We look ahead to Group D at AFCON 2023 with our group stage preview. Algeria will look to make up for a terrible showing at the last edition, while Burkina Faso have made the semi-finals in three of the last five AFCON tournaments. Mauritania and Angola are the outsiders, but will be hoping to cause an upset.
At the last Africa Cup of Nations tournament, Algeria served a masterclass in how not to defend a title. The Fennecs were unrecognisable from the team that slalomed to the 2019 trophy, due to being predictable as well as having a lack of freshness in the squad.
It has also been suggested that being unbeaten in 35 games as of January 2022, Djamel Belmadi’s team were obsessed with besting Italy’s 37-game world record. “They seemed to be playing for a draw, rather than going for a win,” notes football journalist Oluwada Lotfi.
That group stage exit was the wakeup call required, and the engines have been rebooted, bidding goodbye to veterans like 2014 BBC African Footballer of the Year Yacine Brahimi. There now seems to be a deliberate tilt toward youth, with just five notable players in this year’s AFCON squad over the age of 30: Sofiane Féghouli (now more box-to-box than attacking midfielder), Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani, the combative Baghdad Bounedjah and defensive stalwart Aïssa Mandi.
Longstanding first choice keeper Rais Mbolhi, 37, who was approaching his 100th cap, got injured just as the final squad was announced. He’s replaced by Saudi-based Moustapha Zeghba. French Ligue 2 shot-stopper Anthony Mandréa, whose performance in a September friendly was commanding, will be in goal.
Algeria have tried to fix notable flaws that allowed Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire to gut them on the counter at the last AFCON. Belmadi, who was a bundle of nerves on the touchline at the last tournament, has to be calmer this time.
At the 2021 AFCON, Algeria scored just one goal from shots totalling 4.9 expected goals (xG) in their three group stage games as they were sent home early. Their 2.2% shot conversion rate was only better than Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania (who didn’t score at all).
A stickler for using a back four, the manager is expected to go with full-backs Youcef Atal of Nice and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Rayan Aït-Nouri. Both are attack-minded but can be caught out defensively. Mandi is past his best, but Belmadi stubbornly sticks with him at centre-back.
However, this defence has now conceded just eight goals in their last 19 games. There’s a quiet confidence returning to this hungry team.
The Fennecs played 10 games in 2023, winning seven and drawing three. Key among the wins was a morale-boosting 1-0 away victory against reigning African champions Senegal, who had not lost at home in nearly 10 years before the game.
The Key Men
Former Manchester City star Mahrez has lost none of his magic despite taking his talents to Saudi Arabia, and he’s a sure starter. Across the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League, the 32-year-old has both created the most chances for his Al-Ahli teammates in the competition (60) and has the highest expected assists (xA) total of 7.9.
Despite Mahrez’s talents, the loss of Algeria’s top scorer in qualifying, Mohammed Amoura, to injury mid-December is a huge blow. He had 13 goals in 15 Belgian top-flight games for Union Saint-Gilloise before being sidelined.
Goals, then, will have to come from veteran striker Slimani (the former Leicester City forward who now plays in Brazil with Coritiba) and the Qatar-based Bounedjah. The physically solid duo of Ismaël Bennacer (only just returning from a lengthy knee injury in December) and Nabil Bentaleb could man defensive midfield, while the experienced Sofiane Feghouli partners Youcef Belaïli just behind the main forwards.
In 2015, Belaïli was controversially suspended for testing positive for cocaine, but since his return, has exploded. Algeria coach Belmadi trusted him when no one else did, and he’s now one of the highest paid players in Africa.
Indeed, added to Feghouli and Belaïli, the team has two other players ready to slot in, depending on the opposition: Hicham Boudaoui (closer to Bennacer in style) and the exciting Farès Chaïbi from Eintracht Frankfurt, whose offensive midfield talent means he’ll be in a top tier European club soon.
Look out also for Zinéddine Belaïd in central defence, one of the top defenders playing in Africa today. He may not start ahead of Mandi and Dortmund’s Ramy Bensebaïni, but he’s been ready for the big time for a while.
Algeria know that despite finishing with 16 out of a possible 18 points in the qualifiers, they are far from guaranteed to bulldoze their way to a third AFCON title.
At a time when many African nations are hoovering players up from the diaspora, Burkina Faso have stubbornly looked to homegrown options. Until fairly recently, it was common to have a significant number of key players of the national team, the Stallions, sourced from home.
The explosion of well set-up private academies in the country (and in neighbouring Ivory Coast) that continue to churn out quality youth players means this practice will continue for a while longer.
Local media have begun labelling the team ‘nearly men’, and it’s not hard to see why. In 2013, they lost 1-0 to Nigeria in the final and reached the semi-finals in 2017 and 2019. Led by a coach determined to exorcise his own AFCON demons, could Burkina Faso charge their way into the last four once more?
A Coach Sitting on Tenterhooks
Hubert Velud was probably thrilled at the good fortune of leading Togo’s most accomplished football generation, which included Emmanuel Adebayor, to the 2010 AFCON. That was before gunmen attacked the team bus two days before the tournament kicked off, leading to the team’s withdrawal.
Eleven years later, Velud was sacked by the Sudanese football federation on the eve of AFCON 2021 – despite qualifying them. The team had recorded a string of poor results in the months leading up to the tournament.
Now, having qualified the Stallions for this edition, the 64-year-old is faced with mutiny from within. The heads of the country’s powerful Premier League clubs have been lobbying for his sacking since October. They accuse him of – in the words of ASFA Yennenga president Armand Béouindé – “nothing new and nothing fresh since he replaced [former coach] Melo Kamou.” Keep in mind that Melo was asked to step aside after a semi-final finish in Cameroon. Still, as we head into AFCON 2023, there has been no cogent reason given.
As it stands, the only person standing in the way of a sacking for the Frenchman is the President of the Burkina Faso Football Federation, who took the bizarre decision to axe the very popular Melo Kamou.
Style of Play
Bertrand Traoré remains the leader of the team, even though he’s barely had any playing time with Aston Villa this season. He is one of those players who assume god-like status when they pull on the national team kit. Even at 80% match readiness, he’ll likely start.
In the last few months, Velud gave the 28-year-old limited minutes; yet, his goal and two assists contributed to the four point-haul to leave the team second in World Cup qualifying. There is always a temptation to play Traoré upfront, but at the last AFCON he flopped in that role and thrived when shunted to the right side of midfield. A better option will be Toulouse’s Mamady Bangré or Abdoul Tapsoba.
Velud has played a fluid 4-4-2 that morphs into a 4-3-3 to good effect, keeping the direct, counter-attacking style Burkina Faso are known for. Hervé Koffi remains the preferred goalkeeper, while Edmond Tabsoba and captain Issoufou Dayo will be at centre-back. Abdoul Guiébré is usually at left-back and Luton Town’s Issa Kaboré is expected to make a return from injury in time to feature at right-back.
Bayer Leverkusen star Tabsoba is one of the best defenders in Europe at carrying the ball out from defence – no defender in the Bundesliga this season has averaged more ball carries (27.7) or more progressive ball carries (14.8) per 90 than he has.
France-based Gustavo Sangaré has played well when partnered with Blati Touré, Ismahila Ouédraogo and Bertrand Traoré midfield. Rising star Dango Ouattara (Bournemouth) is a certain starter in most games.
More than decent options on the bench include Tanzania-based Stephane Aziz Ki, an incredibly exciting prospect: a technically sound metronome capable of some wizardry in central midfield. Adamo Nagalo – who we picked as one of our AFCON players to watch – is being groomed to replace the slowing Dayo, whose lack of place is targeted by smart opponents.
All in all, fans of the Stallions will likely aim to finish second in the group behind Algeria, after which the permutations could favour them towards another berth in the last eight. From there, it’s anyone’s game.
Before anything, let’s wish Algeria, Burkina Faso and Angola good luck in their group games against Mauritania’s goalkeeper, Babacar Niasse. He’s 6-foot-5 and barely needs to stretch his arms to snatch balls from corners and free kicks. Teams will need to be clever against the 27-year-old Guingamp shot-stopper.
Niasse is part of a team that continues to be one of the most fascinating stories in recent AFCON history. Only a decade ago, Mauritania were regularly forfeiting international football matches due to a lack of commitment or dearth in talent. The story, now, is starkly different, and the country now considers AFCON qualification something of a must-have.
At the last AFCON, they included then 16-year-old midfielder Beyatt Lekweiry, which signaled their confidence in their emerging young players. He did not make it to Ivory Coast this year, but plenty of young talent will have their chances in this Les Mourabitounes team that is making a third successive tournament appearance.
The mentality of this team is worth noting, having managed qualification despite being docked three points and three goals for fielding an ineligible player against DR Congo. They managed 10 points from six matches, two points behind group winners, DR Congo.
Punching Above their Weight
Following the building of basic football infrastructure and other ancillary investments through the FIFA Forward programme, it should take about 10 years for Mauritania to produce a steady stream of homegrown talent.
For now, the plan has been to get as many Senegalese-Mauritanians as possible into the national team. As many as 16 of the current squad were eligible to play for Senegal. Meanwhile, in coach Amir Abdou, they have found a man who specialises in punching above his weight.
It was he who led Comoros to their first AFCON in 2021, where a famous victory against Ghana sent them to the last 16. That’s what he’s known for. Less mentioned is the fact that he was coaching Mauritania’s biggest club team, FC Nouadibhou, at the same time as coaching the Comoros national team.
In charge since March 2022, Abdou aims to improve on the work of former Mauritanian coaches Didier Gomes and Corentin da Silva from the last two tournaments (one goal and no win in 2019, no goals and no win in 2021).
Mauritania’s recent performances have burnished Abdou’s reputation as a no-nonsense, team-first approach kind of guy.
A Team of Grafters
There are several decent players, but the team is heavily reliant on the collective rather than individual brilliance. That said, three players can be called the stars of the team. One is Hemeya Tanjy, one of the most expensive transfers from the Mauritanian domestic scene after he was acquired for just over $1 million by Libyan side Ittihad Tripoli from FC Nouadibhou. He scored twice in qualifying.
He usually partners another star player, former Fulham striker Aboubakar Kamara. The team’s top scorer in qualifying with three goals, he is the captain and the most technical player in the squad. A reliable source of goals, it was his strike that sealed qualification for AFCON 2021. Together with Tanjy, they scored more than 100 goals in the local league before going abroad.
The third big name is the recently-emerged Aboubakary Koïta, who was top scorer in the Belgian top flight (until recently) with 11 goals. He famously admitted to opting for the land of his mother’s birth because “my father’s country [Senegal] was taking too long to notice me.” Look out for his dead ball abilities as well.
Souleymane Anne, who was a teenage forward in the team’s 2019 AFCON debut, is now mature enough to play a more impactful role from the bench. TP Mazembe right-back Ibrahim Keita can also lay claim to being one of the best in Africa, and his offensive forays should be key.
Entertaining football should not be expected from Les Mourabitounes, but a hardworking, all-running side should.
Historically, the Pelancas Negras have huffed and puffed, but rarely brought the house down. Their status as the archetypal mid-level African team was underlined when coach Pedro Gonçalves described the team as “the weakest in [Group E].” To say this in a group that includes Mauritania gives an insight into the realities of the two-time quarter-finalists.
It’s actually a minor miracle that they are making their return to the tournament considering the array of organisational problems besetting them in the last few years. Indeed, local media generally believe that finishing second in qualifying (with nine points) behind Ghana was only possible because Central African Republic (seven points) and Madagascar (three points) were not very good.
A lot of credit must go to Gonçalves, who has huge respect in the country. The Portuguese started from Angolan club football a decade ago, where his Primeiro de Agosto side played delectable attacking football. His scouting eye convinced authorities to make him the Under-17 national team coach, and he rewarded them with a round of 16 berth at the 2019 U17 World Cup.
Making the step up for the senior team has not been easy for Gonçalves, and his mix of youth and experienced players is not consistent. There has been a lot of experimentation as he has looked for a reliable core, and like many teams at recent AFCONs, Angola have also looked at diasporan players to shore up the talent pool. Several of the squad heading to the AFCON are also eligible to play for neighbouring DR Congo through family ties.
A major setback was the withdrawal of Fiorentina attacker M’bala Nzola in December in what is thought to be a career decision. “He did not want to risk losing his place at the club,” says football analyst Jose Sardinha. Some have said that the 27-year-old checked out because he was not confident about the quality of preparation and facilities from the football federation.
Trusting the Process
The team is in transition, and a noticeable area to improve is scoring. Since September, the team has managed just two goals in seven games (as of the time of publishing). Blessed with a number of flamboyant players, this team badly needs goals.
They managed just six goals in six qualifying matches, which is why the decision not to call up locally based Gilberto (Petro Atlético) was baffling. A very direct attacking midfielder, he is not afraid to take on opponents and progresses the ball well.
For those in the squad, the Ligue 1-based Jérémie Bela is favoured. He opted to play for Angola at 28 once he realised he was unlikely to get a place in the DR Congo team – and it’s not hard to see why. Bella shoots a lot but does not often score, in addition to being technically limited.
How Do They Line Up?
Angola have gone with a back three in recent qualifiers. Based on those games, expect the excellent shot-stopper Neblú in goal, and the back three to consist of Jonathan Buatu, Núrio Fortuna and star defender Kialonda Gaspar. For full-backs, Tó Carneiro, a workaholic not afraid to bomb forward with good link-up play, will be on the left while Loide Augusto is on the right.
The experienced duo of Fredy and Manuel Cafumana (known by all as ‘Show’) as well emerging star Manuel Keliano could be in midfield.
Upfront is Gelson Dala, who dazzled for Angolan giants Primeiro de Agosto and was a target of several top African clubs after scoring 23 goals in 27 games – helping them win the Angolan top flight title in 2016. He signed for Sporting CP in Portugal, where he played just once in three years for the first team.
After being bounced around on loan a few times, he has been in Qatar since 2021. There’s always a buzz whenever he’s on the ball, because he is exciting. He is likely to partner Cagliari’s 21-year-old Zito Luvumbo, named among the world’s best 60 young players of 2019 by The Guardian.
Mabululu, with six goals in seven Egyptian Premier League games for Al Ittihad Alexandria in Egypt, is yet to translate that form for the national team and will likely come off the bench.
This will be Angola’s ninth appearance in the African Cup of Nations, and they are expected to have another underwhelming tournament.
Want more AFCON preview content? We’ve got previews on the other five groups and 20 teams – they can be found by clicking the links below: