The draw for Equatorial Guinea 2015 throws up a lot of interesting talking points and subplots
So, unless you live under a rock (no disrespect to those who do, of course), you are aware that on Wednesday, the gladiators of the 30th Africa Cup of Nations were dealt their hands at the poker table of chance. While some fist-pumped in joy, others clasped their foreheads in disbelief.
The draw makes for a fascinating tournament in prospect. It makes you wonder what might have been had CAF heeded ‘conventional’ wisdom and opted to postpone the tournament. We are not out of the woods yet; the same Ebola concerns which led Morocco to abdicate their hosting rights are still very salient. The assurances of President Teodoro Obiang Mbasoko have gone a long way to allay fears though. Measures will be taken, and we will once again have out biennial festival of the continent’s best.
As expected with the seeding criteria and constitution of the individual pots, there are not one but two Groups of Death. Rather less expectedly, both are in the second half of the draw. It makes for immediate fireworks at the group and quarter-final stages, and will likely see a very intriguing semi-final line-up with real potential of late giant-killings. Talk about intrigue.
All the talk is expectedly of Group C, where Ghana are joined by Algeria, South Africa and Senegal. This group could not have been tougher by much, though the universe did grant the seeded Black Stars reprieve by not bequeathing them Cameroon into the mix.
Ghana will go into the tournament under new management to boot, and while the nebulous nature of Avram Grant’s brief – “to do well” – will make planning hard, I would not worry too much about them. A tough group may prove a blessing in disguise for Ghana, who struggle to raise and impose their game against lesser teams. Their most impressive results in the last 18 months have come in games in which they were expected to either lose or struggle, witness: their 6-1 evisceration of Egypt in World Cup qualifying, and their spunky 2-2 draw against eventual World champions Germany in Brazil.
Knowing Me, Avram Grant, Knowing you, Black Stars
Algeria are hot title favourites, but have often underwhelmed on the continent. Only Egypt have managed a North African AFCON win in sub-Saharan Africa; the Desert Foxes must match this feat to add to their sole victory on home soil in 1990.
They have their most exciting generation of the last 30 years, and play a slick brand of attacking football based on overloads in wide areas and slick interplay in the final third. Where they may trip up – and this might prove an equaliser in the group – is the state of the playing surface in Mongomo. Recent reports do not suggest vintage carpet, and the 2012 competition witnessed a tropical rainstorm in Bata when Zambia played Libya; similar conditions could scupper their passing game. Still, they should have enough to make it through.
Senegal do not have fond memories of Equatorial Guinea. They lost all three group games in the 2012 edition, and will face similar problems here: a lack of balance in attacking areas. They are bursting with attacking talent, and Alain Giresse must find a way to keep everyone happy while tightening a midfield that it short on quality.
The signs were encouraging in qualifying, but one suspects this tournament will come too early for the Teranga Lions to make a real impact. The same goes for Shakes Mashaba’s South Africa, especially if talismanic forward Tokelo Rantie does not recover from his shoulder injury in time.
Group A is interesting without possessing star power. The hosts will slug it out against Republic of Congo, 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso and dark horses Gabon. The Panthers will hope to make a splash like in 2012, when they were perfect in the group stage, before bowing out unluckily via penalties to Mali in the quarters.
Aubameyang & Gabon | Set for something special?
That squad has matured together, and break-out star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has developed his all-round game to become a fearsome attacking presence. They are favourites here, and with the potential of an ‘easy’ quarter-final draw, they may be the one team from the first half of the draw no one in the second wants in the semis.
The second Group of Death is Group D: Cote d’Ivoire won all four games in the Nuevo Estadio de Malabo in the 2012 edition, scoring eight goals and conceding none. They would go on to lose the final, their nemesis on that occasion was Herve Renard, who will now oversee their latest assault on the continent’s top prize.
They will have to go through a revitalised Cameroon (who can forget that 4-1 beat-down in Yaounde in qualifying?), the unerringly consistent Mali and Guinea, who overcame the stricture of playing home games in Casablanca to qualify.
The most evenly-matched group in the draw features Zambia, DR Congo, Cape Verde and Tunisia. Coach Honour Janza deserves credit for incorporating new talent into the Chipolopolo, who qualified comfortably behind the Blue Sharks.
DR Congo qualified as the best third-placed team, no mean feat in a group which featured Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. They have dominated domestic club competition on the continent in recent times, and must finally make good on their promise. Tunisia are overwhelming favourites to win the group: unbeaten in qualifying and with a fierce fighting spirit under Georges Leekens.
The 2015 AFCON promises to be the most exciting in recent times. No group is easy to call, and there is enough of a contrast in styles to ensure some truly memorable match-ups. The fireworks begin in January.