The stars that have flickered for 40 years, the Lions of the Atlas who haven’t roared in 46, the Panthers led by a totem in need of redemption and islanders dreaming of a fairytale run. That’s what this quartet represent, and the chase is on.
The Twilight of a Generation
This current squad did not become the fluid organism that it is overnight. Their origins are 2014, under respected manager Badou Zaki, known for taking the side to the AFCON final 10 years earlier in his first stint. This second stint saw him use over 70 players in a two-year period without having a core team.
When Herve Renard replaced him in 2016, the Frenchman profited from the large pool of talent Zaki had left, and he simply streamlined the team. By 2019, the Lions were AFCON favorites, but they crashed out on penalties in the round of 16.
Enter Vahid Halilhodžić, who, sensibly, did not tinker with his inherited team. They’ve become quite the team and have been since losing to Benin on penalties at the last tournament.
Lions’ Home Comforts
Halilhodžić, a Bosnian, has a well-drilled team while constantly incorporating young players to replace aging legs. These smooth transitions made their qualification into this tournament a breeze, finishing five points above runners-up Mauritania.
They scored 10 goals in six games, conceding just once. Halilhodžić’s men also demonstrated their power by cruising through the World Cup qualifiers with a perfect record – they scored 20 goals in six games. Again, they let in just one goal.
The temptation, based on these facts, is to the think the Atlas Lions will easily win this group – until a small fact is considered: since July 2019, Morocco have played all qualifiers and friendlies at home. The only three games played away were against Mauritania, Central African Republic and Burundi – hardly what you’d call testing.
As a result, their group matches in the coming competition could represent the side’s first proper challenge in years. That’s not to say their tag of favorites ahead of the competition is not merited. It is.
A Real Test Now
Following regular protocol, the North Africans were scheduled to play three of six games at home but ended up playing all in Morocco.
The first of their games was a 2-0 win over Sudan, in an originally scheduled home game. However, in October, Morocco beat Guinea-Bissau 3-0 in a game originally scheduled to be hosted by the west African country.
Luckily for Morocco, the Bissau-Guineans’ lack of a home stadium fit for international matches meant the north Africans got a rare chance to play hosts. Mind you, 72 hours earlier, the Atlas Lions thrashed Guinea-Bissau 5-0 in the home leg in Rabat.
The north Africans’ next game, meant to be an away trip to Guinea was rather played in Morocco following a coup d’état in Conakry which led Fifa and CAF to declared the hosts’ security situation as unsafe. Morocco won 4-1.
In the last of their games, a 3-0 win over Sudan was played in Rabat, instead of in Sudan. Once more, yet another coup d’état was the reason. The decision to relocate the game to Rabat was taken in collaboration with the Sudanese Federation and CAF.
Such a lucky sequence of coincidences has drawn snide comments in some quarters about underhand dealings by the rich Moroccan football authorities, who are generously supported by the nation’s royal family.
The Moroccan Football Federation are trying their best to make the players feel at home in Cameroon. They reportedly travelled with a five-tonne cargo flight, complete with personal chefs, ingredients to cook their food, their own water, security detail, mattresses, sterilised the entire hotel, and replaced hotel staff in close contact with players with their own.
The AFCON favorites aim to 46-year AFCON drought, and they are without their star man Hakim Ziyech.
Boufal Could Fill Ziyech Void
The ongoing row between Ziyech and Halilhodžić caused the former Ajax man to miss out on the AFCON squad after the Bosnian coach questioned his attitude.
The Chelsea forward’s last game for the Atlas Lions was a friendly game against Burkina Faso last year. He’s since been dropped from all six 2022 World Cup qualifiers with Halilhodžić, who will argue that he won all available points on offer without Ziyech.
Needless to say, Ziyech is an excellent chance creator, a role which Sofiane Boufal can take up. Despite featuring in all six World Cup qualifiers, the Angers forward wasn’t Halilhodžić’s go-to man after he started just one game.
However, the 28-year-old is expected to play a more prominent role in Cameroon after showing good form in Ligue 1 this season.
Across Europe’s big five leagues this season, Boufal has been one of the most prolific dribblers, with only Wolves’ Adama Traoré (8.9 per 90) averaging more per 90 minutes than the Moroccan.
Boufal has scored five goals and assisted three more in Ligue 1 for Angers this season – his eight goal involvements are already his most in a single league season since 2015-16 at Lille (15).
Without Ziyech’s ability to open up a defence, Halilhodžić can turn to Boufal who can create space and progress the ball with his proven dribbling ability.
Stars Desperate to End 40-Year Dimming Light
Since winning their fourth Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 1982, Ghana has failed to lift any major international trophy and their status as an African football powerhouse has all but diminished.
Former captain Asamoah Gyan, out of form and not playing competitively these days, was left out of the squad. That’s left Ghana’s 2021 AFCON roster with just three players from the 2012 edition, 10 years ago.
It’s the beginning of a new Black Stars, with new faces such as Kamaldeen Sulemana, Fatawu Issahaku, Benjamin Tetteh, Mohammed Kudus, Gideon Mensah all set to make their debut appearance in the AFCON.
Although these young players are less likely to dominate the African scene like their predecessors who reached the semi-finals of the AFCON from 2008-2017, they’re still considered as tournament favourites and shouldn’t have too many issues progressing from Group C.
Ghana Expected to Be Under Less Pressure
The team has gone through massive transitions after changing coaches twice in less than two years. As a result, Ghanaian fans are cautiously optimistic and, really, just hoping for the best.
Milovan Rajevac, who was re-appointed three months ago, has had very limited time with the full complement of his team; 50% of who are making their AFCON bow. The good news is that the Serbian coach was in similar circumstances in his first stint with the team. It was he who led a very young and inexperienced Ghanaian team to the final of the AFCON in 2010, and subsequently, the World Cup quarter-finals.
The 68-year-old has been promised $300,000 if Ghana wins the AFCON, but he will have to attempt to reach his target without the legendary Asamoah Gyan.
Gyan Shouldn’t Be a Big Miss
For the first time since 2006, Gyan will not be in Ghana’s AFCON squad. As constant as the northern star, Gyan scored in six different AFCON editions from 2006-2017.
However, a deeper dive into his tournament performances reveal the 36-year-old wasn’t very explosive.
In 2,309 minutes of AFCON action, Gyan scored just eight goals averaging a goal almost every 300 minutes. Despite being Ghana’s second-highest scorer in the competition with eight goals, the former Sunderland man only scored more than one goal at a tournament on one occasion – three in 2010.
That does not erase how incredible Gyan has been with the national team and remains the country’s all-time top scorer with 51 goals. Now, all that is in the past and replacements are needed.
When Jordan Ayew made his breakthrough into the senior team in 2010, many Ghanaians believed he would help reduce the goal-scoring burden on Gyan. The 30-year-old has gone on to score 18 goals in 73 caps. But suggestions that Jordan could be the heir apparent have been quashed by his switch in position.
The Crystal Palace forward has been played out wide for more than a year and has seen his productivity in front of goal take a hit.
He has scored just one goal (in December) in his last 46 Premier League appearances, spanning 2,974 minutes.
A positive is how creative Jordan has become, after moving to the wings. This has seen him create 20 chances from open play in the Premier League this season.
Richmond Boakye Yiadom, who plays for Beitar Jerusalem, will be expected to lead the line.
The striker has scored three goals and provided two assists in 933 competitive minutes in 2021-22.
In recent times, Ghana has had to rely on midfielders for goals in the AFCON with players such as Mubarak Wakaso, Christian Atsu, Emmanuel Agyemang Badu, and Andre Ayew weighing in.
Andre Ayew is the country’s all-time top scorer at the tournament with nine goals, but the captain is not prolific.
The Black Stars really have it all to do.
Consistency Is the Enemy
A minute of silence for the news that there will be no Didier Ovono for Gabon at an AFCON for the first time in over a decade. The goalkeeper seemed destined to play until he chose to retire, but coach Patrice Neveu is hearing none of it.
“He’s been a great servant of this team, and being the most-capped player in Gabonese history is proof. He is highly appreciated, but the decision is that Didier will not join us and it is just a technical decision,” said Neveu.
There’s room, however, for the experienced trio of Bruno Ecuele Manga, Lloyd Palun, and Denis Bouanga. Yannis N’Gakoutou – who had his international clearance request from France validated by FIFA – is a decent addition to the defensive line.
30-year-old Yrondu Musavu-King will also have the honour of being the only Indian-based player at this AFCON, with the defender playing his club football at Bengaluru.
We Have Our First Bonus Row!
The team had pre-tournament camping in Dubai, and before leaving for Cameroon, demanded all outstanding bonuses be paid.
According to Gabon All Sport, players refused to board the plane until this was done. Officials reportedly threatened to sack all the called-up players and take just Gabon-based players to the tournament, but nobody budged. Eventually, it was all settled.
A Redemption Exercise
After missing out on the 2019 AFCON, Gabon return with a blend of youth, promise, and plenty uncertainty.
Led by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabon has an outside chance of progressing from Group C. According to Opta’s AFCON tournament predictor, Gabon has a 57.8% chance of qualifying for the knockout rounds.
If the Panthers are to stand any chance of qualification, they’ll need Aubameyang to get the goals once again. The 32-year-old, who is set to feature in his fifth AFCON, hasn’t played since early December after being stripped of the captaincy at Arsenal.
The motivation to, perhaps, put himself in the shop window for a transfer at a time when it’s being rumoured that the likes of Barcelona want him could bring out the best in the striker. After all, he did finish as joint top-scorer at AFCON 2012 when Gabon finished as quarter-finalists.
For the moment, the Arsenal forward’s form hasn’t been great and he’s having one of his poorest ever seasons, with only four goals in 1039 Premier League minutes.
Look beyond these bleak numbers for a moment, and one notices that Auba’s underlying stats show that he’s still getting in good positions and being given good goalscoring chances.
He’s averaged a higher non-penalty xG per 90 (0.40) than his 2019-20 season (0.38) that he scored 20 non-penalty goals in his best-ever Premier League campaign for this metric. The issue is that he’s not converting these chances now – with his non-penalty shot conversion rate the lowest it has ever been in a Premier League season (12.1%).
Fans would have looked to Mario Lemina to shine if Auba doesn’t. He, like his more famous teammate, has recently tested positive for Covid and it’s unclear how his fitness will be affected.
In peak condition, the 28-year-old could be vital in the key games against Ghana and Morocco. A dynamic dribbler, Lemina is good at withstanding the press, creates space and is progressive with the ball. A box-to-box player, his ball distribution is not bad either.
Malagasy Inspiration Fires Comoran Dreams
Remember the story of the 2019 AFCON debutants Madagascar? Islanders, unfancied, compact play, a team ethos, and a pragmatic coach?
We’ve got a similar tale here in Comoros.
Madagascar, itself an island, is 288 times bigger than Comoros, but the smaller nation did what all dreamers do if they want to achieve – they worked hard. It was ironic that this predominantly French, Arabic and Comorian-speaking nation needed an English phrase to spur the team on.
“Yes, we can,” was the charge from the country’s former Vice President, Nourdine Bourhane when he met the team in their first, post-lockdown qualifier. The team adopted the slogan, continuing chanting it at the end of training sessions and before games.
The Scale of the Challenge
The country, perched on a volcanic archipelago, will be hoping to make history, knowing there’s a possibility to beat either of the floundering Ghana and the inconsistent Gabon. That game against Aubameyang’s Panthers is very crucial, because a strong performance can set them up for one of the available best of third-place spots.
Many fans of Les Coelacanths believe if they can stop Gabon’s all-time top scorer, Aubameyang, in their opening group game, then they stand a chance of advancing.
That may be true. But long before a ball will be kicked, coach Amir Abdou did not send encouraging words to his nation when the AFCON draw was done.
“We can’t say that the draw was kind to us, but it’s not surprising. The Comoros were placed in the fourth pot, there was a great chance to meet big teams. That will be the case with Ghana and Morocco.”
It may be just mind games, because these (dare we call them) minnows have shown a sense of purpose on their way to Cameroon, going back 15 years of slow, meticulous progress.
Probably the biggest goal threat for the Comorans is forward El Fardou Ben Nabouhane – he responds to Benny. Over the last three seasons in the Serbian top-flight, he’s averaged a goal every two games (30 in 60 apps) and is the third-highest scorer in that time.
Comoros’ key attacker started his career at Le Havre and moved to Greece in 2013 where he had a spell at champions Olympiakos. He has found success at Red Star Belgrade, where he has regularly finished their top scorer. He made his debut for Comoros in 2014, scoring 15 goals in 28 appearances.
However, only two of these were penalties – meaning he’s the highest scorer of non-penalty goals in that time frame.
A Trio to Watch
For Nabouhane to find the net, Comoros will have to create chances and that’s where Youssouf M’Changama comes in.
The 31-year-old has been one of the most creative players in the French second-tier in 2021-22, with nine assists and 52 chances created. These are the second-highest tallies in the competition, but he leads the way for open play chances created and expected assists.
Also quite decent is Faïz Selemani. He’s been class for Kortrijk in Belgium, where he keeps opponents busy with his packed skillset: set-pieces, long shot, above average finishing, knows how to thread mean pass, layoffs, crossing and dribbling. The attacking midfielder is proficient on the left, but is equally dangerous upfront.
Look out for Rafidine Abdullah, a defensive midfielder who can hit a mean long ball and breaks up play quite well.
Underrating May Be a Mistake
One gets the impression that the debutants are very fine with being underrated, and poor scouting from any of their three group opponents is what the islanders will hope for. It’s not like these guys play in their country’s low-quality local leagues.
Like Madagascar before them, most of their players are France-based players – 16 out of the squad of 27.
Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 is where you’d find most of them and, admittedly, they have none from a top three league side. But they make up for that lack of profile with energetic displays and a one-touch style which could serve them well in tournament football
A weakness in defence may be their undoing in a group filled speedy wingers and fast forwards. It’s something the second-lowest ranked team in the competition know, and something Swiss-based Rafidine Abdullah believes will be an exciting challenge.
“Everything we’ll experience in Cameroon will be new, it will be an adventure. This is a fairytale for us so even our weaknesses are things we are looking to learn about, fix as fast as possible and continue this story.”
Fairy tales, by their nature, can be happily ever after or see a humbling end?
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