Who are the favorites: Senegal, Nigeria, and Egypt?
The 32nd edition of the biggest football tournament in Africa, the Africa Cup of Nations, is at our doorstep. Soon, 24 national teams will set foot in the land of Egypt to battle it out for the coveted cup. Amongst these teams, a number of powerhouses will be present, many of which are earmarked as favorites to win the tournament. These include amongst others, West African giants Senegal and Nigeria, as well as the host nation itself, Egypt. Below, we delve deeper into each of these three countries’ prospects and chances of winning the cup.
Despite being one of the most consistent sides in Africa, one finds it hard to believe that Senegal have never lifted the AFCON trophy in 14 previous appearances at the tournament. Rather, the team’s best showing at the tournament was when they became runners-up to Cameroon during the 2002 finals. In the last edition of the tournament, the Teranga Lions went out at the quarter-final stage, having arrived at the tournament as favorites. However, this is expected to change as the Senegalese side has been able to rediscover their form over the qualifying stages of the AFCON tournament. As such, they head to Egypt with their heads high and believing that they stand a good chance of winning the cup considering the quality of players at their disposal.
During the AFCON qualifying stages, the Teranga Lions maintained an unbeaten streak of six games in the qualifiers, winning 5 games and drawing one, and ultimately amassing the highest points gathered by a team in the qualifiers (16). While this may be a confidence booster on its own, it counts for nothing when the stage is set for the AFCON tournament. Nevertheless, Senegal will be counting on their big players to show up at the tourney.
The talent at Senegal’s disposal epitomizes little or no doubt that Senegal can go all the way and win the cup. Central to the Senegalese squad and ultimately the carrier of the team is Liverpool forward Sadio Mane. The 27-year old’s sizzling form in the recently ended 2018/2019 English Premier League season sent tongues wagging and ultimately put him in the conversation of being the best African player alongside his teammate Mo Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Mane scored a record 22 league goals in the English Premier League in what has been a season to remember for the Senegalese man who also happened to have just clinched the coveted UEFA Champions league with his Livepool side, which will likely put him in contention for the Ballon d'Or award. Senegal will be hoping Mane turns up for the national side and uses his silkiness on the left flank to terrorize opposition defenses and carry the team to glory.
The showdown in Egypt provides a chance for Senegal to avenge the injustices of the past and finally bring home the AFCON title that has very much been elusive for the Senegalese. The Teranga Lions will begin their campaign against the Taifa Stars of Tanzania on June 23rd, later wrapping up their group fixtures against Algeria and Kenya on June 27 and July 1 respectively.
It will be the fifth time record Africa Cup of Nations tournament that Egypt have hosted and being on home soil will be enough to propel the Egyptians to go all out to try and win the tournament. Egypt edged South Africa and replaced Cameroon as the hosts of the tournament. Having won a record seven AFCON tournaments, it comes as no surprise that Egypt are one of the favorites to grab the tournament prize. The Pharaohs were beaten finalists in 2017 as Cameroon won 2-1.
Egypt will be looking to rise above the disappointing display at last year’s FIFA world cup where the team failed to win a single match in the campaign. Their short participation at the world cup also saw the team waving goodbye to their long-serving goalkeeper Essam El Hadary who has been a pivotal player for the team over the years. Egypt’s AFCON qualifying journey proved to be rather shaky by their standards as they finished second below Tunisia. The team won four games including both home and away games against eSwatini, drawing one against Niger and losing the other against North African rivals Tunisia to finish second in the group with 13 points.
Many expect that the presence of Mohammed Salah is likely to lead the Egyptians to glory. Many would argue that Salah and his teammate Sadio Mane were easily the continent’s two best during the 2018/2019 season across the whole of Europe. Salah has been in hot form all season long, becoming the first African ever to clinch back-to-back Golden Boot accolades in the English Premier League alongside fellow Africans, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and teammate Mane. Egypt have produced several players of the highest quality over the years but Salah has reached uncharted territory by proving his worth at the highest level when it mattered the most. His impact however, has been somewhat criticized for failing to replicate his club form at national level. Be that as it may, his electrifying pace on the right flank, his skillful dribbling as well as his sharp eye for goal make him the go-to attacker in a team favored to tear apart the whole of Africa at home. Apart from Salah, forgotten Arsenal midfielder Mohammed Elneny could also be the difference maker at the belly of the park for the Egyptians as he will be hoping to make a name for himself in order to revive his footballing career.
Worth noting is that Egypt has won the AFCON tournament three out of the four times the country has hosted the tournament, a phenomenal feat if you ask me, one that should surely send a message about the threat posed by the Pharaohs particularly in their own backyard. It will be interesting to see whether home court advantage will be a significant factor even this time around considering the increase in the number of teams gunning for glory.
After missing the last two editions, Nigeria make a return to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019. Coach Gernot Rohr recently led the Super Eagles to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, though the team could not proceed beyond the group stages.
Boasting the most youthful squad of the world cup teams, Nigeria’s world cup performance was a matter of “so near yet so far” as they bowed out of the tournament at the hands of Argentina. Nonetheless, the team was able to secure a win against Iceland in one of their group matches. This dismal performance however, did not deter the Super Eagles from securing a ticket to take part in the biennial African Cup of Nations in Egypt.
The Super Eagles had a somewhat smooth run to the biennial football showpiece despite making a false start in the qualifying series. The team kicked off their qualifying campaign on the wrong foot by losing 2-0 at home to South Africa. That defeat woke the three-time Africans champions’ slumber as they won their next three matches against Seychelles and Libya before once again drawing against a resilient South African side. The Nigerians capped off their qualifying campaign with a win against the Seychelles, finishing as Group winners with 13 points.
The old adage “age is nothing but a number” might well be relevant during this year’s AFCON showpiece, in as far as Villarreal winger Samuel Chukwueze is concerned. The 2015 U/17 World Cup Winner has enjoyed an impressive debut season with Villarreal since breaking into the club’s first team, scoring ten goals in 46 appearances as well as chipping in with four assists. The 20-year-old is one of the most exciting young talents in Spanish football and he’s enjoyed an excellent campaign with Villarreal where he’s now considered to be an important first team player having progressed through the club’s youth ranks. Still, some may point to Chukwueze’s lack of international experience as his likely downside and something that may find him wanting when it matters the most. However, the presence of experienced players like Obi Mikel and Ahmed Musa should be able to guide Chukuweze and make him comfortable enough to do what he does best on the field: run at defenders.
However, despite qualifying for the AFCON, one could not say, emphatically that the Super Eagles are indeed a team to beat at the forthcoming finals in Egypt. The team is faced with different challenges such as injuries to some of its key players that include seasoned striker Odion Ighalo, who was the leading scorer during the qualifiers with six goals. Not only that, the team has had some of its experienced players opting to resign, such as Victor Moses who decided to focus on club football. These predicaments may haunt the Super Eagles especially if the team goes deeper into the knockout stages. Nonetheless, the return of trusted servant John Obi Mikel will be a key factor for Nigeria’s youthful side. Count the Nigerians out at your own peril, they might be the surprise package of all the usual powerhouses.
Nigeria start their campaign with a tie against Burundi on June 22 before taking on Guinea and Madagascar on June 26 and 30 respectively.
The AFCON tournament looks to be a firecracker and is expected to keep football lovers glued at the edge of their seats between June and July. While the above teams are some of the teams expected to compete for the top honors, be rest assured that drama will unfold during the course of the tournament and football being football, the unexpected can and will happen. Who are you vouching for in this AFCON tournament?