The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is finally set for kickoff after weeks and months of counting down.
The 32nd edition of the continent’s biggest football showpiece is unique in many ways especially as it takes the new 24-team format for the very first time.
While fans across the world are eagerly awaiting to see the array of stars that would be on parade in Egypt, they would also want to know what debutants Burundi, Madagascar, and Mauritania will be bringing to the table.
Indeed, there is so much to look forward to in the 2019 AFCON, from the youthful Nigeria Super Eagles returning to this stage since 2013 when they won the tournament to hosts, Egypt, hoping to extend their grip on the AFCON with an astonishing eighth triumph.
The next 30 days will be exciting hopefully and Africa will proudly showcase its mastery of the round leather game.
Here is PREMIUM TIMES’ preview of the AFCON Groups.
Egypt, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Uganda
Hosts Egypt are not just favoured to emerge tops in Group A but many expect that the Pharaohs will to go all the way and lift the trophy for a record-extending eighth time.
While the star attraction in the Egyptian team is Mohamed Salah, who recently won the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool, the hosts also boast of a decent team with other good players that should be propelled by the home support from their fanatical fans.
Egypt have faced all their group rivals, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, before at the Cup of Nations, winning seven matches and losing only one.
While the hosts are poised to top the standings, there is little to choose between the other three teams, with the top two finishers guaranteed round-of-16 places.
Guinea, Nigeria, Burundi, Madagascar
The Group B is of special interest for obvious reasons as it has the Super Eagles who are staging a return to the continental showpiece after missing out on back-to-back editions in 2015 and 2017.
On paper, the Super Eagles are expected to cruise easily in Group B where they will be facing two debutants in Burundi and Madagascar.
Using the latest FIFA world rankings as a guide, the Eagles should win comfortably as they are 89 places higher than the Burundian Swallows and also miles ahead of Madasgar presently ranked 108 in the world.
After the disappointment at the World Cup, the expectations are high for the Super Eagles not just to come out of this group but make it at least to the semi-final stage.
Senegal, Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania
This is another interesting group which any Nigerians will be keeping tabs on for obvious reasons.
The ambitions of the teams in this group are definitely not equal with Senegal and Algeria eyeing the title. Kenya and Tanzania will be glad not to drop in the group stage
Algeria were crowned champions in 1990 when they beat Nigeria in that year’s final and Senegal came closest to glory in 2002, losing the final against Cameroon on penalties.
Both boast English Premier League stars with Sadio Mane of Liverpool the talisman of the Senegal squad and Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City, a key figure for Algeria.
Kenya for the first time since 2004 and Tanzania for the first time since 1980 are back at the Cup of Nations and one can only imagine that they would be ‘modest’ in their ambitions.
The Tanzania team has some Nigerian touch as Emmanuel Amuneke is the head coach of the team and his compatriot, Emeka Amadi is the goalkeeper trainer
Morocco, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Namibia
This is another group capable of providing three teams in the Round of 16.
The clear assumption is that former champions, the Ivory Coast, Morocco, and South Africa will be locked in a three-horse race in Group D with Namibia the outsiders in this setting
Namibia has met all its Group D rivals before at the Cup of Nations without success – conceding five goals against Morocco and four each against the Ivory Coast and South Africa.
Teams: Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Angola
It is interesting to note that Tunisia, Mali, and Angola all won their respective groups in the run to qualifying for the AFCON tournament in Egypt
First-time qualifiers, Mauritania, were pipped to first place in Group I by Angola, but impressively reached the tournament with a game to spare.
Going by antecedence, the Carthage Eagles should top this group. The North Africans have reached the knockouts in nine of their last 12 Afcons.
Expectations are also high for Malian Eagles as their fans will be displeased by a poor showing after going unbeaten during the qualifiers.
It will be wrong to completely discard Angola and the element of surprise can also be thrown up by debutants, Mauritania
Cameroon, Ghana, Benin, Guinea-Bissau
This is another tricky group where the unexpected can happen.
Neither Ghana nor Cameroon were particularly convincing in qualifying, with two new managers taking their time to embed new players and a fresh strategic approach.
In the tournament proper, the Black Stars and the Indomitable Lions are expected to be in their right element to at least go past the group stage. That is if they don’t go all the way as they would have wished.
Ghana had been remarkably consistent in recent AFCON, reaching the semi-final in the last six tournaments but whether they are good enough this time to end their near-four-decade wait for continental gold is to be seen.
One needs to spare some thoughts for the Squirrels of Benin, who boast of a few veterans in their squad to Egypt.