This weekend sees the start of one of the biggest football events in the world as after the World Cup, European Championship and Copa America, the African Cup of Nations is arguable the biggest football event in the world
Sixteen teams from all over the African continent will meet in Equatorial Guinea to decide who is the 2015 African Cup of Nations winners.
The Cup of Nations occurs every two years and there will be a different team name on the trophy from 2013 as defending champions Nigeria failed to qualify for the tournament.
In this preview, we’ll take a brief look at the competitions somewhat fractured history as well as looking at which of the 16 teams that have qualified, stand a good chance of success.
Finally, we’ll be giving you our tips for each of the four group winners and the team we are backing to go all the way and lift the trophy in the final on the 8th February.
A brief history of the African Cup of Nations
The first ever African Cup of Nations took place in 1957, although only three teams took part after South Africa were disqualified due to apartheid. Indeed, politics have always played a key role in this tournament, at times with tragic consequences.
Egypt have won the most competitions with seven in total and Ghana and Cameroon each winning four titles. This is the first tournament since 2013, when the competition was switched to odd years (previously it was held in 2012) to avoid it clashing with the FIFA World Cup.
There have been many significant events in the sometimes tragic history of the competition. In 2010, the Togo national team coach came under attack from terrorists in the Cabinda province in Angola in an attack which injured several players and killed three others on the team coach.
There was also redemption and joy in 2012 for the Zambia team. In 1993, an air disaster saw 18 members of their national team killed, along with all their support staff and crew in an air crash just offshore from the Equatorial Guinea capital Libreville. Just short of 20 years later, the Zambian team would return to play in a stadium less than a kilometre from the crash site and would lift the trophy on penalties beating the Ivory Coast.
Nigeria won the last tournament and would have defended had they qualified. Equatorial Guinea were not the original hosts of the 2015 tournament. Morocco was slated to host the event but pulled out due to the Ebola crisis, which saw them banned by the CAF and Equatorial Guinea step in at the last minute to host the event.
The 2015 African Cup of Nations
The 16 qualifiers for the tournament have been drawn into four groups, which will be played at four venues across Equatorial Guinea.
Group A: Equatorial Guinea (hosts), Burkina Faso, Gabon, Congo
Arguably the weakest of the four groups, the draw was certainly kind to the hosts who will be optimistically looking to qualify from the group stage at the very least. However it is not going to be easy as the four teams in this group are all of a very similar ability level. However Burkina Faso and Gabon do tend to have the edge in terms of quality players and experience.
Some of the star players on show in this group are Bakary Kone of Burkina Faso (who plays for Lyon in France) as well as team mates Charles Kabore (Kuban Krasnodar), Jonathan Pitroipa (Al-Jazira) and Gabon’s main striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is playing for Dortmund in Germany.
Group B: Zambia, Tunisia, Cape Verde, DR Congo
Tunisia are the strong favourites to qualify from Group B and it is easy to see why as they easily the strongest team in this group. Zambia may provide them with the sternest opposition but DR Congo could also provide a shock.
Players to watch in group B include Southampton’s Emmanuel Mayuka (Zambia), Amine Chermiti and Yassine Chikhaoui (both Zurich and Tunisia), and DR Congo’s two English based players Youssouf Mulumbu (WBA) and the exciting Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace).
Group C: Ghana, Senegal, Algeria, South Africa
If the first two groups in what looks like a lop-sided draw can be typified by inexperienced players who aren’t household names. The final two groups are the polar opposite, with some of the biggest names in African football and some of the world’s best players on show. Nowehere is this more evident than in Group C where any of the four teams could conceivably qualify from the group and perhaps even win the competition.
There is a huge amount of talent on show from each country in the group such as Ghana’s Jordan and Andre Ayew (Lorient & Marseille), Chelsea’s Christian Atsu (on loan at Everton). From Algeria Sofiane Feghouli (Valencia), Nabil Bentaleb (Tottenham Hotspur) and Yacin Brahimi (FC Porto) will catch the eye. Senegal meanwhile can call on Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse, Bordeaux’s Henri Saivet plus English based trio Chiekhou Kouyate (West Ham), Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke City) and Sadio Mane (Southampton).
Group D: Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon, Guinea
Group D is almost as equally strong as Group C with Ivory Coast and Cameroon amongst the traditional powerhouses of African football. Both will be confident of progressing from the group stages but may face stiff competition from Mali in particular with Guinea always capable of causing an upset or two.
Top players on show in Group D include Cameroon stars Vincent Aboubakar (FC Porto), Nicolas N’Koulou (Marseille), Stephane Mbia (Sevilla); the Ivory Coast’s Yaya Toure (Manchester City), Kolo Toure (Liverpool), Gervinho (Roma), Wilfried Bony (Manchester City) and Chiekh Tiote from Newcastle United.
Group Winner and Overall Winner Tips
If you are looking for a tip for group winners then although the groups may seem lop-sided in terms of strength compared to each other, the individual groups are relatively well matched. That said, I fully expect the winner of this competition to come from Group C or D as I believe the vast majority of the best African teams have been drawn into these groups.
In Group A, I don’t think a young host side can propel Equatorial Guinea past the group stage and I just think in terms of quality Burkina Faso (15/8) are the best bets here.
In Group B, It is impossible to look past Tunisia as the 11/10 favourites here. I think they are the class act in what is arguably the weakest group in the competition. They are an easy pick for me here.
Group C looks a lot closer and the odds reflect that. Bet365 have Algeria as the 11/8 favourites but I think this is the one group where there could be a surprise and I think judging by the quality of their squad, Senegal at 4/1 represent excellent value.
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To finish off the group selections, it’s impossible to look past Ivory Coast at 4/6. They are the class act in Group D against an inexperienced Guinea and a Mali team that looks past its best. Cameroon will be their only real opponents for group winners, but the Ivory Coast look to have too much firepower here.
Lastly, to round things off, who will win it all? My choice here is the Ivory Coast who do have the quality squad of the championships. They are 7/2 for the win, which isn’t great odds, so for an outside bet, why not back Senegal at 12/1 each way and if they reach the final, you’ll still get a payout.