Ivory Coast, Ghana sense best chance in years
Ivory Coast and Ghana have their best chance in years of ending long waits for another African Cup of Nations title. The trailing pack of underdogs, however, want their day at the continental championship.
Top-ranked African team Ivory Coast and World Cup quarterfinalist Ghana were already strong contenders for the African Cup, which kicks off on Saturday, because of their star-studded squads. But the absence of former champions Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa has made the Ivorians and Ghanaians the standout countries at this year's tournament, which will be co-hosted by West African neighbors Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Senegal and Mali and North African rivals Morocco and Tunisia are viewed as the biggest threats to the top two, but following a surprising and unpredictable 12 months in African football, the smaller teams could also have an important say.
Libya battled through civil war at home to make its third African Cup, while Niger and Botswana emerged ahead of some of Africa's powerhouses to earn tournament debuts. Angola and Burkina Faso are plotting to upset the group campaign of Ivory Coast, while Ghana has to deal with the dangerous Mali and the buoyant Botswana in the first round.
Co-host Gabon hopes a surge of home support can carry it to at least the quarterfinals. Unheralded host nations have a strong record in Africa after Burkina Faso made the semifinals in 1998, Libya the final in 1982 and Sudan won in 1970.
Ivory Coast's Elephants and Ghana's Black Stars are still expected to meet in the final at the Stade d'Angondje in Libreville on Feb. 12 - but both are under pressure as they will have few excuses for another failure.
''Ghana's reputation means we are one of the tournament heavyweights and we accept the task because we know that playing in the final is the least everyone expects from us,'' Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic said. ''I always want to be among the favorites and I know we have put additional pressure on the team by telling them time and again that Ghana ought to win the Cup of Nations for the first time in 30 years.''
A four-time champion and the most successful team at this year's tournament without Egypt and Cameroon, Ghana hasn't been crowned African champion since 1982. Ivory Coast has missed out for the last 20 years.
The key for both, as is traditional for top African teams, is how quickly and well they can assimilate foreign-based players from far-flung clubs into the national set-up.
Ivory Coast appears to be well-set after a perfect run of six wins from six games in qualifying, but the Elephants have disappointed before when highly rated. A quarterfinal exit at the last African Cup and a first-round exit at the World Cup, both in 2010, backed that up.
Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, now 33, has long led the charge but midfielder Yaya Toure emerged as the focal point for this campaign.
The Manchester City midfielder is one of the world's best players and if he can create a platform for Drogba, Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou and Arsenal forward Gervinho to attack from, the Ivorians will be hard to stop.
Stevanovic said his Ghana squad was chosen on ''individual quality, character, strong personality and a winning mentality'' and even without Michael Essien and AC Milan midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng, the group has an effective blend of talent and experience to end a run of near-misses.
Andre Ayew, the fast-emerging 22-year-old Marseille winger, and equally promising brother Jordan aim to repeat the feat of their father, Abedi Pele, who won the African Cup with Ghana 30 years ago. Defender John Mensah is the defensive rock. A hamstring injury to striker Asamoah Gyan has been the biggest worry for last tournament's runner-up.
Senegal's strongest point is undoubtedly up front, where Demba Ba, Moussa Sow, Papiss Demba Cisse, Mamadou Niang and Dame Ndoye give another former World Cup quarterfinalist five proven scorers to pick from.
Tunisia and Morocco are boosted by strong organization and, in Morocco's case, the clever Belgian coach and tactician Eric Gerets. Gerets has won league titles in Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Mali has decorated Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita as its undoubted leader and is a player capable of inspiring a youthful but promising team to the final stages.
''I'm happy to be playing with these young guys, this new generation,'' said Keita, a Spanish league, Champions League and Club World Cup winner. ''I want to help them and I know they want to help me too, and most of all we want to help our country to get to the quarterfinals. After that anything is possible.''
However, it's Libya, Niger and Botswana who know more than any other teams that anything is possible in this competition after their shock qualifications.
The Libyans weren't able to play matches at home as chaos reigned, Niger ousted seven-time African champion Egypt and South Africa and Botswana emerged with a team of little-known players to be the first through qualifying.
All three proved that the greatest of underdogs can still have their day at top tournaments.
''For us, it's about the player's spirit,'' Libya assistant coach Bashir Milad said, adding the new country had targeted a place in the quarterfinals. ''If the team plays well we can go even further.''