Previewing the 2008 African Cup of Nations – History on the hosts’ side

The 2008 African Cup of Nations gets underway on Sunday, and while many managers and fans of Premier League clubs will be hoping that it’s an injury-free competition for their players, the objective there for each of the 16 clubs is to be the one hoisting the trophy at the end.

The 26th edition of the competition is being hosted by Ghana, and considering that the hosts have won the tournament on the last two occasions, with Tunisia winning it as hosts in 2004, and Egypt hosting and winning the most recent edition in 2006, the star-studded host team should feel pretty good about their chances.

But, there are several other squads looking to keep Ghana from winning a record-tying fifth title, in Didier Drogba and the Ivory Coast, Yakubu and Nigeria, and Samuel Eto’o and Cameroon, to name a few.

Here’s the rundown of each group, along with the names to watch in each side. There are a lot of familiar names, but there are also a few that you should keep an eye out for, because one of them could be Africa’s next big import to major European football.

Group A

The hosts are the favorites in the competition, so naturally they’re the pick to finish on top of Group A.

There are a lot of recognizable names leading the way for Ghana, though midfielder Stephen Appiah won’t be among them, as he’ll miss the competition due to injury.

But, even without Appiah, the Black Stars’ midfield is a force, with Chelsea’s Michael Essien and Portsmouth’s Sulley Muntari leading the way in Appiah’s place.

But, their place atop the group isn’t a given, with a strong Morocco team looking to make their mark. Striker Marouane Chamakh has an amazing strike rate for his country (30 goals in 39 appearances), so you can fancy him to add at least a few more to his total in the coming days. But, he won’t be doing it all on his own, with Marseille’s Tarik Sektioui able to make a big impact from the wing.

Guinea and Namibia will be looking to make passage difficult for the two favorites, and if there is a dark horse in this group, it’s Guinea, who have made the quarterfinals of the competition the last two times.

However, Namibia, who won their qualifying group ahead of a pretty darn good Congo team, won’t go quietly, so don’t be surprised if they take a point off of either Ghana or Morocco.

In the end though, I’ll take the two best teams in the group to finish on top and advance to the quarters, with the host team going through as the winner.

Group B

This group may well be the most intriguing, with two former winners in the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, and a Mali side that has made the semis in two of the last three competitions.

It’s almost a little unfair to put the Ivory Coast and Nigeria in the same group, but that means the fans at Sekondi Stadium will be in for a delightful encounter on Monday.

Where do I start with both sides?

For the Ivory Coast, the runner-up to Egypt two years ago, it starts with the strike force, led by Chelsea marksman Didier Drogba, who recovered from his knee injury in time to be a key part of his country’s push for a second title.

But, it doesn’t end there, as there aren’t enough places for all of the quality attackers in their squad, from brothers Arouna (Sevilla) and Bakari (Nice), Boubacar Sanogo (Werder Bremen), Aruna Dindane (Lens), Abdul Keita (Lyon), and Drogba’s Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou.

They could likely start a different lineup in each of their group matches and still be formidable, which speaks volumes about their depth up front.

They’re solid elsewhere as well, in a defense led by Arsenal’s Kolo Toure and Bolton’s Abdoulaye Meite, and a midfield featuring Kolo’s brother Yaya, and Tottenham’s Didier Zokora.

But, the Nigerians might be a little offended about the comment about the Ivorians’ strike force, with their quartet of Premiership marksmen in Portsmouth’s Kanu and John Utaka, Newcastle’s Obafemi Martins, and Everton’s Yakubu.

Mali might be the most unpredictable of any of the 16 sides. If they bring their ‘A’ game, they could very well win the whole thing. But, on the flip side, they could face an early exit. They’ve only been in the competition four times previously, but all four times, they’ve made it to the semifinals.

They’ve got the talent to make such a run again, led by a talented midfield that includes Real Madrid’s Mahamadou Diarra, Sevilla’s Seydou Keita, and Liverpool’s (for now) Momo Sissoko. Fredi Kanoute has been in great form for Sevilla this term, and if he brings that form to Ghana, he could fire his country past the two favorites.

Benin won’t be left out of the conversation though, as they’ve got quality up front as well, in UEFA Cup joint-top scorer Razak Omotoyossi, Henrik Larsson’s strike partner at Helsingborg. The 22-year old could stamp himself a move to one of Europe’s bigger leagues with a standout performance against three of Africa’s best sides.

But, his best won’t be enough to lift Benin to the quarters, as the Ivory Coast (group winners) and Nigeria (runners-up) should go through to the final eight, though watch out for Mali – if they decide to show up.

Group C

In Group C, it’s all about the holders and five-time winners Egypt, and four-time winners Cameroon.

Egypt will be without Mido, who’s still recovering from injury, but then again, things may be better without him, considering you never know what to expect from him, with his unpredictable attitude.

The Pharaohs should be fine without him though, with Emad Moteab (37 caps/17 goals) and Amr Zaki (38 caps/21 goals) rivals domestically (Moteab plays for Al-Ahly, Zaki for Al-Zamalek) but quite the duo as international teammates.

Cameroon manager Otto Pfister has just been in his post since October, but he’s no stranger to the competition or to African football. And he’ll be seeing many familiar faces, both from his time at Egyptian side Al-Zamalek, and his most recent club job, at Sudanese side Al-Merreikh, who he left to take his current post.

Cameroon have made at least the quarterfinals in each of the last five competitions, so you’ve got to favor their chances of making it six in a row, even though they may not be the same force they were only a few years ago.

Still, they’ve got the pieces to make a run and are my pick to top Group C, thanks in large part to highly-rated Espanyol keeper Carlos Kameni, who might be the best shot-stopper in the competition.

Kameni’s job will be made easier by a defense led by the experienced Rigobert Song that surrendered only four goals in their qualifying campaign, and Barca hit-man Samuel Eto’o will be hoping to fire the Lions to a record-tying fifth title (and his third).

Sudan is also a former champion, but their lone title came in 1970, and their upcoming appearance in marks their first time in the competition since 1976, when it was only an eight-team event.

While Sudan and the group’s other combatant, Zambia, might not be serious threats to actually win the competition, neither can be overlooked. Sudan finished ahead of Tunisia in their qualifying group, which is no small feat, and the same can be said of Zambia finishing level on points (and ahead on tiebreakers) with South Africa in their qualifying group.

Whether or not they can channel those strong performances into success in Ghana remains to be seen, but because Egypt and Cameroon are far from invincible, so anything can happen.

Group D

While Group B looks to be pretty tough, it might be Group D that’s actually the Group of Death, with all four sides capable of making it past the group stage.

Angola, who will host the next African Cup of Nations in 2010, haven’t advanced past the first round in their previous three appearances. But, they had a very respectable showing in their World Cup debut in Germany, and easily topped their African Cup of Nations qualifying group, scoring 16 goals in six games (4 wins, 1 draw, 1 defeat). We’ll get to see what Sir Alex Ferguson saw in new signing Manucho, who will likely lead the attack with Flavio.

South Africa won the title in 1996, and finished second and third in 1998 and 2000, but have been eliminated in round one the last two times, and in 2006, failed to score a single goal in their three group games.

So, a good performance is imperative, with all eyes on them with the calendar quickly moving towards the 2010 World Cup. Blackburn striker Benni McCarthy won’t be leading the way up front though, as the country’s all-time top scorer was omitted from the squad. Bafana Bafana do have the best names in the competition in 20-year old striker Excellent Walaza and midfielder Surprise Moriri, who would greatly help their team’s hopes by living up to their first names.

Senegal have made at least the quarterfinals in each of the last five competitions, and finished fourth two years ago in Egypt. They’re an experienced bunch, and their cause will be helped by the presence of Bolton’s El-Hadji Diouf, who retired from the team in October, and came back just as quickly.

2004 champs Tunisia are the other favorite to progress from Group D, and have made at least the quarterfinals five of the last six times. Their most well-known player is Birmingham defender Rahdi Jaidi, who will be joined by a club teammate in midfielder Mehdi Nafti. The man to watch out for is naturalized Tunisian citizen and Toulouse forward Francileudo dos Santos (34 caps/20 goals), though fellow forward Amine Chermiti, who is one of the continent’s top young talents, will have the chance to showcase his skills on the big stage.

This group could turn out to be a tight one, depending on what we see from South Africa and Angola, but I’ll take Senegal to win the group and Tunisia to also go through as runners-up.

Tournament Schedule

Group Stage: January 20-31
Quarterfinals: February 3 & 4
Semifinals: February 6 & 7
Third-Place Match: February 9
Final: February 10

Update: Ghana defeated Guinea 2-1 in the opening match of the tournament. Portsmouth’s Sulley Muntari scored the winner in the 89th minute to give the hosts the three points.

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Ghana 2-1 Guinea - Muntari secures 3 points for the Black Stars