Senegal and Cameroon have rich history and will meet for the ninth time at this year’s AFCON. The pair, on paper, are expected to be the top two but the Scorpions and Syli National are notorious and have other ideas as dark horses. Welcome to the group of death.
After years of disappointment, Senegal finally ended their trophy drought by winning the 2021 AFCON at the expense of Egypt. Despite a slow start, the Lions of Teranga started to look like champions-elect in the latter stages of the competition.
Senegal only scored once in the group stages and played out two goalless draws before qualifying for the knockout round. One of the goalless draws came against Guinea, who they will come up against once again in this year’s group stage.
Throughout 2023, Aliou Cissé’s side just lost one game, with 2024 starting on a winning note after they beat Niger 1-0.
Once again, Cissé can boast a glamorous squad led by Sadio Mané. The 47-year-old will be happy to have the services of Mané after having to do without him at the 2022 World Cup. Senegal still managed to go beyond the group stages without their star man, highlighting how deep the pool of talent is in the squad. Though there have been a few additions, it’s primarily still a similar squad from the last edition.
The big worry for a lot of Senegalese is whether the team can maintain the same level of intensity and quality after most of their key players moved to the Gulf Region in the past year. Édouard Mendy (Al-Ahli), Kalidou Koulibaly (Al Hilal), Abdou Diallo (Al-Arabi), Sadio Mané (Al Nassr), and Habib Diallo (Al-Shabab) have all made the journey from Europe to the Gulf.
Defending Champions Curse
Egypt remains the last country to defend their AFCON title, doing so in 2010 as the Pharaohs became the first side to win three consecutive AFCON trophies. It’s been 13 years and six tournaments since, and no country has managed to achieve that feat.
Only three countries have ever managed to retain the AFCON title in the history of the competition; Egypt (1957, 1959; 2006, 2008, 2010), Ghana (1963, 1965), and Cameroon (2000, 2002).
After defending their title in 2010, Egypt missed the next three tournaments from 2012 to 2015. Zambia, who won the 2012 edition, were eliminated in the group stages of the 2013 AFCON. Then Nigeria also failed to qualify for the 2015 AFCON after winning the trophy in 2013. 2015 champions Ivory Coast couldn’t go past the group stages in 2017.
After defying the odds to win the 2017 AFCON, Cameroon were only good enough to make the round of 16 in the following tournament. Algeria deservedly won the 2019 AFCON and continued to dominate after. They went into the 2021 AFCON knowing avoiding defeat in three games would see them equal the record for the longest unbeaten run in world football (37 games held by Italy). But the north Africans lost to Equatorial Guinea and subsequently couldn’t make it out of the group.
Clearly, recent defending AFCON champions have struggled. It’s either that teams have lost their X-factor after winning the title, or teams have just figured them out. Or maybe complacency has set in.
The challenge has been set and Senegal know exactly what to expect in Ivory Coast. There’s been a 40% increase in the prize money since the Lions of Teranga won it, with the new winner set to take home £5.5 million. Will that be enough motivation for the 2021 winners?
Mané Wants to Do It All Over Again
What a start to the year it’s been for Sadio Mané who opened the Bambali Stadium in his home town in Senegal and also got married to his long-time partner.
Mané is one of the most decorated African players in the 21st century. He won everything with Liverpool including the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, and UEFA Super Cup.
However, he is adamant that the AFCON trophy remains the best trophy he has won. The former Liverpool forward grew up seeing the disappointments of Senegalese teams that came so close to a maiden title but never won it.
To be the main man while making history perhaps makes it extra special for Mané. He scored three goals and provided two assists in Cameroon and was named player of the tournament.
Now 31 years old, Mané made a revelation to CAF Online that this will probably be his toughest AFCON.
“We know it won’t be easy but we will be there to do our best and try to go through every round. We are expecting a tough competition. This competition will be one of the strongest since I started playing in it because all the big countries are here and they all have their targets, but we will see what will happen.
“Firstly, winning the AFCON was the best trophy I have ever won in my life, and coming to do it again will be special and a big achievement. It’s been a dream to play in this competition since I was a kid and we will do our best,” he added.
Nowadays, the Senegal captain plays in the Saudi Pro League with Al Nassr where he has 12 goals and 6 assists in all competitions this season.
The Supporting Cast
Age isn’t on Mané’s side and with him no longer playing in as competitive a league as before, other players will have to take responsibility if Senegal are to retain their crown.
The Chelsea forward is yet to score his first Senegal goal and has only been limited to 238 minutes since making his international debut in November 2022.
At club level, only 12 players scored more non-penalty goals across the top five European leagues in 2023 than Jackson (17). Only six of those had a better minutes-per-goal ratio than he did (133 mins per goal).
One of Jackson’s strengths at a young age is his ability to find space and take up good goal-scoring positions. Of all players to play 600+ mins of Premier League football this season, he’s got the fourth-best non-penalty xG per 90 rate.
He could be one of the attacking options who can help ease the goal-scoring burden on Mané in Ivory Coast.
In the last AFCON, Senegal banked their hopes on an injured Sarr and still included him in the squad. Upon his return, he scored in the quarter-finals and provided an assist in the semi-finals. He brought a spark to the Senegalese team – something they lacked in the group stages.
This time he’s fit and has been on decent form for his new side Marseille. His six goal contributions (4 goals, 2 assists) are the fifth-highest by a Marseille player in all competitions this season.
Boulaye Dia has been one of the revelations in Serie A in the last couple of years. None of the 18 players to have scored 12+ Serie A goals since the start of last season have a shot conversion rate as good as Dia (27.0%), while only four players have scored more goals in the competition since then.
The Salernitana forward has scored 20 goals in Serie A since the 2022-23 season. Also, only Lautaro Martínez (+8.7) has outperformed his xG total in Serie A by more than Dia (+7.6) since the start of last season.
Abdallah Sima has been the talk of the Scottish Premiership this season scoring 10 goals and providing three assists, playing predominantly as a right winger.
The 22-year-old is on loan at Rangers from Brighton and has shown he can also play anywhere across the front three.
He’s viewed as one for the future with just four caps for Senegal but don’t be surprised to see Cissé call on him when the going gets tough.
In midfield, Lamine Camara may be tasked with some of the creative burden – which shouldn’t be too much of an ask from the Metz midfielder.
He’s the leading chance creator for Metz in all competitions this season (22) and Cissé will hope he can replicate similar numbers this AFCON.
Cameroon are one of the three countries to ever defend their AFCON title. They achieved that feat by beating Senegal on penalties in 2002. Only Egypt has more AFCON titles than Cameroon’s five.
The last title for the Indomitable Lions came in 2017 when the rest of the continent least expected it. Before a ball was kicked in Gabon, no one gave Cameroon a chance.
Preparations for that tournament were far from ideal and to make matters worse, many players, including Joël Matip and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting rejected the call-up. Against all odds, Hugo Broos won Cameroon’s fifth AFCON with a relatively inexperienced and unknown squad.
It wouldn’t be the last time Cameroon were involved in some form of drama for a major tournament.
Cameroon Controversy Continues
Following the early termination of his contract, Toni Conceicao was awarded £1.28 million in compensation by the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot).
The Portuguese coach led Cameroon to a third-place AFCON finish on home soil two years ago but was relieved of his duties weeks later. He then took his former employers to the world football governing body, FIFA.
Conceicao was dramatically replaced by Rigobert Song after the president of Cameroon Paul Biya asked the Federation to do so.
Conceicao had helped Cameroon reach the play-off stages of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, with Song subsequently crossing the line after beating Algeria on away goals.
Conceicao joined Winfried Schafer, who led Cameroon to AFCON success in 2002, Artur Jorge, and Denis Lavagne as coaches to have had money problems with the five-time African champions.
Just one month after the 2022 World Cup, André Onana retired from the national team after he was sent home during the tournament for a dispute with Song.
The latest controversy is Choupo-Moting being dropped from Cameroon’s final squad for the 2023 AFCON. Reports in Cameroon suggest that the technical team and the Bayern Munich forward are not on good terms.
It is believed Choupo-Moting’s habit of skipping international matches, especially friendlies, didn’t go down too well with the staff.
The 34-year-old, who has 73 caps for Cameroon, missed the friendlies against Russia and Senegal in October and as a result, has been dropped from the squad.
Will Onana’s Late Arrival Affect Them?
European clubs were ordered by FIFA to release African players for the AFCON by 3 January. However, Manchester United and Cameroon have been in negotiations that have led to André Onana being allowed to feature in the game against Tottenham Hotspur on 14 January, which is 24 hours before the Indomitable Lions face Guinea. Reports suggest he will miss the opening game as a result.
With Onana also missing the Zambia friendly and arriving so late to the camp, it leaves Song in a handicapped position as he may be without one of his key players for their crucial first group game.
According to Opta’s expected goals on target model, Onana has prevented 3.8 goals in the Premier League season – the fourth highest in the competition.
His save percentage of 71.9% is the third-highest by any goalkeeper in the Premier League this season.
In Onana’s absence, Fabrice Ondoa has deputised and with the Man Utd man arriving so late, Song could be forced to stick with Ondoa for at least the first game.
Can Aboubakar and Toko Ekambi Do It Again?
A glance at the top goalscorers chart from the 2021 AFCON shows just how dominant Cameroon were going forward. Vincent Aboubakar finished as top scorer with eight goals, while Karl Toko Ekambi was second in the race with five goals.
In scoring eight goals at AFCON 2021, Aboubakar equalled Laurent Pokou’s tally at the 1970 edition with Ivory Coast but fell one short of the all-time tournament record held by Zaire’s Ndaye Mulamba in 1974 (9).
The pair were scoring goals for fun but couldn’t lead their country to glory on home soil. Third place was a decent finish but the central African country will want to build on that this time around. In the absence of Choupo-Moting and Bryan Mbuemo (injury), Song will need these two to recreate their magic from the last edition.
Kaba Diawara may be a name that sounds familiar to Arsenal fans of the older generation. The French-born former Guinea international joined the Gunners in 1999 and is described as one of the unluckiest strikers in the Premier League.
In a must-win game for Arsenal at Elland Road, Arsène Wenger subbed Diawara on. He had a goal-bound effort cleared off the line and another shot seconds later hit the crossbar. That was the story of Diawara’s life in the Premier League.
He failed to register a goal for Arsenal, and one fan admitted: “Never have I seen one player hit the woodwork as many times in half a season as Diawara did in 1999. Everyone willed him on, but somehow the ball kept hitting the post.”
A quarter of a century years later, Diawara will be in the dugout for Guinea as he hopes to lead them to their first AFCON title. He will be hoping for more luck this time after his side were knocked out in the round of 16 by The Gambia in the previous edition of the tournament.
Guirassy’s Injury is a Worry
Serhou Guirassy would probably not believe it if anyone told him 11 years ago that he would challenge Harry Kane for the Bundesliga Golden Boot. Back then, he had just failed his trials at Auxerre, but that didn’t stop the striker who has now become a sensation in Germany.
Guirassy began the 2023-24 campaign on fire, becoming the first player to score eight goals from eight shots on target in his first four top-flight games of the season for VfB Stuttgart.
By matchday five, the 27-year-old had surpassed Robert Lewandowski’s record of having the highest-ever Bundesliga goals haul at such an early season stage. Slight injuries might have slowed the Guinean down a bit but he still has 19 goals in all competitions this season for Die Roten.
Unfortunately, Guirassy went off injured in the final pre-tournament friendly against Nigeria after just 26 minutes. The striker, who made his international debut in March 2022, has three goals so far for the Syli National.
In his absence, Mohammed Bayo will most likely step up to replace him. The 25-year-old has four Ligue 1 goals for Le Havre this season and also played every game at the 2021 AFCON.
Time for Keïta to Step Up
Since making his international debut in May 2014, Naby Keïta hasn’t seen much success for the Syli National.
The former Liverpool midfielder has over 50 caps and 11 goals for Guinea, but as a collective, Guinea’s performances at major tournaments have been abysmal. In 2015 and 2017, they were knocked out at the group stages of the AFCON and only made the round of 16 stage in 2019 and 2021.
For the quality Guinea possess, one would expect them to be reaching the last eight of the competition like they used to do in the early 2000s.
Now captain, Keïta has the responsibility of leading the Syli National back to where they previously belonged.
The Gambia are back again – the team that made every neutral smile. In the previous AFCON, they came to the competition as the lowest-ranked side (150th) and the lowest-ranked team to have ever competed in the tournament. They beat Mauritania and Tunisia and drew with Mali to progress from the group on what was their first attempt.
In the round of 16, The Gambia kept up their momentum and narrowly beat Guinea, a team they’ve once again been paired with. Despite holding hosts Cameroon to a goalless first half, The Gambia were eliminated in the quarter-final, losing 2-0.
Just like two years ago, the Scorpions return with an underdog tag but all other teams in this group will be wary of them nonethless. They needed two goals in the last 10 minutes in their final qualifier against Congo to qualify, and they managed them in dramatic style, with the equaliser coming in the 90th minute.
The Gambia tend to believe nowadays, and that’s their biggest asset.
With Sanfiet, Anything is Possible
Before the appointment of Tom Sanfiet in 2018, The Gambia hadn’t won a qualifier in five years. They were ranked 172nd in the world and Sanfiet had a dream of qualifying for a maiden tournament.
The Belgian travelled around Europe, at his own expense, speaking to players of dual nationality to convince them to play for The Gambia. As a result, six members of their 2021 AFCON squad had Italian roots.
Sanfiet, who has managed 10 different national teams, has made the team believe again, and with consistent success they’ll only aspire to reach higher heights. On paper, the 50-year-old likes to set his team up in a 4-3-3 that moves into a 4-5-1 without the ball.
The Gambia are tough to break down and are defensively disciplined, knowing their clinical attackers have what it takes to convert their limited chances. This approach may be seen as negative but it has served Sanfiet and The Gambia well so far.
Key players such as Assan Ceesay, Musa Barrow, Ablie Jallow, and Ebrima Colley will be crucial for Sanfiet if they are to replicate their heroics from the last edition.
Yankuba Minteh – Remember the Name
The Gambia were 2-0 down away from home in the last round of qualifiers for this AFCON. With 10 minutes to go, second-half substitute, Yankuba Minteh pulled one goal back on his international debut. The Gambia’s presence in Ivory Coast is at least in part because of the 19-year-old.
Despite making just one appearance for the Scorpions, the teenager has everything in his toolbox to become one of the wildcards for Sanfiet at this tournament. He has been impressive in the Dutch Eredivisie on loan at Feyenoord from Newcastle United, with three goals and one assist in 12 games, and he also has a goal in the Champions League this season.
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