The time most African football enthusiasts have been waiting for is almost here. It is the start of the Africa Cup of Nations. This year’s tournament is being hosted by Gabon who co-hosted the 2012 edition with Equatorial Guinea. Squads have been announced, players have been training and the time for talk is almost over. Its time to step on the pitch and deliver action packed matches with that African passion. The last team standing will lift the trophy on February 5. We take a look at five games that are likely to set the tournament ablaze.
This is the opening game of the tournament and it’s an opportunity for Gabon, the host country to get out of the blocks quickly.
Poster boy Pierre Aubameyang will be looking to bring his club form with Borrusia Dortmund to bear for the national team. This is the second time Gabon are hosting Africa’s biggest tournament and they will be looking to replicate their form during the group stage of the 2012 edition in which they won all three games.
Aubameyang scored the opening game back in 2012 and his predatory skills will once again be relied upon this year.
He is the only player within the team with superstar status and although he will deservedly take much of the praise, the Gabonese fans will play a key role if their team is to make it beyond the quarter-final stage they managed in 2012.
Star player watch: Aubameyang (Gabon)
A clash of two West African heavy weights. On paper, Ivory Coast, the current AFCON holders have the stronger of the two squads making them favourites in this match.
However, Togo earned more points during the qualifying round for the tournament, recording 11 points from group A compared to six by the current champions. The main question to be answered in this intriguing game from the holders standpoint will be how they cope without the leadership and drive of Yaya Touré.
Meanwhile, Togo will once again rely on the enigmatic Emmanuel Adebayor who, despite not having a club, has made the final squad list. If anyone can inspire Claude Le Roy’s men it is the former Arsenal and Real Madrid front man.
The tournament also presents a perfect opportunity for him to remind European clubs he still has something to offer to a team willing to take a gamble.
Star player watch: Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo)
The Fennec Foxes are undoubtedly one of the favourites to lift the tournament for the first time since 1990. The team will no doubt be buoyed by the English Premier League duo of Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani who have shown telepathic understanding this season for their club side Leicester city in the European Champions League.
In order for the Algerians to progress from group B, they will need to be at their best to get past Senegal, Tunisia and Zimbabwe. This match against Tunisia will have added spice given the rivalry between the two north African countries. Although the Tunisian team is not packed full of stars like that of the Fennec Foxes, it nevertheless possesses players like Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri who can cause Algeria problems if complacency does set in.
Star player watch: Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)
Another titanic game to look out for in group D will see AFCON 2015 runners up Ghana face seven time winners Egypt. Although the Pharoah’s squad is not as strong as those of years gone by, it still has players with enough quality to cause opposition teams damage.
One of those players is Roma’s Mohamed Salah who has been a revelation in Italy since his move from English side Chelsea. Spearheading Ghana’s assault at this years tournament is evergreen captain Asamoah Gyan and the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan.
Both teams should qualify from a group consisting also of Mali and Uganda. Both teams will want to qualify top of the group in order to avoid a potential clash with Ivory Coast, who are likely to top group C, in the quarter-finals.
Star player watch: Mohammed Salah (Egypt), Andre Ayew (Ghana)
The second stand-out game from group B will see two tournament favourites going head to head. The Teranga Lions of Senegal boast an impressive squad including Liverpool’s Sadio Mané and Fenerbahce’s Moussa Sow.
The 2002 World Cup quarter-finalists were the only team to record a 100 per cent record during the qualifying round for the tournament in Gabon and will be looking to continue their rich vein of form.
This clash is the last game of the group stages and both teams might only need a draw to both progress to the quarter-finals, which could lead to a draw.
However, looking further ahead, winning the group will be crucial if both teams want to avoid meeting the winners of group A, likely to be host Gabon.
Star player watch: Sadio Mane (Senegal), Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)