Time is running out for Egypt’s current generation, the Black Stars of Ghana just don’t shine like they used to, while Cape Verde and Mozambique plot an upset. We look ahead to Group B at AFCON 2023 with our group stage preview.
There was a time when the AFCON title was almost a birthright for Egypt. Before a ball was kicked, nearly everyone agreed it was Egypt’s title to lose. The gold-plated trophy stayed in Cairo for four years between 2006 and 2010 after the Pharaohs won the tournament for an unprecedented three successive titles.
Despite not winning the AFCON in 13 years now, Egypt’s record of having the most AFCON titles (seven) will remain intact as they have two more than the next country on the list (Cameroon). Egypt, given their mentality, will be looking ahead and challenging themselves to get a record-extending eighth crown.
Since their last triumph on the continent, the North African country has gone through a rebuilding phase, with young talents growing to become core members of the side. The Pharaohs will head to Ivory Coast with the oldest squad at this AFCON with an average age of 28.9 years, highlighting how the core of Mohamed Elneny (31), Mohamed Salah (31), Trezeguet (29), Hamdi Fathy (29) and Ahmed Hegazi (32) are approaching the twilight of their respective careers.
Portuguese coach Rui Vitória is the man tasked with bringing the AFCON back to Egypt. He’s won the Portuguese Primeira Liga twice with Benfica and won the Saudi Pro League once. His Egypt side seems to have switched from the cautious style under Carlos Queiroz to a more expansive approach, which has seen them score 33 goals in 14 games.
The Salah Factor
In the previous AFCON, Egypt scored four goals in seven games. Of those four goals, Salah contributed to three (two goals and one assist). This is, quite simply, his team.
He played in four of the 2023 AFCON qualifiers and once again showed his worth, scoring two and assisting three. But for all his 55 goals for Egypt, Salah is yet to win a trophy with them; it’s arguably holding him back from being regarded as Egypt’s greatest ever player, even if on talent alone there’s no question.
“I want to win it! I love playing for my country,” Salah said after his final game for Liverpool before he joined Egypt’s camp.
The 31-year-old has lost two finals; in 2017 to Cameroon and in 2021 AFCON (which was played in early 2022) to Senegal. Time is running out, though there’s reason to believe he’s in the best condition to help his country claw back lost glory.
Halfway through the season, Salah already has 18 goals in all competitions in what is shaping up to be one of his best campaigns at Liverpool. He’s scoring 0.72 goals per 90, with no player scoring more than him in the Premier League in 2023-24 prior to him heading to Ivory Coast. His 0.72 goals per 90 is also better than four of the seven seasons he’s spent in England.
His form this season has seen him climb into the Premier League’s top 10 all-time leading goalscorers, becoming the fifth-fastest player (247 games) to reach the 150-goal landmark in the competition behind only Alan Shearer (212), Sergio Agüero (217), Harry Kane (218) and Thierry Henry (220).
Over the next month, Salah will be aiming to become the first Egyptian player to score at four different AFCON tournaments – he previously netted at the 2017, 2019, and 2021 editions.
The Supporting Cast
Omar Marmoush had the option of representing Canada after his parents worked there for six years and acquired Canadian passports. However, the 24-year-old chose to play for the country of his birth and made his debut back in October 2021, scoring the only goal against Libya in a World Cup qualifier.
He’s been one of the revelations of the 2023-24 Bundesliga season, scoring six goals in his first 10 games for his new side Eintracht Frankfurt. One of the highlights was him stealing the show against reigning league champions Bayern Munich, scoring a goal and providing two assists in a 5-1 win.
Across all competitions, only four Bundesliga players have scored more goals than Marmoush this season (12), which is already his highest-scoring campaign. With the ability to play across the front three, Marmoush will be one to watch for the record AFCON winners.
Mostafa Mohamed is yet to score an AFCON goal in seven appearances, a streak the Egyptian faithful will hope comes to an end in Ivory Coast.
The striker’s form suggests he could break that duck soon as he has been the top scorer for Nantes in Ligue 1 since the start of last season, with 14 goals in 2,977 minutes.
The striker is strong in the air and will be critical at set-pieces for Egypt. Only three Ligue 1 forwards have won more aerial duels since the start of 2022-23 than Mohamed (109), who also ranks third for headed goals (5) and fifth for headed shots (25).
One of the major prerequisites for performing well in major tournaments is having a reliable goalkeeper. When you have two and one specialises in saving penalties, your chances of going deep skyrocket. This is one reason why Egypt always themselves among the favourites of the tournament.
One of the key components of Egypt’s ‘golden generation’ was Essam El-Hadary – one of Africa’s finest ever goalkeepers. Under his guidance as Egypt’s goalkeeper coach, Mohamed Abou Gabal – more commonly known as Gabaski – and Mohamed El Shenawy were the best in this department during the 2021 AFCON.
Gabal and El Shenawy, based on Opta’s expected goals on target model, prevented 3.83 and 3.29 goals – the two highest in the tournament – respectively.
El Shenawy was having an all-timer tournament before he sustained an injury in the round of 16 against Ivory Coast, with Gabal replacing him in the 88th minute. Gabal went on to be the hero in two penalty shootouts and even saved Sadio Mané’s first-half spot-kick in the final.
With both goalkeepers once again included in Egypt’s squad, we can expect to see a similar level of healthy competition among the pair.
The last AFCON was statistically Ghana’s worst performance at a major tournament. One draw from three games saw the Black Stars eliminated in the group stage.
For a team that made the semi-finals at least in every edition between 2008 and 2017, one slip-up would have been forgivable, but the warning signs suggested a dip had been coming. In the 2019 edition, Ghana scraped through the group, winning just one game. In the round of 16, the Black Stars lost on penalties to Tunisia.
The decline has been quite rapid and failure to go deep in Ivory Coast will see Ghana, a team ranked 11th in Africa, confirm their status outside the continent’s elite football countries.
Chris Hughton was appointed less than a year ago to help remedy the fall of Ghana football. The former Brighton coach has struggled to string good results together, with a win rate of 40%.
Goals have been hard to come by under Hughton. Eight in 10 games, stodgy football and a porous defence are what Ghanaians have grown used to when it comes to the national team.
As a result, expectations are very low heading into the tournament.
Training Camp U-Turn
The Ghana Football Association initially announced the Black Stars would be basing themselves in Johannesburg, South Africa for the 2023 AFCON. The announcement was met with extreme public outrage, outlining the difference in climate conditions between South Africa and host nation Ivory Coast. The average temperature in Johannesburg is around 15-17°C colder than that of Abidjan; it was a no-brainer to base themselves in West Africa to help acclimatise to similar conditions.
Ultimately, the decision was reversed as the players converged on Kumasi, Ghana. It is only the second time in the last 22 years the Black Stars have based themselves in their own country ahead of the AFCON.
AFCONs in January always come with their complications. The tournament’s timing has once again fuelled inter-continental conflict as African federations battle European clubs for their players.
CAF reached a touch-and-go agreement with European clubs for AFCON 2021 to release players as late as 3 January, although most clubs usually want to hold onto key players for longer to the detriment of African countries.
Athletic Bilbao delayed Iñaki Williams’ journey to Ghana’s camp because of illness and insisted he needed rest. It was a similar situation with Mohammed Kudus, with West Ham adamant he was injured, thus delaying his arrival in Kumasi.
Hughton will at least expect to call on the services of these players. However, Thomas Partey, Tariq Lamptey, Kofi Kyereh, Kamaldeen Sulemana and Joseph Aidoo all miss the tournament due to injury.
Baba Rahman and Fatawu Issahaku both opted out of the final squad for personal reasons, leaving Hughton short-changed.
André Ayew to Achieve Immortality
On a personal level, André Ayew could write his name in the AFCON history books even before the conclusion of the group stages in Ivory Coast.
This will be his eighth AFCON tournament – something only Rigobert Song (Cameroon) and Ahmed Hassan (Egypt) have previously managed.
The 34-year-old is also two games away from playing the most AFCON games. He is Ghana’s highest scorer in the AFCON with 10 goals as well, meaning any he scores in Ivory Coast will extend his record.
Ayew has scored in six of the previous seven tournaments – if he nets at AFCON 2023, he’ll set a new record and overtake Samuel Eto’o, Kalusha Bwalya and Asamoah Gyan for the most tournaments scored in.
Mohammed Kudus to Shine
There is a school of thought that if Kudus played in Cameroon two years ago, Ghana would have done better. There is no better way for the 23-year-old to back this theory than by playing a key role for the Black Stars this time around.
A little over a year ago, the former Ajax player showed the world what he’s capable of in Qatar, becoming the first Ghanaian to score two goals in a World Cup game.
Kudus has since been a revelation for West Ham this term and is the club’s second top scorer in all competitions with 10 goals, behind only Jarrod Bowen (14), while just 10 players have better non-penalty goals per 90 rates in the Premier League this season than his 0.56 (min. 3 goals).
He’s chipped in creatively as well, with Lucas Paquetá (37) the one West Ham player to create more chances in open play across all competitions than his 18 prior to the weekend draw with Bristol City.
Kudus’ work rate will also be a huge miss to West Ham while he’s away, as his 8.6 possession regains per 90 minutes is the best of all players in the Premier League in 2023-24 (minimum 300 minutes played).
Everything suggests that, if fit, Kudus will make his presence felt in the AFCON.
The goalkeeping position is usually the most stable in football. But that hasn’t been the case for Ghana since Hughton took over. Lawrence Ati-Zigi was in goal for the first four matches, Manaf Nurudeen stepped in for a couple of friendlies, then Richard Ofori made a return to the XI and has been number one for the past two games.
It is one of the crucial questions Hughton and his technical team need to answer before the tournament. Nurudeen didn’t make the AFCON squad and was replaced by Jojo Wollacott, who missed the 2022 World Cup due to injury.
The Islanders will be participating in a second successive AFCON, having only ever managed such a feat once before. The rise of Cape Verdean football is a remarkable one. As recently as 15 years ago, Cape Verde was never discussed seriously when it came to African football. After Portuguese coach João de Deus – who has since become the right-hand man of the renowned Jorge Jesus – brought numerous players from European leagues into the national team setup in 2009, it was a game-changer for the once-minnows.
The majority of the players on the national team were expatriate Cape Verdeans, who outnumbered those who resided on the islands. Most of the current generation of Cape Verde international footballers are based abroad, generally in Europe but also in Asia; some were not even born in the nation.
On their first ever AFCON appearance, they were placed in pot four but ended up as the highest-ranking country (51st) in Group A alongside Morocco (71st), South Africa (72nd) and Angola (83rd). Confidence was high as they progressed to the last eight after drawing with South Africa and Morocco before beating Angola.
In the quarter-finals they outshot Ghana and were unlucky to be knocked out after a spirited performance. Fatau Dauda, the Black Stars goalkeeper, was man of the match after making several spectacular saves. Eleven years down the line, the two teams will meet once again, this time in the first group game. Following the 2013 edition of the AFCON, Cape Verde broke into the top 30 of the FIFA rankings for the very first time.
Three consecutive draws were not enough to propel them out of the group in 2015, though. Unfortunately, they were eliminated on goal difference and went off the boil as their FIFA ranking plummeted.
However, the Islanders returned to the big time two years ago and reminded the continent of how good they can be when holding hosts Cameroon to a 1-1 draw and beating Ethiopia to qualify for the round of 16. They were knocked out by eventual champions Senegal.
Ryan Mendes remains one of the few native Cape Verdeans in the squad and he is undoubtedly the most experienced. He’s the country’s most-capped player with 67 and made his debut in 2010 at age 20.
His 15 goals are also the most scored for the Cape Verde national team and by default he becomes a player to watch for the Blue Sharks at this AFCON.
The 34-year-old has three AFCONs under his belt and captains Cape Verde these days. Now playing in the Turkish Süper Lig for Fatih Karagümrük, the left winger has two goals and an assist in his 13 appearances this season.
When the Mambas qualified for the AFCON in 1986, they had to wait 10 years before making a return. Progress was made as they qualified for back-to-back tournaments in 1996 and 1998 but they subsequently had to endure a 12-year wait to play in the continental showpiece again.
Mozambicans have once again had to wait for 13 years to be in Ivory Coast for the AFCON. It’s a privilege the people of Mozambique don’t take lightly because no one knows when they’ll be back again.
Despite making four AFCON appearances, Mozambique are yet to register a win, and that will be the target heading into this tournament. Chiquinho Conde’s team barely had any expectations at home because qualifying for the finals ahead of Benin and Rwanda threw the country into a state of ecstasy and can be seen as an achievement itself.
Now imagine the scenes if Mozambique earn their first AFCON win; after all, they are among the least-fancied teams in the tournament.
Atlético Madrid defender, Reinildo, is still recovering from an injury and it’s unclear whether he will be fit enough for the tournament. He is one of their key players and has 33 caps for the national team since making his debut in 2014.
Domingues Still Going Strong
Outside of Mozambique, he is referred to as Elias Pelembe. In his home country, they call him Domingues. He’s 40 years old and likely to be the oldest player to feature at the 2023 AFCON.
When the Mambas last competed in the AFCON in 2010, Domingues played in each of their games. He is the country’s most-capped player with 106 appearances to his name and the highest scorer (16) among players who are still active.
He started his career with Desportivo Maputo in Mozambique and travelled to South Africa where he played for five clubs including Supersport United and Mamelodi Sundowns. Nowadays he’s back home and representing UD Songo.
Domingues hasn’t scored for the national team since 2016 and will be keen to change that in Ivory Coast.
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