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2023 Africa Cup of Nations Preview: Group A

The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on Saturday as Africa’s biggest national team competition commences in the Ivory Coast. Pan-Africa Football takes a deep look at each group and below we start with Group A featuring the hosts, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau. Read more on each team below:

Ivory Coast

Resumé

FIFA Ranking: 49

CAF Ranking: 8

Nickname: Les Éléphants (The Elephants)

Previous Appearances: 24

Best Finish: Champions (1992 & 2015)

Manager

Jean-Louis Gasset

The 70-year-old veteran French coach succeeded countryman Patrice Beaumelle following a disappointing Round of 16 finish for Ivory Coast at the 2021 AFCON and has done well to integrate multiple dual national players along with several rising stars. Gasset spent his entire playing career in his hometown with Montpellier and also began his coaching career at the club of the same name, winning the UEFA Intertoto Cup in 1999 before spending time alternating between head coach and assistant roles with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, the French national team and Saint-Étienne. With plenty of time and matches to prepare, the biggest issue for Gasset is figuring out the best way to maximize the potential of a group of players with great talent at all positions.

2023 AFCON Squad

Key Players

Franck Kessié
Club: Al-Ahli (KSA)
Position: Central Midfield

The 27-year-old Ivorian talismanic midfielder contributes both in defense and attack but has an excellent eye for goal when he plays for his country where he can display his creativity as well. After thriving in Italian football with Atalanta and AC Milan, Kessié is one of the many African stars who made a big money move to Saudi football with Al Ahli following a season at FC Barcelona with mixed results.

Seko Fofana
Club: Al-Nassr (KSA)
Position: Central Midfield

It was not big news when the Paris-born former French youth national team player made his Ivory Coast debut in 2017 but the 28-year-old is now considered a world class midfielder whose role has steadily grown since becoming a regular in The Elephants setup in 2019. Another powerful central presence who can contribute in both attack and defense, Fofana won the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé award for best African player in France’s Ligue 1 following the 2021-22 campaign and joined Kessié in Saudi football for the current season, teaming up with Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nassr following a €25 million transfer.

Evan Ndicka
Club: AS Roma (ITA)
Position: Defense

The 24-year-old Parisien is highly valued by coach Gasset with the AS Roma defender instantly securing a prominent role in the Elephants defense after deciding to represent Ivory Coast. A natural left-footed player who possesses an excellent combination of size, pace, anticipation and adequate technique on the ball, Ndicka is set to be the star of the Ivorian defense with Ousmane Diomandé or perhaps the more experienced and powerful Willy Boly.

Other Players to Watch

Yahia Fofana- Inconsistent goalkeeping has haunted The Elephants in previous tournaments but French-born Fofana is in excellent form for Ligue 2 side Angers, who have the best defense in the division and are currently top of the table.

Serge Aurier- Wilfried Singo continues to make a good argument for playing time in the Ivorian defense but the Nottingham Forest defender is the most experienced player in the squad and also the captain. Aurier, Singo and Ghislain Konan give The Elephants dynamic options at the full back position who are eager to join the attack.

Sébastien Haller- The Dortmund striker has struggled with his form in club football but his poaching abilities give Ivory Coast the experienced and reliable striker they need. Haller is battling injury along with rising star Simon Adingra so there will be opportunities for the likes of Christian Kouamé, Jean-Philippe Krasso, Jeremie Boga, Karim Konaté and Oumar Diakité to make an impression with coach Gasset known for his tinkering with the eleven. However, if Haller is healthy he is likely to get the nod at the top of the formation because of his experience.

Evaluation

Goalkeeper:
Defense:
Midfield:
Attack:

Equatorial Guinea

Resumé

FIFA Ranking: 88

CAF Ranking: 18

Nickname: Nzalang Nacional (National Thunder)

Previous Appearances: 3

Best Finish: Fourth Place (2015)

Manager

Juan Micha

Outside of several caretaker spells for current Nzalang Nacional assistant Casto Nopo, foreign coaches were trusted with the head coaching duties until former national team player Micha graduated from an interim role to become the full-time manager in 2021. The 48-year-old has done exceptionally well, guiding Equatorial Guinea to a surprise quarterfinal appearance in the 2021 AFCON and maintaining his status courtesy of consistently good results since then. An excellent qualifying campaign for the 2023 edition and a strong start in 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifying makes the Nzalang a dangerous side in a strong Group A. The defense remains very strong but can Micha’s side find the goals to qualify for the knockout stages?

2023 AFCON Squad

Key Players

Emilio Nsue
Club- CF Intercity (ESP)
Position- Winger/Forward

Born on the Spanish island of Mallorca, Nsue held out on representing Equatorial Guinea in the hopes of representing Spain at the 2012 Olympic Games but committed to the country of his father after failing to make La Roja’s final squad. The Nzalang continue to benefit greatly from his presence and now the 34-year-old is by far the all-time leading scorer for Equatorial Guinea with seventeen goals. A versatile attacker who can also deputize at the right back position, Nsue continues to bring leadership and pedigree to the national team and is also the only consistent goal scorer in this team.

Saúl Coco
Club: UD Las Palmas (ESP)
Position: Central Defense

Like Nsue and many other of his national fellow national team members, Coco was born in Spain and developed in the Spanish football ecosystem before becoming a key member of his current national team. The native of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands played every minute during Equatorial Guinea’s run to the quarterfinals of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations and forms a strong partnership with Esteban Orozco in the center of the defense.

Jesús Owono
Club: Alavés (ESP)
Position: Goalkeeper

The talented 22-year-old Alavés goalkeeper became the first player born in Equatorial Guinea to appear in Spain’s top division La Liga only a week before joining up with his national team and becoming a hero at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. Owono’s shot stopping ability was on full display at the previous AFCON finals in Cameroon where his heroics led the Nzalang to a penalty kick shootout victory over Mali in the Round of 16. He continues to be limited primarily to cup appearances for Alavés but the native of Bata has proven himself as one of Africa’s best young goalkeepers and is a major reason why Equatorial Guinea maintains a strong defensive record.

Other Players to Watch

Carlos Akapo- Now based in Major League Soccer of the United States, the right back is a reliable presence who is capable on the attack and fulfills his defensive responsibilities well. Akapo adds to the experience of the Equatoguinean defense which will be the primary strength of Nzalang Nacional.