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Pan-Africa Football’s AFCON Preview: Group E

It is time for Africa’s showcase football tournament as the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations prepares to kick off in Cameroon starting on January 9. Pan-Africa Football will be covering the competition in depth and is previewing the tournament by going through all of the groups and identifying who and what to watch for all teams. Next up in our preview series is Group E featuring defending champions Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.

Algeria

Manager

Djamel Belmadi

A successful player in his day who represented Algeria as well as Olympique Marseille and Manchester City in his club career, Belmadi was known as a bit of a free spirit during his playing days before starting his managerial career in Qatari football. After being dismissed when the Qatar national team crashed out of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, Belmadi went back to club football in the country before becoming Algeria manager. The reception to his spell was not positive leading into the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, but Belmadi led Algeria to an unexpected title-winning run and now has his team on the longest unbeaten streak in African national team history. Under the 45-year-old, Algeria will lineup in a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 to take advantage of the options he has in attack and on the wings.

Key Players

Riyad Mahrez – Manchester City (ENG)

There is plenty of talent and star power in the Algerian attack, but everything goes through the influential Manchester City playmaker. Mahrez’s playing time for the defending English Premier League champions and current leaders has been up and down this season, but the 30-year-old has not let that translate to his form for Algeria where he scored eight goals in ten appearances between Algeria’s recent AFCON and FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns. The player with a magical left foot who played a massive part in Leicester City’s shock 2015-16 English Premier League winning season is who Algeria will count on for match-winning moments as well as their set piece deliveries in Cameroon.

Youcef Belaïli – Free Agent

2021 has been an excellent year for the 29-year-old who has blossomed into a regular contributor for Algeria, with his two goals and an assist at the FIFA Arab Cup being instrumental as the Fennecs triumphed in Qatar. Belaïli starred in Algerian football at MC Oran and was a rising name before a drug-related ban threatened to derail his career in 2015. However, Belaïli’s ban was reduced on appeal and since then, he has gradually increased his role in the Algeria setup. Offers excellent dribbling and creativity from the wing with an eye for goal, and is now available on a free transfer after being released by Qatar Sports Club following his winning goal against Qatar in the Arab Cup.

Raïs M’Bolhi – Al-Ettifaq (SAU)

It seems like the 35-year-old shot stopper’s tenure as starter for Algeria is regularly threatened, but M’Bolhi always defies any challengers to his throne and comes up with huge saves when needed. M’Bolhi’s list of clubs is long and the French-born player had to play at a wide variety of locations before finding consistent success, but his performance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup was the beginning of his long-term presence in the Algeria setup. The last few years have seen M’Bolhi finally find stability in his club career with regular playing time at Saudi club Al-Ittifaq, and his performances in Algeria’s 2021 FIFA Arab Cup title run once again proved why he continues to hold down the #1 spot.

PAF’s Evaluation

Goalkeeper:
Defense:
Midfield:
Attack:

Prediction

Coming into the competition with Africa’s longest ever unbeaten streak for a national team and as the champions of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup in December, Algeria looks unbeatable now. While the team is our top-rated side at the competition, there are plenty of teams who can stop Algeria from repeating as AFCON champions. When a team is in the form Algeria is in, every opponent they face will be determined to end the streak and the price of their scalp increases. Algeria will cruise through the group stage but once they get to the quarterfinals or semifinals, do not be surprised if one of Africa’s other top teams takes them down due to the pressure of maintaining excellence.

Equatorial Guinea

Manager

Juan Micha

Micha has been a major figure in Equatoguinean football with spells coaching at and managing the U-20 and U-17 national teams on the men’s side as well as the women’s U-20 team. The 46-year-old was a former player for the Nzalang Nacional before entering the coaching ranks, where he met future Equatorial Guinea senior men’s national team coach Esteban Becker as an assistant at Spanish club CF Fuenlabrada and convinced the Argentinean to manage Equatorial Guinea. After several attempts to become the senior national team coach himself, Micha finally earned his shot and has delivered by qualifying the team for Cameroon. Expect Micha’s team to come out in a formation with four defenders and one dedicated striker, with his tactics varying between either a 4-1-4-1, 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1.

Key Players

Carlos Akapo – Cádiz CF (ESP)

The captain and leader of the defense, Akapo is a part of the Spanish-born contingent that is so important to Equatorial Guinea’s growth in African football, making his debut in 2013 as the national setup increased its efforts to find players of Equatoguinean descent abroad. The 28-year-old has developed well during his time in Spanish club football, overcoming his early career tendency to accumulate bookings and help CD Huesca get promoted to La Liga. Still in the top division at Cádiz now, Akapo usually operates at full back for his club team but will be relied upon to marshal the Equatoguinean defense at center back.

José Machín – AC Monza (ITA)

The Italian-based center midfielder goes by the nickname Pepín and adds technical skill to the Nzalang Nacional side. Born in Equatorial Guinea before moving to Spain at a young age, Pepín developed at FC Barcelona as well as other clubs before making his professional debut in Italian football on loan from AS Roma. Except for a loan to Swiss football in the 2016-17 season, the 25-year-old has spent his career competing mainly in Italy’s Serie B and is now a key player as Monza attempts to obtain promotion to Serie A. If prominent fellow central midfielder Pedro Obiang is not available for Equatorial Guinea’s campaign in Cameroon, Pepín will be the class of the midfield and a necessary link to the attack.

Iván Salvador Edú – CF Fuenlabrada (ESP)

The 26-year-old attacker made his debut for Equatorial Guinea in 2015 soon after his 19th birthday when he was playing for Spanish club Valencia’s B team, soon after becoming an important player when Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. Edú has spent his entire club career in the second and third divisions of birth country Spain and is now a regular contributor at second-tier CF Fuenlabrada. His presence is always a boost to an Equatoguinean attack that can struggle to generate goals and his ability to run at defenders and cause chaos in the opposition penalty area will be essential to the team’s hopes of advancing out of their group.

PAF’s Evaluation

Goalkeeper:
Defense:
Midfield:
Attack:

Prediction

The Nzalang Nacional are a team that can cause issues for the more pedigreed teams in Group E on their best day, but they got quite a difficult draw. They will need to obtain a victory over Sierra Leone, and then their goal is to get a point off Algeria or Ivory Coast because four points is likely to qualify them to the knockout rounds as one of the best third-placed teams. The Spanish-based core of this squad is capable and makes Equatorial Guinea difficult to break down, but the lack of a consistent attack means this side will be competitive while lacking the ability to assert themselves beyond the group stage. Expect Equatorial Guinea to either go out in the Round of 16 or just miss out on qualifying out of Group E.

Ivory Coast

Manager

Patrice Beaumelle

Before the 43-year-old began managing, he was the assistant to an accomplished manager in African football, current Saudi Arabia national team coach Hervé Renard. As an assistant, Beaumelle was there when Zambia won their famous 2012 Africa Cup of Nations triumph before becoming manager of a national side for the first time, taking over as gaffer for the Chipolopolo when Renard left in 2013. His connection to Renard also helped him to his current position as Ivory Coast manager, taking over as manager in 2020 after another stint as assitant under Renard when the Elephants won the 2015 AFCON. Beaumelle will be under the spotlight in Cameroon because he oversaw an unsuccessful FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign that featured inconsistent performances, making a good result in the competition a necessity to restore confidence. The formations he has put out recently involve three forwards with star striker Sebastien Haller being flanked by pace on the wings and variations between a backline with three or four defenders.

Key Players

Franck Kessié – AC Milan (ITA)

Kessié is a complete footballer who can do it all in central midfield whether on the attacking or defensive end. Offering excellent technique and vision on his passing as well as the ability to physically impose himself in defense, the 25-year-old can act either as a playmaker or box-to-box midfielder for the Elephants. Starting his career as a youth product at Abidjan side Stella Club, Kessié starred for Ivory Coast’s youth national teams before moving to Italian Serie A club Atalanta soon after turning 18 and now is a star for AC Milan. When he suits up for Ivory Coast, Kessié is more dedicated to acting in a playmaker role and will be key to setting up striker Sebastien Haller and the speedy forwards in the Ivorian squad.

Sebastien Haller – AFC Ajax (NLD)

It is difficult to argue that there is any striker in world footb