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A closer look at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations draw

The long awaited draw for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations was released last week and after being delayed for a year, African football fans are hopeful that the competition can proceed as rescheduled in Cameroon for January-February. With several prime favorites and numerous teams capable of springing surprises, Pan-Africa Football takes a look at how the draw looks for hosts Cameroon and the contenders as well as which teams might make some unexpected noise in the upcoming edition.

The Draw

From @CAF_Online

How does the draw look for the favorites?

The three teams favored by odds makers to win the competition are Egypt, Algeria and Senegal with several teams having more than a fighting chance between hosts Cameroon, Morocco and Ivory Coast also having the talent for a title run. Algeria, the defending champions from 2019, have a very navigable Group E with Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone involved. The Fennecs will be anticipating a finish as group winners knowing that the Ivorians will provide a challenge with Equatorial Guinea having an outside chance of keeping things close. However, the group is expected to be a two horse race with Sierra Leone heavy underdogs to get a point. The Algerian machine has been clicking on all cylinders after setting the African national team record for longest undefeated streak, which currently sits at 28 games.

Egypt are still regarded as favorites despite a disastrous 2019 campaign when the hosts crashed out in the Round of 16 against South Africa’s Bafana Bafana. With the battle raging over obtaining star Mohamed Salah’s services for upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifying games, this seems to be an issue that will continue to lurk in the background for Egyptian football as Liverpool FC utilize every resource they can to prevent their forward from reporting for international duty. When it comes to the draw, fortune has been favorable to an Egypt side that has progressed in form recently. A Nigeria side that has yet to find full steam under Gernot Rohr appears to be their greatest challenge in Group D while neighbors Sudan are known most for being a tough opponent only when hosting their opponents. However, Guinea-Bissau are always a team to watch out for after qualifying for a third straight AFCON and possessing an improving young squad.

In Group B, Senegal will face a well organized Guinea team, a talented attack minded squad in Zimbabwe and a bit of an unknown quantity in Malawi. Guinea should provide quite a stern test with their physical style of play being comparable to Senegal’s, but it is hard to see Zimbabwe having a formidable enough defense to keep Sadio Mané and his side from scoring multiple goals. Malawi did incredibly to reach the final tournament, their first AFCON appearance since 2010, but there is not too much expected of the Flames and their young squad led by Orlando Pirates forward Gabadinho Mhango. The Senegalese side has the necessary combination of veterans and youth along with a manager in Aliou Cissé who has played a key part in the rapid accession of the Teranga Lions.

Can Cameroon win the trophy as hosts?

Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions will have plenty of pressure as the host nation to find success and make it deep into the knockout stages, but is their squad capable of living up to expectations? It must be remembered that the team that conquered the 2017 edition had numerous doubts about the level of talent due to seven players snubbing the national team and refusing their call-ups before the tournament, a group that included current Liverpool defender Joël Matip among other talented European based players. Therefore, the amount of talent is never in doubt when it comes to Cameroon.

Group A should not be too much of an obstacle for Cameroon. Cape Verde are a stingy side but do not have the firepower to keep up with the hosts when they are clicking on all cylinders. Ethiopia’s defense is notoriously leaky when the Walias are not playing at home, leaving Burkina Faso as the main candidate to expose any issues in Cameroon’s team. 2017 heroes Vincent Aboubakar and Player of the Tournament Christian Bassogog along with Karl Toko-Ekambi and Eric Choupo-Moting will be among the weapons manager António Conceição has to pick from up front. Goalkeeper André Onana’s suspension for doping was reduced upon appeal so the Ajax player will be available for selection.

The question for Cameroon is how the defense and midfield performs. There is talent and some experience in the back line but still plenty to prove on the big stage while the lack of a real connection between midfield and the illustrious attack plagued the team during a qualifying campaign that sputtered at times. With a slip up being costly once the group stage is over, manager Conceição will need to figure out how to get the team performing from front to back in order for Cameroon to have a shot of winning the competition. However, this team is more than capable of playing with the tournament favorites on their best day.

Which groups will be the most competitive?

With not only two teams advancing from each four-team group but also the top four third placed teams, it is hard to see any of the pre-tournament favorites being eliminated in the group stage. However, there are a few groups that look like they can push some of the traditional powerhouse teams down to third place and into a battle on the final day of group stage games to progress. Groups C, D and F each have two teams that appear to be the favorites to advance, but also have teams that proved themselves well during qualifying and are more than capable of upstaging more highly regarded sides that look vulnerable.

In Group C, less fancied sides Comoros and Gabon have an element of mystery about them. Les Coelacantes of Comoros are difficult to break down and have utilized a European based contingent that was able to hold Egypt scoreless at home while possessing a difference maker up top in El Fardou Mohamed Ben Nabouhane, who has been scoring goals for fun at Red Star Belgrade in Serbian football. Gabon has the lethal duo of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Denis Bouanga as well, meaning all four teams in the group look capable. Group favorites Morocco and Ghana will need to do their due diligence and prepare for battles in all three of their group stage games.

Group D has Nigeria and Egypt as the favorites, but Nigerian fans will be ready to call for a new manager if Gernot Rohr’s squad shows any signs of weakness after some notably underwhelming results in qualifying. Egypt have started to come into form at the right time and will be determined to avenge a miserable outing as hosts in 2019. Sudan will likely not be too competitive unless they can keep the games low scoring, but Guinea-Bissau will be determined to advance out of the group stage for the first time in their history after proving their capabilities in the past two editions of the AFCON.

Group F could end up being wide open. Tunisia remains solid and are favorites to win the group, but Mali could be vulnerable this time around without a proven threat up top to deliver goals. There are options for Les Aigles including Moussa Marega, Sékou Koïta and El Bilal Touré, but none of these options has taken off at the international levelyet like their talent suggests. Gambia looks like a major candidate to be the surprise of the tournament with the Scorpions well organized and dangerous under manager Tom Saintfiet while undertaking plenty of warm up exhibitions to be prepared for their maiden AFCON. Mauritania will provide a stubborn defensive presence as well that can keep games dangerously close.

Which Pot 4 team is most likely to advance to the knockout stage?

There is always one team that is underrated due to past history who end up surprising a traditional favorite and making it out of the group stage, and there are a couple of candidates from the lowest ranked teams in Pot 4 who can make some noise. Sudan, Malawi, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia and Gambia compose the teams from Pot 4 and the Scorpions of Gambia emerge as the most likely to advance to the knockout stages. With high level contributors available from defense to attack, Gambia will be quietly confident and pleased with their draw in Group F. If they are not able to advance as a top-2 team or one of the best third placed teams, it will be a disappointing end after a very successful qualifying campaign and period of preparation that saw them be one of Africa’s most active sides during a long stretch without competitive games. Watch out for a couple of Gambia’s young players, particularly their Italian-based contingent of starlets that includes Bologna forward Musa Barrow.

Who else can surprise and make a run?

Burkina Faso benefitted from being drawn with hosts Cameroon and Les Étalons will be favorites to progress to the knockout round over fellow Group A teams Cape Verde and Ethiopia. Even without the favorable draw, the Burkinabé team’s talent is tough to overlook with Lassina Traoré and Bertrand Traoré spearheading the attack while Edmond Tapsoba and Hervé Koffi anchor the defense. This team is certainly more talented than the side that made an incredible run to the 2013 AFCON final and expectations will be high in the 2021 edition.

Ghana and Ivory Coast represent teams in transition who have seen veterans fade out of the team in recent years, but are starting to come together as they integrate young talent. Neither team was particularly outstanding during qualifying, but got the job done and have shown signs that they are capable of raising their level of play if they can put it together on the pitch. These two sides have potential but they have important questions to answer, with the Ivorians needing starlet Amad Diallo to continue his emergence for the national team while Ghana needs to find a consistent scoring threat to support André and Jordan Ayew.

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