We look ahead to Group A at AFCON 2023 with our group stage preview. Hosts Ivory Coast will look to impress but come up against a scary Nigerian attack, while Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau aren’t there to make up the numbers.
After winning their maiden Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title in 1992, the Ivorians had to wait 23 years to experience that euphoric triumph again, beating Ghana in the 2015 final. As the Elephants aim to go all the way this time on home soil, they’ll hope it’s less nail-biting considering their two previous successes came via penalty shootouts.
Since winning the AFCON nine years ago, Ivory Coast have barely advanced in the subsequent tournaments, only reaching the quarter-finals once. The last edition was underwhelming again, faltering at the round of 16 and losing on penalties to eventual finalists Egypt.
Just as everyone has grown accustomed to, Ivory Coast always name one of the most star-studded squads for the AFCON and this year is no different. The challenge has always been whether their vast array of individual talent can work well together.
A Measured Sense of Hope
The moment you arrive in Ivory Coast you’re greeted with various ‘Akwaba’ inscriptions bidding you welcome in Ivorian parlance. AFCON fever has been in the air since October, when the country hosted the draw for the tournament. Billboards, mascots and AFCON decorations dominate the streets of Abidjan.
Despite the excitement that a major tournament is returning to Ivory Coast after 40 years, expectations are measured. The last time the West African country hosted an AFCON, they were eliminated in the group stages. Anything similar this time and will be deemed extreme failure.
The overarching belief is that this is a fairly young and inexperienced squad that can achieve greater things if given time. Though, the consensus is for the team to still try and go deep in the competition given they are hosting.
History isn’t really on the side of the two-time AFCON champions, with host countries finding it extremely difficult to win the tournament, especially in recent years. Since 1982, the host countries have won just five of the 19 AFCON editions, with none of the nine hosts across the last eight tournaments doing so. Egypt were the last hosts to lift the AFCON trophy on home soil, back in 2006.
Hosting the AFCON has never been a guarantee for success with four of the last eight hosts eliminated at the quarter-final stage.
So Ivory Coast, beware.
Ivory Coast’s Main Men
In 2016, Wilfried Zaha switched his international allegiance to Ivory Coast despite playing for England’s youth teams and also featuring in a couple of non-competitive games for the Three Lions.
Ivorians were excited because they had at their disposal one of the most petrifying wingers in the Premier League. Fast forward eight years and Zaha’s journey with the Elephants has been underwhelming, to say the least. The Galatasaray winger has only 31 caps and hasn’t made the squad for 42 games due to injury or reasons not stated.
The peak of it all is that Zaha won’t be at the 2023 AFCON after he wasn’t included in Jean-Louis Gasset’s final squad. His exclusion can be narrowed down to underperformance and constant criticism of the federation for not doing enough.
Luckily, Gasset still has an abundance of attacking talent he can rely on.
Haller has been the go-to guy in attack for Ivory Coast over the past few months. He made his AFCON debut in the last edition and scored one goal in the four games he played in Cameroon.
He’s since had to battle testicular cancer and therefore missed a chunk of games for the Elephants, but the Borussia Dortmund forward scored on his return to international football in an AFCON qualifier against Comoros. During the October international break, the 29-year-old demonstrated how crucial he can be by scoring in both friendlies against Morocco and South Africa.
Although he is yet to get off the mark in the Bundesliga this season despite appearing 11 times, Gasset will count on Haller to rediscover his goal-scoring form over the next month.
When Konaté was just 17, he was scoring for fun as he led ASEC Mimosas to the domestic league title. The teenager was rewarded with a place in Ivory Coast’s squad for the 2021 AFCON (which was played in early 2022) — albeit he didn’t play a single minute in Cameroon.
It was discernible that Konaté was Haller’s understudy in the national team. The 19-year-old’s integration has been step-by-step to ensure he remains grounded. So far he has 11 caps for the national team and scored two while assisting two in his first start, a friendly against Seychelles. In their pre-tournament friendly against Sierra Leone, Konaté grabbed an assist just 20 minutes after being subbed on.
In Austria, the striker remains in the news, scoring eight goals in the Austrian Bundesliga this season. He has blistering pace and can run down the channels to create opportunities for teammates. Two assists and 15 chances created is a testament that he’s beyond just putting the ball in the back of the net.
Unlike in AFCON 2021, Konaté will get minutes.
Boga, who played for France’s Under-19s, made his debut for Ivory Coast in 2017 but had to wait until 2021 to return to the national team picture. In the last AFCON, he was limited to just 48 minutes of action and he’ll be hoping for more as they play in front of a home crowd. The OGC Nice winger was on the scoresheet during the Elephants’ 5-1 AFCON warm-up win against Sierra Leone on 6 January.
Just like Zaha, Boga’s biggest strength is the ability to go past defenders with ease. Among Ligue 1 players who have played 900+ minutes this season, Boga ranks fourth for progressive carry distance per 90 (135.9) and fifth in progressive carries per 90 (11.8).
Gradel doesn’t have the burst of pace that Boga possesses. But what he doesn’t have in legs, he makes up with his experience. The 36-year-old, who has amassed over 100 caps for the Elephants, will be playing in his seventh AFCON.
Despite playing every AFCON qualifier, the Gaziantep winger has been limited to just 46 minutes in the last five games for Ivory Coast. In the last two friendlies against Seychelles and the Gambia, Gradel was an unused substitute, perhaps a hint of his role going into the continental showpiece.
Gradel has created 23 chances, provided three assists, and scored four goals across six previous AFCON tournaments. That’s not too bad for an option from the bench.
A New-Look Defence
Ivory Coast conceded just three goals in four games during the 2021 AFCON. However, a closer look at the underlying numbers suggests their defence wasn’t as good as it seemed. The Elephants conceded an expected goals (xG) average of 1.23 per 90 minutes — above any of the other nations considered as realistic tournament contenders and more than double that conceded by both Nigeria (0.57) and Senegal (0.60). On another day, if their opponents took their chances, it could have been a lot worse for Ivory Coast.
Odilon Kossounou, Simon Deli and Eric Bailly were the primary centre-back options for Patrice Beaumelle during the tournament in Cameroon. Interestingly, Kossounou is the only one to have kept his place in this year’s squad for the AFCON.
In recent times, Evan Ndicka, Willy-Arnaud Boly and Ousmane Diomande have alternated in central defence. Diomande, who is just 20, has been impressive for Sporting CP and is being linked with many top European clubs. He is one of the best ball-carrying defenders in Portugal this season and ranks in the top four for total carries, carry distance, progressive carries and progressive carry distance among all defenders in the competition.
If there’s one country that can’t wait for the 2023 AFCON to start, it has to be Nigeria. The past two years have been torrid for the Super Eagles after their round of 16 exit in the 2021 AFCON and failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
Even though Nigeria have won the AFCON three times and medalled 15 times, there is a sense of underachievement because Nigerians typically always want more. In 2013, when Nigeria were crowned champions, no one saw it coming. The problem is with the amount of talent they boast these days, everyone has an eye out for them, making an already arduous task even tougher.
In case there were any doubts concerning expectations, the official Super Eagles 2023 AFCON theme song has “Let’s do it again” being repeated in the hook. José Peseiro will face similar challenges to Gernot Rohr and Augustine Eguavoen; when you’re the coach of Nigeria, you simply have to win the AFCON. He says his side will fight to win the trophy in Ivory Coast but do Nigerians believe in him? Not really.
Peseiro Still Unpopular
Peseiro ticks several boxes. He’s very experienced, having worked in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. He has a master’s degree in sports science. He’s worked with the likes of José Mourinho and Carlos Queiroz, and worked at Real Madrid as an assistant.
But none of that matters when you don’t win, especially when you’re head coach of Nigeria. The Portuguese manager has been in charge of the Super Eagles for 14 games and only won six, while losing five.
While the qualification process for this AFCON edition was smooth, there’s overall concern about the balance of the team — the majority of Nigerians feel it makes them susceptible to counterattacks.
Peseiro’s favoured 4-2-4 formation sees him play four attackers at a time, a system that has worked against inferior opponents like in their 10-0 win over São Tomé and Príncipe in qualification. However, in the recent World Cup qualifiers, Nigeria dropped points against Lesotho and Zimbabwe, conceding in both games. They also lost a pre-tournament friendly against Guinea 2-0 on 8 January.
When there are so many in-form attackers in a squad, they must play and that’s what Peseiro is trying to do.
Attacking Depth Like No Other
If you were to name your ideal type of striker, there is a high likelihood that your answer will be found in Nigeria’s squad. Is it a target man? A striker that runs behind? A striker that can drop deep and play as a playmaker? Nigeria have it all.
Like the last AFCON, the build-up has been largely dominated by the strength in depth Nigeria have in attack. The Super Eagles were unlucky in Cameroon as Victor Osimhen (injury + COVID), Emmanuel Dennis (administrative error), Paul Onuachu (injury) and Odion Ighalo (club issues) all missed the tournament.
This time, they’ve been dealt the big blow of losing Victor Boniface to injury on the eve of the tournament, with the Bayer Leverkusen star leaving the squad on 8 January. Taiwo Awoniyi, the man who stepped up to replace Osimhen in the previous tournament, also misses out through injury. The usual suspects of Osimhen, Ademola Lookman, Ahmed Musa, Sadiq Umar and Samuel Chukwueze will all be present, while Terem Moffi — who has scored six goals in 16 Ligue 1 games for Nice this season — was the late replacement for Boniface.
Onuachu, Cyril Dessers and Leverkusen’s Nathan Tella all failed to make the cut. It comes as no surprise that the Super Eagles scored the most goals in the qualifiers.
The headache for Peseiro is who to start with, as in the past few months he has constantly rotated the squad. The temptation to use as many attackers as possible has also seen his team concede in 11 of the 14 games he’s been in charge.
The Goalkeeping Conundrum
The majority of the goals conceded by first-choice goalkeeper Francis Uzoho have been avoidable. The problem with Nigeria’s goalkeeping department stems from the retirement of Vincent Enyeama back in 2015.
The Super Eagles have just not managed to replace the man who won over 100 caps for the national team. Maduka Okoye, who was the goalkeeper in the last AFCON, was axed from the team after his error saw Tunisia eliminate the three-time winners.
Uzoho has been between the posts for 13 of the 14 matches Peseiro has overseen. Adebayo Adeleye, the only other goalkeeper to get a chance, didn’t make the squad. Alongside Uzoho, the selection includes Olorunleke Ojo and Stanley Nwabili — they have one Nigeria cap between them.
Uzoho will likely retain his place in goal, but Nigerians don’t have confidence in him, especially after his mistake cost them a place at the 2022 World Cup.
If you have a goalkeeper you don’t trust, your only hope is to outscore all opponents to win games.
Osimhen to Lead Nigeria to Glory?
Osimhen and Boniface are Nigeria’s most in-form players at the present time. A lot of the goalscoring burden in Ivory Coast was expected be on the shoulders of these two forwards.
However, following a groin injury, Boniface has been ruled out of AFCON 2023 late in the day and replaced by Nice forward Moffi.
While Moffi is by no means a poor replacement, Boniface has settled quickly in Germany after making the switch to Bayer Leverkusen last summer. His 10 goals see him ranked as the fourth top scorer in the league as his side sits top of the league ahead of Bayern Munich. Across all competitions in 2023-24, only Harry Kane (25) and Serhou Guirassy (19) have scored more goals for a Bundesliga club this season than he has (16) at Leverkusen.
Following his removal from the squad, Napoli striker Osimhen will be expected to lead the attack and provide the goals. He is on a mission, especially after missing the last edition of the AFCON. At the time of writing, since the last AFCON ended, only four players have scored more goals within the top five European leagues than his tally of 42.
He hasn’t been as prolific in Serie A this season, as reigning champions Napoli have struggled to replicate last term’s form, but the 25-year-old has still scored seven goals — the joint-fourth highest in the league.
He showed his qualities in the AFCON qualification campaign, with his 10 goals double that of any other player, although seven of those came in the two routs of São Tomé and Príncipe.
The Nzalang Nacional may have only qualified for their fourth AFCON ever, but underestimate them at your peril.
The only Spanish-speaking country on the continent has made it out of the group stages on every occasion they’ve qualified, reaching the quarter-finals twice and the semis once.
In the previous edition, they ended Algeria’s 35-game unbeaten run while also beating Mali in the round of 16. They gave Senegal a run for their money in the last eight before eventually succumbing.
Once again they’re in a difficult group but they’re not here just to participate. Don’t be shocked to see them upset the top two favourites.
The Magic of Juan Micha
In September 2020, Juan Micha was reappointed as Equatorial Guinea Under-17s coach. However, when the senior national team was about to play their next match without a head coach, the federation asked Micha to partner with Casto Nopo for the upcoming games.
They beat Libya twice and Micha was asked to stay. He eventually signed a contract months later and qualified for the 2021 AFCON. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
Overall, 2023 was an incredible year for Micha and Equatorial Guinea. They went the entire calendar year unbeaten, scoring nine goals and conceding just three across their seven games. They’re disciplined, effective and motivated under Micha, whose animated nature on the sidelines energises the team.
Equatorial Guinea are a tough side to beat and can once again be the surprise package of the AFCON.
When the African wild dog is hunting, it’s very patient in its approach. It’s a diurnal hunter and uses stamina to its advantage by wearing down the prey before they attack. These wild dogs are called the Djurtus, which is also the nickname of Guinea-Bissau.
The people of Guinea-Bissau, like the African wild dog, have had to be patient. They only qualified for their first AFCON ever in 2017. Since then, it’s been a four-peat and they’ve reached every AFCON tournament.
The man often attributed with the team’s success is head coach Baciro Candé, who is enjoying his second spell in charge. He’s seen the difficult years and the enjoyable ones, as he’s qualified the national team for four successive AFCONs.
One player Candé will look to is the experienced Piqueti Djassi, and his coaches have put their trust in him to take advantage of opportunities where and when they present themselves. With seven goals, the 30-year-old — a former youth international for Portugal — is now Guinea-Bissau’s second-highest goal scorer in history and, behind Mendes, the second-highest appearance maker. Piqueti scored one of just two goals the national team has scored in their three finals appearances and was crucial for the Djurtus in the 2019 and 2021 AFCON qualifiers.
Chasing Historic First Win
In the 2021 AFCON, Guinea-Bissau came closest to their maiden win in AFCON history. Midfielder Pepe saw his penalty in the 82nd minute saved by Sudan goalkeeper Ali Abou Achrine. Piqueti’s rebound struck the bar as Sudan held on to a goalless draw.
The result meant that for a third successive AFCON, Guinea-Bissau had picked up just one point in the group stages. Qualification to the finals has become a norm now for the Djurtus, and their record of participating in the four straight tournaments is better than Nigeria, Guinea, Burkina Faso and the DR Congo.
The next step for Candé and his men is to get that first elusive win at a major tournament. Two years ago, they found themselves in Nigeria’s group and kept the Super Eagles at bay for 55 minutes. This time the entire 2.1 million population of Guinea-Bissau will no doubt have renewed hope that it could be fourth time lucky.
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