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Pan-Africa Football’s AFCON preview: Group C

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. Group C is next in an intriguing set of matches featuring the national teams of Morocco, Ghana, Gabon and Comoros.

Ghana

Manager

Milovan Rajevac

An underwhelming start to FIFA World Cup qualifying for the Black Stars resulted in the national side turning to an old favorite to lead the team and Rajevac was rehired in September. The 67-year-old Serb was Ghana’s manager at the 2010 edition of the World Cup, guiding the West African nation to their first ever quarterfinal appearance in the competition as well as a runner-up position at the 2010 AFCON. Since his first spell as Ghana coach, Rajevac managed the national teams of Qatar, Algeria and Thailand before returning to the team where he has had the most success. Since his return, the Black Stars have a record of three wins and one draw but most importantly, the confidence of the team and Ghanaian supporters has somewhat been restored. Rajevac can change his formation based on the opponent but tends to go with a 4-2-3-1 and Ghana’s lack of viable strikers has kept that the dominant tactical setup.

Key Players

André Ayew – Al Sadd (QAT)

The undisputed leader of this young team, the attacking midfielder/forward known affectionately as “Dede” was crucial to Ghana’s recent successful run through the group stage of FIFA World Cup qualifying by scoring half of the team’s six goals. The 32-year-old tends to step up with his best performances when wearing the Black Stars kit and just reached the century mark with his 100th appearance for Ghana, scoring the crucial goal in a 1-0 win over South Africa. Now playing his club football in Qatar, Ayew will start in the line of three attacking midfielders behind the lone striker but might be called upon to lead the line if Ghana’s strikers continue to struggle.

Thomas Partey – Arsenal (ENG)

Ever since his lucrative move to Arsenal FC, staying healthy for extended periods has been a struggle for the central midfielder but his influence is notable when he is in the lineup. Partey’s work rate and ability to shut down attacks is a quality that is immediately noticeable when the 28-year-old plays for his club, but what makes him influential for Ghana is his ability to act as a deep-lying playmaker. His accuracy when making long passes and switching the field of play is remarkable and he has shown a real eye for goal as well. Match-winning goals in World Cup qualifying fixtures home and away against Zimbabwe saw Partey wrap up a spell where he has scored an amazing 11 goals in his last 21 appearances. Ghana needs Partey to stay healthy in Cameroon because he not only brings his excellent defensive qualities but also adds class when the Black Stars are on the attack.

Kamaldeen Sulemana – Stade Rennais (FRA)

Either Sulemana or Mohammed Kudus could be in this spot as both are exciting young attacking players who have carved out starting spots in the Ghanaian attack. However, Sulemana gets the edge here because of his explosive speed on the dribble and ability to create something out of nothing. The 19-year-old winger from Techiman has seen his form dip a bit since getting off to a good start at French club Rennes, but he is becoming more and more comfortable when playing for his country. The sky is the limit for the Right to Dream Academy graduate, but Ghanaian supporters hope the precocious talent is ready to contribute the necessary goals and assists that have yet to come during his initial run in the starting lineup.

PAF’s Evaluation

Goalkeeper:
Defense:
Midfield:
Attack:

Prediction

The Black Stars have plenty of young talent in the attacking midfield positions and experience in the defense, but complete performances have been few and far between. In order for Ghana to advance far, it is necessary for their attack to get going but there are few proven goal scorers in the side at this point. The quality is there to make a run, but the team will have to show some major strides if they want to take down Africa’s top sides. Expect Ghana to make it to the quarterfinals but making it any further is a doubt and would be a major success for a team that has reason to be excited about the future but is not yet quite ready to make the impact their fans desire.

Morocco

Manager

Vahid Halilhodžić

An excellent forward in his playing days who represented the Yugoslavia national team and scored over 200 goals for Velez Mostar, FC Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain. The 69-year-old Bosnian has gone on to have a very good post-playing career as manager with spells at top clubs in French football as well as at the national teams of Ivory Coast, Japan and now Morocco. Famous for his curmudgeon persona, Halilhodžić made headlines in the past few months by excluding Chelsea playmaker Hakim Ziyech from the Atlas Lions squad and the team has shown no ill effects. The Atlas Lions have not lost a competitive match under Halilhodžić and he uses plenty of variety in his tactics to keep the opposition guessing.

Key Players

Achraf Hakimi – Paris Saint-Germain (FRA)

The 23-year-old born in Madrid to Moroccan parents can operate on either his preferred right flank or the left as a full back or further forward in the midfield, but wherever Hakimi plays he can be counted on to bring his impressive attacking instincts. Possessing exceptional speed to match his technical proficiency, Hakimi is regarded as one of the best right backs in the world and earned a big money move to Paris Saint-Germain over the summer. However Halilhodžić elects to utilize his skills, the opposition will always have to be conscious of where Hakimi is because he can finish attacking movements as well as initiate them.

Romain Saïss – Wolverhampton Wanderers (ENG)

The imposing French-born 31-year-old did not sign his first professional contract until he turned 21, spending his early years playing in the fifth tier of French football while washing dishes at his parents’ restaurant. Now the Morocco captain is a regular starter at English Premier League side Wolves and is approaching 200 appearances for the club. In a team that has plenty of technical skill and creativity, Saïss brings toughness, leadership, excellence in the air and rarely lets opposing attackers get by him on the dribble.

Ayoub El Kaabi – Hatayspor (TUR)

El Kaabi had an excellent experience in Cameroon last year during Morocco’s winning run at the African Nations Championship (CHAN), finishing as top scorer in the competition that features domestic-based players. Since then, the 28-year-old went on to be the top scorer in Morocco’s Botola Pro with Wydad AC and earned a transfer abroad to Turkish football, where he currently has 8 goals in 18 appearances for Hatayspor so far this season. Possesses a combination of physical strength and speed that allows him to get behind defenses and overpower defenders to score on aerial duels.

PAF’s Evaluation

Goalkeeper:
Defense:
Midfield:
Attack:

Prediction

The Atlas Lions are certainly in the conversation to capture the AFCON and are in peak form following a flawless FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign that saw them easily run through Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Sudan. Whether Morocco can win the competition will depend on if a talented but young midfield can step up on the big stage. However, it says plenty about the depth in the squad when Halilhodžić can drop a player of Hakim Ziyech’s quality from the team without suffering any ill effects on the pitch. It would be a disappointment if Morocco cannot reach the semifinals and the Atlas Lions are just as good as main contenders Algeria and Senegal.

Gabon

Manager

Patrice Neveu

Neveu began his managing career in the lower divisions of his native France before taking his first job in African football as coach of the Niger national team in 1999. The 67-year-old’s career has mostly been spent in Africa with spells at the national teams of Guinea, DR Congo and Mauritania as well as at clubs in Guinea, Egypt and Morocco. Neveu has some reputable achievements under his belt, guiding Guinea to a surprise quarterfinal appearance at the 2012 AFCON and qualifying Mauritania for their debut appearance at the African Nations Championship (CHAN) in 2014. Known for speaking his mind, the French gaffer helped Mauritania move their FIFA ranking from 206 to 133 despite facing early opposition. Employing a variety of tactics during his time in charge of Gabon, Neveu’s main task is finding a way to get the most out of his talented group of forwards without leaving the Gabonese defense exposed.

Key Players

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Arsenal (ENG)

Disciplinary issues have resulted in Aubameyang being stripped of his captaincy and excluded from the squad at London club Arsenal, allowing the 32-year-old to join up with Gabon early to prepare for the AFCON. Pierre was born in France to former Gabon national team player Pierre-François Aubameyang and appeared for France’s U-21 national side before deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps, making his debut for Gabon in 2009 and representing Les Panthères at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Aubameyang is a constant danger to opposing defenses with his excellent pace and lethal instincts in the opposition penalty area, but Gabon’s all-time leading scorer has plenty of critics to respond to when he steps on the pitch in Cameroon due to his recent underwhelming form for club and country.