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COUNTDOWN TO AFCON 2023: PREVIEW

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The coming new year 2024 opens with the 34th edition of Afcon, which is set to be hosted by the Ivory Coast for the first time since 1984.

Defending champions Senegal will look to be the third country in history to retain their Afcon title, whilst World Cup stars Morocco will try to emulate their 1976 success to win their second ever Afcon trophy.

Gambia will take the field for their second ever Afcon as they try to build on their promising run to the quarter-finals in 2021.

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The countdown starts today on Standard Sports the first of six group previews, featuring Group A and what can be expected from Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau.

Group A: Preview

Ivory Coast

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Group Prediction: 1st

The Ivorians are a mainstay of this competition, with Egypt being the only country to have appeared at more AFCONs since the tournament’s inception. With an exciting squad and the home advantage, there is optimism that Jean-Louis Gasset’s side can repeat the heroics of 2015.

There has been an influx of new talent into the side, The Elephants were boosted massively by Fiorentina winger Jonathan Bamba switching allegiance in March this year.

20-year-old Ousmane Diomande’s development into a starting Sporting Lisbon centre-back will be crucial to the host’s ambitions whilst Manchester United’s starlet Amad Diallo is expected to be back to full fitness in January.

Ivorian optimism has been dampened by some of the performances this year, 3-0 defeats to Mauritania and Zambia show that this new-look side can be beaten. However, with one of the most balanced sides in the competition and the support of the nation behind them, Ivory Coast have the potential to go all the way.

Super Eagles
PORTIMAO, PORTUGAL – OCTOBER 13: Kelechi Iheanacho of Nigeria celebrates with team mates Bruno Onyemaechi ,Terem Moffi and Moses Simon after scoring his goal ,during the International Friendly match between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria at Estadio Municipal de Portimao on October 13, 2023 in Portimao, Portugal. (Photo by MB Media/Getty Images)

Nigeria

Group Prediction: 2nd

The two years since the last AFCON have been tough for Nigeria. March 2022 was one of the darker days in Nigerian football as rivals Ghana triumphed at their expense in the ‘Jollof Derby’ to secure qualification to the Qatar World Cup.

The Super Eagles lost again to Ghana during qualification for AFCON 2023. Draws to both Lesotho and Zimbabwe in World Cup 2026 qualification have meant that Nigeria are coming into AFCON in less-than-ideal form.

There have been some positives though. Monday saw star striker Victor Osimhen crowned the CAF Footballer of the Year after he fired Napoli to a historic title. Nigeria’s other striking options Victor Boniface, Terem Moffi and Ademola Lookman are also taking Europe by storm.

Whilst this will prove to be a selection headache for manager Jose Peseiro, no other team in the competition can compete with Nigeria’s firepower. Whether the Super Eagles are too top-heavy remains to be seen, but they have the talent to score against anyone.

Equatorial Guinea

Group Prediction: 3rd

The second smallest nation in AFCON by population is led by former Middlesborough and Birmingham wide player Emilio Nsue. The ‘National Thunder’ are the only Spanish speaking nation on the continent and will be looking to go one further than their semi-finals appearance in 2015.

Captain Nsue will be counting on the likes of former West Ham midfielder Pedro Obiang and Club Africain star Federico Bikoro, with most of the squad plying their trade in the lower divisions of Spain.

E. GUINEA
Equatorial Guinea’s players celebrate after winning the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 round of 16 football match between Mali and Equatorial Guinea at Limbe Omnisport Stadium in Limbe on January 26, 2022. (Photo by Issouf SANOGO / AFP) (Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite their size, Equatorial Guinea are unbeaten in 2023 and come into the tournament in better form than any of their Group A counterparts. In 2023, the West African side have beaten AFCON regulars Tunisia as well as Namibia, Liberia and Botswana, all whilst only conceding three goals all year.

Equatorial Guinea has a population smaller than Latvia, but Juan Micha has proved that he can organise a defence and grind out results. They are in a very tough group, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Micha’s side sneak into the Quarter-Finals.

Guinea-Bissau

Group Prediction: 4th

In the space of three days, rank outsiders Guinea-Bissau both beat and lost to Group A rivals Nigeria in March last year. Featuring in the curtain-raiser against the Ivory Coast on the 13th January, Baciro Candé’s team will try and make it out of the group stage for the first time in the nation’s history.

Candé has guided his nation to four consecutive AFCON’s, a streak better than tournament favourites Nigeria and Ghana. The Djurtus have also enjoyed a promising 2023, losing only twice to Nigeria and Guinea whilst also being unbeaten in World Cup qualification.

One of the younger teams at the tournament, many have predicted Guinea-Bissau to struggle in the Ivory Coast. Whilst they have Mama Balde and Fali Candé representing Lyon and Metz in Ligue 1, most of the squad play in the lesser-known leagues across Europe and Asia.

In a weaker group, Guinea-Bissau would have a real chance of getting through. This year, it looks unlikely that they will get out of Group A.

Sportsgazette.co.ukl

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