The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations is upon us, so we had a chat with our editor, Jonathan Wilson, about every nation involved this year.
Starting with Group A, the group of the hosts, are we right to expect Egypt to top this group?
Egypt are massive favourites. They’re the most successful team in Cup of Nations history, it’s the fifth time they’ve hosted the tournament, winning the competition three of the previous four times they’ve hosted and the other time in 1974 they came third. Home crowds in Egypt are always big, always passionate and always create a hostile environment. In 2006, there was a very good Egypt team that went on to win in 2008 and 2010 as well – but they really made use of home advantage. You saw referees being intimidated, for instance in the semi-final there was a penalty that wasn’t given to Senegal and in the final Côte d'Ivoire felt very aggrieved by the route they were taken on to the final.
I think you can expect Egypt to use their home advantage to the maximum and they’ve also just got a really good side – Mohamed Salah is probably the most technically accomplished player in Africa and almost a guarantee for goals. They’ve got quite a settled team, people like Ahmed Hegazi at the back who had a very good tournament two years ago when Egypt (returning after a seven-year absence largely for political reasons) got to the semi-final. The one slight is in qualifying – they did finish second behind Tunisia in the group, but Egypt are absolutely overwhelming favourites to win the competition, and of course the group as well.
Who in Group A can come closest to challenging Egypt?
The main challenge to Egypt in Group A will come from DR Congo. They’re still under Florent Ibengé who’s unusually a local coach and has been able to really stamp his authority over the team. He’s been there for five years now and I think he proved himself as a very tactically astute coach in Gabon two years ago. They finished top of their group last time, gave us some great moments and went out to Ghana in the quarter final. There’s definitely a sense of potential to reach the heights that the team of the seventies did. They’ve got great attacking talent with Yannick Bolasie, Cédric Bakambu as well and then Arthur Masuaku at the back who Premier League fans will know too. They did struggle a bit in qualifying which will be a concern, drawing three games out of the six and they finished second behind Zimbabwe who they’ll face in this group. But you’ll imagine Group A will be Egypt top with DR Congo second.
Egypt, DR Congo, Uganda, Zimbabwe
On to Group B then, how will Nigeria get on?
Group B’s slightly odd in that none of the four sides qualified for Gabon two years ago with Nigeria the biggest team in there. Their Cup of Nations history is pretty tortured, having won it three times but they’d certainly feel they should’ve won it more often than that being the biggest nation in Africa and having a great footballing tradition. Gernot Rohr has been in charge for three years now and I think he’s got on top of the job in a way that a lot of foreign coaches haven’t. He hasn’t really faced the same hostility from the media that the likes of Berti Vogts faced. And they’ve got familiar names in the likes of John Obi Mikel, Alex Iwobi, Wilfried Ndidi – Kelechi Iheanacho hasn’t even made the squad.
They were top scorers in qualifying which on the face of it bodes well but even that comes with the caveat that being able to hammer Libya and the Seychelles probably doesn’t mean a huge amount when you reach the later rounds of the Cup of Nations. And there is the worry that in the two games against South Africa, who finished second in that group, they lost to them at home and drew away. At the minute you feel that this Nigeria side is capable of battering the weaker sides, but can they really take on the better sides? And the truth is that because we haven’t seen them in top class competitive action for so long, that’s very difficult to know the answer to.
And the rest?
Guinea are probably the second side in Group B. They're managed by Paul Put, a Belgian coach who left Belgium under a cloud of match-fixing allegations, though there's certain evidence to suggest organised crime groups put pressure on him. He's got a very good reputation in Africa, doing a good job at Burkina Faso, and he knows the environment very well. Guinea are one of those sides who, until Naby Keïta came along, perhaps didn't have an outstanding star that the vast majority of global fans will be able to name but they've got a very good record at the Cup of Nations. A runner-up in 1976 and they've been quarter-finalists four times in the last 15 years. They didn't make it to Gabon two years ago, but this is probably their best squad since the seventies at least. Their qualifying campaign was pretty run-of-the-mill, finishing above Côte d'Ivoire but they did draw three of their games. The suggestion from qualifying is that they perhaps don't finish off the games that they dominate.
The other two sides in Group B are sides that have never previously qualified for the Cup of Nations in Madagascar and Burundi. Madagascar have suddenly taken on this importance in African football because of the CAF president, Ahmad Ahmad. With his ascension to power has come this surge of Madagascar's form. Their best-known player is probably Faneva Imà Andriatsima who plays for Clermont Foot in the French second division. Realistically, I think they'd be very happy if they got a result against Burundi and didn't go home pointless. Apart from Saido Berahino, Burundi is really a squad without any names that leap out. They've got Gaël Bigirimana who plays for Hibs but these are two fairly weak sides and I expect Nigeria and Guinea to go through fairly comfortably.
Jonathan’s prediction: Nigeria, Guinea, Madagascar, Burundi
Read Jonathan's guide to Groups C & D here.
And if you enjoyed that, you can read articles from our most recent issue here.