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2023 Africa Cup of Nations Qualifying Preview: Group H

Ivory Coast

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FIFA Ranking: 53

AFCON Appearances: 24

Best Finish: Champions (1992, 2015)

Manager: Jean-Louis Gasset

Key Player

Franck Kessié (FC Barcelona- Spain)

The central midfield dynamo is coming off a triumphant club season where he featured regularly as AC Milan captured their first Serie A title since the 2010-11 season. With a move to FC Barcelona completed for next season the 25-year-old is in peak form that Ivorian supporters hope will remain when the country hosts the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations. Kessié typically operates deep in the midfield but can be used in a variety of roles and is more than capable of moving forward to score and create goals as evidenced by 37 goals over five seasons for Milan. The focus for the player born in Ouragahio is helping his national side find their best form after several years where the Elephants have not quite lived up to expectations.

Other players to watch

Sebastien Haller (AFC Ajax- Netherlands) The 2021-22 UEFA Champions League group stage’s top scorer came into the Ivorian team with much fanfare after committing to the country of his mother and scoring on his 2020 debut against Madagascar. However, the 27-year-old has not quite translated his sizzling scoring form to the Elephants with only one goal in the 2021 AFCON. Much will be expected of Haller this summer in the form of goals.

Nicolas Pépé (Arsenal- England) Despite not living up to his lofty price tag for English club Arsenal, the enigmatic winger/forward scored twice at the 2021 AFCON and also delivered the lone goal in a recent 2-1 friendly defeat to France where the Elephants put in an inspired effort. Pépé and fellow English Premier League winger Wilfried Zaha will be hoping to deliver what is expected of them to make the Ivorian attack as fearless as it looks on paper.

Serge Aurier (Villarreal CF- Spain) The 29-year-old veteran right back and captain for his national team set a poor example by getting two yellow cards in the opening forty minutes as the Elephants slumped to a decisive 3-0 friendly defeat against England. Following his departure from Tottenham Hotspur, Aurier did well to earn playing time at Villarreal this past season and will look to be a steady influence in a defense that is considered Ivory Coast’s weakness.

Outlook

At times it appears that Ivory Coast are the most talented national team in Africa but the Elephants missed out on the 2022 FIFA World Cup and struggled to live up to their potential under previous manager Patrice Beaumelle. With plenty of quality in the midfield and attack and a new manager the Ivorians should impose themselves on their way to first place in the qualifying group.

Zambia

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FIFA Ranking: 87

AFCON Appearances: 17

Best Finish: Champions (2012)

Manager: Aljoša Asanović

Key Player

Enock Mwepu (Brighton- England)

A central midfielder who does everything, Mwepu puts in the necessary defensive work while pushing forward where he is very efficient in possession and can provide the final pass to set up attackers. Injuries limited his impact after making a move to the English Premier League from Red Bull Salzburg but the 24-year-old proved in his eighteen league appearances that he is more than capable of excelling in elite European club football. Chipolopolo supporters will hope Mwepu can avoid injuries to be available throughout the qualifying campaign as Zambia attempt to return to the AFCON.

Other players to watch

Patson Daka (Leicester City- England) Moving to the English Premier League at the same time as Mwepu after being club teammates at Red Bull Salzburg, it was always going to be difficult for the 23-year-old striker to make an impression at Leicester City but Daka did excellently to make 38 appearances in all competitions with 11 goals. After missing out on several games along with Mwepu due to travel restrictions during Zambia’s 2022 Qatar qualifying attempt, Chipolopolo look formidable without the impact of Covid-19 on the team.

Frankie Musonda (Raith Rovers- Scotland) The English-born former Luton Town youth product made his debut for Zambia earlier in 2022, scoring in a 3-1 victory over Republic of Congo. Bringing an aerial presence who is capable when passing out of the back, Musonda’s experience in English and Scottish club football will prepare him well for the physical challenge of African national team football.

Fashion Sakala (Rangers- Scotland) Following a 16-goal season with Oostende in Belgium, Sakala made his big move to Rangers in Scotland and came on as a substitute in the UEFA Europa League final as his team came just short of capturing a European trophy. An uneven debut season in Scotland showed flashes of real promise and having Sakala and Daka on the pitch makes Zambia’s attack especially threatening.

Outlook

Zambia’s attack is truly fearsome with one of Africa’s best midfielders in Enock Mwepu controlling the middle of the park, making the Chipolopolo easy favorites to finish in a top-2 position along with already qualified hosts Ivory Coast. They will need to watch out for a Comoros team that captivated African football with their run to the knockout stage of the 2021 AFCON but there will be no excuses if Zambia are not in Ivory Coast for the 2023 edition.

Comoros

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FIFA Ranking: 128

AFCON Appearances: 1

Best Finish: Round of 16 (2021)

Manager: Younes Zerdouk

Key Player

Youssouf M’Changama (Guingamp- France)

The Comoros #10 is a player to fear for the opposition with his ability to strike from distance and score incredible goals off set pieces. After a spell early in his career at England’s Oldham Athletic, M’Changama’s career has taken him to Algeria and the lower tiers of French football before finding a home at Guingamp in France’s Ligue 2. The 31-year-old followed up his important role in qualifying Comoros for their first ever Africa Cup of Nations by excelling at the 2021 edition and also earning a spot in the Ligue 2 Team of the Season. The attacking midfielder will be crucial if the Coelacanths want to appear at another AFCON.

Other players to watch

El Fardou Ben Nabouhane (Red Star Belgrade- Serbia) The 32-year-old striker is a goal poacher extraordinaire at club level, scoring 85 goals in all competitions over four-and-a-half seasons for top Serbian club Red Star. He has struggled to be as prolific when playing for Comoros but is always capable of applying the final touch for a strong Comorian attack.

Saïd Bakari (RKC Waalwijk- Netherlands) A wide player who is capable of lining up on either flank as a full back or winger, the 27-year-old was a great asset to Dutch club Waalwijk with his versatility on his way to 31 appearances in the top division Eredivisie this season. Very good at getting up and down with good attacking instincts that will likely see him line up as a full back for Les Coelacanthes.

Salim Ben Boina (Marseille Endoume- France) The goalkeeper who managed to distinguish himself despite Comoros’ 2-0 second group stage match defeat to Morocco at the 2021 AFCON is back after suffering a nasty injury in the final group match against Ghana. Playing in the fifth division of French football, Ben Boina won the starting job for Comoros and worldwide acclaim for his numerous saves against Morocco and is poised to retain his starting spot ahead of the team’s opener against Lesotho.

Outlook

It is going to be a tall task for new coach Younes Zerdouk to pull off the accomplishment of predecessor Amir Abdou and qualify Comoros for a second consecutive AFCON but there is plenty of talent in the squad to challenge anticipated second place team Zambia for a spot in the 2023 edition. If the Coelacanths can take care of business at home then they have a good track record of earning results on the road that will certainly make it close with a dominant power like Ivory Coast in the group. Expect the unexpected with Comoros.

Lesotho

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FIFA Ranking: 145

AFCON Appearances: 0

Best Finish: N/A

Manager: Vaseline Jelušiċ

Key Player

Sera Motebang (Golden Arrows- South Africa)

After having a decent 2021 COSAFA Cup with two goals the strong striker has had difficulty finding playing time in South African club football, making only seven league appearances in the 2021-22 DStv Premiership season at Royal AM and then Golden Arrows. The 27-year-old is one of the few players in the Lesotho squad who plays abroad and he will need to be clinical whenever an opportunity comes his way. Motebang has scored in the last five COSAFA Cups and brings a strong presence in the penalty area.

Other players to watch

Jane Thabants’o (Matlaba- Lesotho) A prolific scorer for top local side Matlama, Thabantso has been a constant fixture in the national team starting eleven and scored in the final warmup exhibition, a 2-1 victory over Namibia.

Tumelo Khutlang (Swallows FC- South Africa) A tricky attacking midfielder with a lethal left foot, Khutlang is not part of the squad for the opening two matches but is a playmaker who can make the difference on his day and was excellent in the 2021 COSAFA Cup. Only made one appearance for Swallows FC in South African football this past season, a substitute appearance last October against Marumo Gallants.

Tshwarelo Bareng (Marumo Gallants- South Africa) The captain of the squad, the veteran defensive midfielder will be the leader of a defense that can be very difficult to break down especially when playing at home.

Outlook

It is difficult to believe that Lesotho have any chance of qualifying for the 2023 AFCON but the Crocodiles are building quite a reputation for being spoilers on their day. They tend to play their Southern African neighbors very closely and have had success at the regional COSAFA Cup region. Expect them to frustrate opponents and claim a point or two.

Prediction

  1. Ivory Coast
  2. Zambia
  3. Comoros
  4. Lesotho

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