will be disappointed with anything less than the last four. They do, however, have what it takes to win.
FIFA World Ranking: 30
Best AFCON performance: Champions (2004)
Group F: Mali, Mauritania, Gambia
Star Player: Wahbi Khazri. The captain has been leading the line for some time and chipping in with vital goals and arrives as Saint-Etienne’s leading goalscorer. A settling presence throughout the team with another experienced campaigner, goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha, at the other end.
Coach: Mondher Kebaier. A local coach after a long list of foreigners, too local say some who have doubts as to whether he can manage European-based stars in a major tournament. Knows Tunisian football like few others, however.
The lowdown: Tunisia don’t quite have the star power of their North African rivals but are a tight outfit, tough to play against and able to beat anyone on their day.
Prediction: A second successive last four finish would be satisfactory but if everything falls in the right place, the Carthage Eagles could go a little further.
FIFA World Ranking: 103
Best AFCON performance: Group Stage (2019)
Group F: Gambia, Tunisia, Mali
Star Player: Khassa Camara. The defensive midfielder is a calming and authoritative presence. At 29, has plenty of European experience.
Coach: Didier Gomes Da Rosa. Was appointed in November after the dismissal of Corentin Martins, who had been in charge since 2014, after disappointing results in World Cup qualification. It is a big step up for Gomes Da Rosa though the Frenchman has experience working at clubs in various African nations.
The lowdown: The team, which made their debut in 2019 with two draws and one defeat, has the ability to surprise. They followed a 5-0 thrashing against Tunisia in the Arab Cup by pushing United Arab Emirates all the way. A friendly win over Syria and draws against Burkina Faso and Gabon show there is talent.
Prediction: With Tunisia and Mali in the group, an automatic place in the knockout stage looks very slim indeed but an opening win against Gambia is very much possible.
FIFA World Ranking: 125
Best AFCON performance: Champions (1970)
Group D: Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Egypt
Star Player: Mohamed Abdulrahman. The Al-Hilal striker scored 10 goals for his country last year including a crucial strike against South Africa that helped the former powerhouse book their spot.
Coach: Burhan Tia. An interim coach after Hubert Velud was fired last month after a disappointing performance in the FIFA Arab Cup. He has had little time to prepare.
The lowdown. It has been a long time since Sudan were a major force in African football, a founder member of the CAF and, soon after, continental champions. And yet, there are signs of improvement. They not only defeated Ghana in qualification but finished second above South Africa, beating Bafana Bafana in the winner-takes-all final game. With a domestic-based squad, there is almost a club feel to the team and they will lack nothing in commitment.
Prediction: Not being fancied should help but their form, no win in the last 11 games, is quite dismal. The late coaching change was a gamble but a win against Guinea-Bissau in the opening game is not out of the question.
FIFA World Ranking: 132
Best AFCON performance: Qualifying for 2021
Group C: Gabon, Morocco, Ghana
Star Player: El Fardou Ben Nabouhane. Much rests on the shoulders of the 32-year-old striker who has reached double figures in each of the last three seasons for Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade.
Coach: Amir Abdou. Not many international coaches manage eight years in the job and the 49-year-old knows his team very well indeed. This tournament and games against Morocco, Ghana and Gabon is a different level, however.
The lowdown: The Coelacanths are created largely from the island’s French diaspora and should not be underestimated. Solid in defence, apart from a first-half four goal blitz from Egypt in qualification, they conceded two goals in five games and finished above Kenya and Togo.
Prediction: A first appearance at the tournament takes away pressure and expectations, leaving just excitement and hope. The group is a tough one and a good start against Gabon, likelier with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s COVID situation, is essential.