Looking at the contenders for the 2015 African Nations Cup.

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GROUP A

BURKINA FASO

INTRODUCTION
They have not sat on their laurels since winning a surprise place in the Final of the 2013 African Nations Cup and have kept up a consistent standard of performance since. That same year they were only narrowly edged out of a World Cup place by Algeria. They finished second in qualifying, behind Gabon, who were the only team to beat them, and little has changed since the last Nations Cup – promising a consistency that is rare in African football. However, the surprise factor they had last time out has now obviously gone.

COACH
Belgian Paul Put was banned in his own country in 2007 for fixing matches involving his club, Lierse, with a Chinese betting syndicate. He has since been handed a prison sentence in absentia that he is appealing but which prevents him from returning home. He took over as coach of the Gambia in 2008 and signed a three-year deal with Burkina Faso in 2012. He can do little wrong since he took them to the Nations Cup Final in 2013, which they lost 1-0 to Nigeria.

KEY PLAYERS
Six goals saw Jonathan Pitroipa end as the top scorer in the qualifiers, picking up where he left off at the 2013 Nations Cup, where he was player of the tournament. The nucleus of that side remains, with Charles Kabore captaining from midfield, Bakary Kone the key central defender and Alain Traore, free from injury, leading the attack.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-4-2):
Germain Sanou; Mohamed Koffi, Bakary Kone, Steeve Yago, Narcisse Bambara; Jonathan Zongo, Djakaridja Kone, Charles Kabore, Jonathan Pitroipa; Bertrand Traore; Alain Traore

 

CONGO

INTRODUCTION
The “Red Devils” return to the Nations Cup finals after a 14-year absence, offering veteran coach Claude Le Roy a chance to extend his record for the most number of tournament appearances to eight. Congo had a schizophrenic qualifying campaign, advancing through two rounds of preliminaries only after their opponents, Rwanda, had been caught fielding a player with a double identity. Although they inflicted Nigeria’s first home defeat in a competitive international in 33 years, home defeats by South Africa and Nigeria saw them finish second in Group A.

COACH
Claude Le Roy has been working on the continent for almost 30 years and in that time coached at a record seven tournaments – the last in South Africa two years ago. The 66-year-old Frenchman has had a record 31 matches at the finals and the last tournament, in 2013, marked the first time one of his teams had failed to reach the quarter-finals. Won it with Cameroon in 1988.

KEY PLAYERS
Giant centre-back Christopher Samba ended his international career before the start of qualifying, robbing the Congolese of key experience. But they did persuade former France junior international Thievy Bifouma  to play and he made an immediate impact with two goals in their famous away win over Nigeria. Key midfielder is Delvin Ndinga, of Greek champions Olympiakos.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-4-2):
Christopher Mafoumbi; Igor Nganga, Marvin Baudry, Boris Moubio, Francis Nganga; Ladislas Douniama, Delvin Ndinga, Prince Oniangue, Francis Litsingi; Ferebory Dore, Thievy Bifouma.

 

EQUATORIAL GUINEA

INTRODUCTION
Expelled from the preliminaries having finally been tripped up after years of shipping in mercenaries to play for their national team, they are back in the field as the new hosts. And CAF conveniently overlooked the fact they had to forfeit their win over Mauritania in the first round of the preliminaries for fielding Thierry Fidjeu, who was capped by Cameroon at junior level. The team still has Colombians and Brazilians who they duplicitously claim have some blood link with the island but in fact are paid handsomely to travel to Africa for international duty in brazen cases of cheating that FIFA turns a blind eye to.

COACH
Former Spanish international defender Andoni Goikoetxea was appointed national team coach in March 2013. Dubbed the “Butcher of Bilbao” after infamous tackles on Diego Maradona and Bernd Schuster in his playing days, the 58-year-old took over from Gilson Paulo of Brazil, who was in charge for Equatorial Guinea’s only previous Nations Cup appearance, in 2012. This is his first job outside Spain.

KEY PLAYERS
Equatorial Guinea continue to find players in Spain, with Carlos Akapo and Ruben Belima among the latest. Emilio Nsue is their best-known player along with Javier Balboa . It will be interesting to see if they are brazen enough to field their two naturalised Colombians – Jimmy Bermudez and Carlos Bejarano.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-4-2): Felipe Ovono; Carlos Akapo, Daniel Vazquez, Diosdado Mbele, Sipo; Emilio Nsue, Ben Konate, Juvenal Edjogo, Ruben Belima; Randy, Javier Balboa.

 

GABON

INTRODUCTION
Top of their group and unbeaten in qualifying, Gabon look a dangerous outsider. They edged out Burkina Faso and proved far too strong for Angola, and in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Borussia Dortmund they have a potential superstar.

Gabon did not make the 2013 finals but return again with a competent- looking side and will compete in Bata, which is just across the border and offers the opportunity for considerable support. This will be the sixth Nations Cup finals for the oil-rich central African country, who also got to the quarter-finals in 1996.

COACH
The 43-year-old Jorge Costa, who won 50 caps for Portugal and spent a season at Charlton Athletic in 2001, was appointed in July. The former Porto defensive legend, who was part of the golden generation for his country that also included Luis Figo and Rui Costa, began his coaching career at Braga and has also worked in Romania and Cyprus. He was back in Portugal last season, at Pacos de Ferreira, before a first job in Africa and his first with a national team.

KEY PLAYERS
The squad has seen a significant transformation since their last Nations Cup appearance three years ago, although stalwarts like Didier Ovono, Bruno Ecuele Manga and Aubameyang remain. Fringe players like Lloyd Palun and Levy Madinda are now regulars, and Johann Obiang and Didier Ndong among the new faces in the set-up.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-4-2):
Didier Ovono: Lloyd Palun, Bruno Ecuele Manga, Henri Ndong, Johann Obiang; Levy Madinda, Didier Ndong, Andre Biyogo Poko, Frederic Bulot; Pierre Aubameyang, Romaric Rogombe.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-3-3):
Vozinha; Carlitos, Fernando Varela, Gege, Nivaldo; Calu, Babanco, Odair Fortes; Ze Luis, Heldon, Djaniny

GROUP B

CAPE VERDE ISLANDS

INTRODUCTION
The smallest nation ever to qualify for a Nations Cup finals are back for a second successive appearance, looking firmly like they belong in elite company. They played beyond expectations in 2013 to get to the quarter-finals, highlighted by their coach breaking into song at the press conference after advancing from the first round. Luis Antunes has since moved on but the Cape Verdians have got even stronger. They were credible performers in the World Cup qualifiers and finished top of their 2015 Nations Cup qualifying group, winning four of their six games.

COACH
The 54-year-old Rui Aguas played extensively and scored liberally for Benfica and Porto, appearing in the 1988 European Cup Final, which Benfica lost to PSV. His first foray into management was with Estoril and Vitoria Setubal, but he then worked as an assistant to Jesualdo Ferreira at Braga and with Artur Jorge when he was Portugal coach. Cape Verde is his first job as a senior coach in almost a decade. His job application was helped by the fact that his wife is from the islands.

KEY PLAYERS
Babanco is the pivot of the 4-3-3 that Aguas used in the qualifiers, with Heldon and Ze Luis as the key attackers. All of the squad now come from outside Cape Verde. Most are from European clubs, although several are based in Angola, such as goalkeeper Vozinha and defensive midfielder Calu. At least half of the squad from the 2013 Nations Cup should return.

 

DR CONGO

INTRODUCTION
Slipped into the finals as the best third-place finisher in qualifying. Behind Cameroon and Ivory Coast in a tough Group D, they did manage a thrilling 4-3 away win in Abidjan over the Ivorians in October. The country has been through a boon at club level, with two semi-finalists in the 2014 CAF Champions League, but remain inconsistent at national level. One of Africa’s biggest countries with vast resources and massive human potential, it remains mired in conflict and corruption, with the inevitable impact on the national team.

COACH
Jean Florent Ibenge Ikwenge was appointed in August 2014, just three weeks before the start of qualifying. The 52-year-old had previously been the assistant to Claude Le Roy, but his role with the national side was overshadowed by his work with Kinshasa side AS Vita Cub, who he steered to the African Champions League Final in November. Ibenge is Congolese born but grew up in France and played in Belgium, France and Germany.

KEY PLAYERS
Captain Youssouf Mulumbu now has Premier League company in the form of Yannick Bolasie. It means the decision of Dieumerci Mbokani to no longer play for the team has not had as big a negative impact as expected. The English-based pair will be the key performers, along with centre-back Chancel Mbemba who is in outstanding form this season in Belgium with Anderlecht.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-4-2):
Robert Kidiaba; Issama Mpeko, Cedric Mongongu, Chancel Mbemba, Jean Kasusula; Cedric Mabwati, Youssouf Mulumbu, Distel Zola, Yannick Bolasie; Neeskens Kebano, Jeremy Bokila.

 

TUNISIA

INTRODUCTION
Unbeaten in the qualifiers and topped a group that included Senegal and Egypt. They have shown a marked improvement in confidence from the side that only made the World Cup qualifying play-offs in late 2013 because of a sanction for Cape Verde – who they now meet again in the Nations Cup finals. Tunisia have bounced back well since a coaching change to make their 16th finals’ appearance. Their only success was in 2004, when they were hosts.

COACH
George Leekens (above right) has twice been national coach of his native Belgium and also spent one year in charge of Algeria. He led Belgium to the 1998 World Cup and was coach again from 2010 to 2012, but surprisingly quit for a job at Club Brugge which was then a better proposition than the national-team job. His club coaching career in Belgium has been extensive and he also worked at Trabzonspor in Turkey, Roda JC in Holland and Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia.

KEY PLAYERS
Leekens has a relatively young and inexperienced squad but says there is huge potential: “They could all certainly compete at the sub-top in Europe. As far as mentality and character goes, they are one of the best groups I’ve ever trained.” They will have two midfielders in front of the back four and then two ahead of them in Wahbi Khazri and Yassine Chikhaoui, who are both potential match winners.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-5-1):
Aymen Mathlouthi; Hamza Mathlouthi, Aymen Abdennour, Syman Ben Youssef, Ali Maaloul; Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, Stephane Nater, Yassine Chikhaoui, Hocine Ragued, Wahbi Khazri; Saber Khalifa.

 

ZAMBIA

INTRODUCTION
Tried to cling onto their 2012 Nations Cup-winning team for as long as they could as they sought to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil but fell short. This meant that the chance to ease out some of their ageing stars and introduce fresher talent in the wake of winning Africa’s top prize was lost and they had to undergo a dramatic overhaul going into the 2015 Nations Cup qualifying campaign with potentially disastrous consequences.

Honor Janza was appointed coach after the departure of Herve Renard and then his trusty assistant Patrice Beaumelle. Zambia struggled through the first half of the group phase, unable to register a win but bounced back strongly to win their last three games and finish second behind the Cape Verde Islands.

COACH
Honor Janza was termed “interim coach” and only gave him a mandate until November when Zambia appointed him in August. Now he has a rolling deal but with a chance to force a permanent contract. Was an assistant to Renard when Zambia won the 2012 Nations Cup, but at club level has only a brief spell in charge at Zesco United when they were in the Zambia second division.

KEY PLAYERS
Of the 2012 African Nations Cup winning side, several return for yet another Nations Cup: Kennedy Mweene, Davies Nkausu, Rainford Kalaba and Emmanuel Mayuka. Centre-back and captain Stopilla Sunzu is battling to be fit in time.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-4-2):
Kennedy Mweene; Davies Nkausu, Stopilla Sunzu, Nyambe Mulenga, Emmanuel Mbola; Lubambo Musonda, Nathan Sinkala, Given Singuluma, Rainford Kalaba; Ronald Kampamba, Emmanuel Mayuka

 

GROUP C

ALGERIA

INTRODUCTION
Africa’s top-rated team moved up to 18th in the FIFA rankings on the back of a first appearance in the knockout stage of the World Cup. They then kept up their winning ways despite a change of coach in mid-year, with Vahid Halilhodzic departing and Frenchman Christian Gourcuff taking over.

The team has stayed intact and grown markedly in confidence. It is also bristling with talent, with Yacine Brahimi emerging as a key figure. Algeria would have been a strong favourite were the finals still in Morocco but they do not have a good record in tournaments south of the Sahara.
 
COACH
Christian Gourcuff had long been earmarked to take over after the World Cup but only officially began on August 1. He has a contract until the end of the next World Cup, which means he will also be in charge for the Nations Cups in 2015 and 2017 – one of which Algeria hope to host. He coached Lorient in Ligue 1 for more than a decade.
 
KEY PLAYERS
Yacine Brahimi won this year’s BBC African Footballer of the Year award. His midfield link play with Sofiane Feghouli will be a key element, with Mehdi Lacen restored to the defensive midfield role after little playing time during the World Cup. Islam Slimani of Porto leads the attack. Rafik Halliche has taken over as defensive linchpin from Majid Bougherra, who is now more of an inspirational squad member.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-2-2-2):
Rais Mbolhi; Aissa Mandi, Rafik Halliche, Carl Medjani, Faouzi Ghoulam; Mehdi Lacen, Nabil Bentaleb; Yacine Brahimi, Sofiane Feghouli; Islam Slimani, El Arbi Soudani.

 

GHANA

INTRODUCTION
Ghana have plunged from a position of strong self-belief and rampant expectation to having to pick up the pieces after a tough World Cup – at which they did themselves no favours with an undignified strike over money – and a stuttering start to Nations Cup qualifying. It was no surprise that coach Kwesi Appiah lost his job, with assistant Maxwell Konadu in charge for the rest of the qualifiers. Avram Grant has since been appointed and he will have little time to get to know his players before being thrust into a tough opening group.

COACH
Avram Grant came within a penalty kick of leading Chelsea to Champions League glory in 2008 and the possibility of a much larger international profile. Since his time in England he has taken Partizan Belgrade to the 2012 Serbian title during a brief tenure. Earlier in his career he had much success with Maccabi Tel Aviv. Six months ago he was a pundit for Israeli television at the World Cup.
 
KEY PLAYERS
Kevin-Prince Boateng, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari were axed after World Cup histrionics but Ghana patched up problems with the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, who were key figures in the qualifiers along with stalwart Asamoah Gyan. Goalkeeping is a problem area but they have settled on Brimah Razak, who plays in Spain’s lower leagues. The versatile Kwadwo Asamoah is out after surgery in early December.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-4-2):
Brimah Razak; Harrison Afful, John Boye, Jonathan Mensah, Baba Abdul Rahman; Christian Atsu, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Rabiu Mohammed, Andre Ayew; Jordan Ayew, Asamoah Gyan.

 

SENEGAL

INTRODUCTION
Senegal have the potential to be continental champions but often punch below their weight. However,  Alain Giresse has made progress in his efforts to turn the west Africans into a stronger force. He has made them realise places have to be fought for and has instilled a more disciplined approach. This generation could match the achievements of the team built by Bruno Metsu that reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2002 – the same year Senegal had their best Nations Cup finish when they reached the Final in Mali.

COACH
Alain Giresse took over two years ago, having taken Mali to third place at the 2012 finals. This will be his third Nations Cup. He also coached Gabon in 2010, narrowly missing out on the last eight. He played in the World Cup with France and was a member of their 1984 European Championship- winning side. His coaching career has included spells at Toulouse and Paris Saint-Germain as well as Royal Armed Forces of Morocco and Georgia’s national team.
 
KEY PLAYERS
Senegal are beginning to draw more heavily from the growing number of players born in France. There is great competition up front, so players such as Demba Ba, Mame Biriam Diouf and Moussa Sow might have to start on the bench. Dame Ndoye and Sadio Mane were particularly creative in the qualifiers. Cover at full-back and in goal is on the threadbare side.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-5-1):
Bouna Coundoul; Lamine Sane, Papa Djilobodji, Kara Mbodji, Pape Souare; Dame Ndoye, Papakouli Diop, Mohamed Diame, Cheikhou Kouyate, Sadio Mane; Papiss Cisse.

 

SOUTH AFRICA

INTRODUCTION
The last Nations Cup hosts may have disappointed in the last decade, but they are on the rise again under Ephraim Mashaba, who really has World Cup qualification for Russia 2018 as his priority. He has chosen a side all under the age of 27, including several left-field choices from the lower leagues and youth-team ranks, but in spite of considerable scepticism, they have new momentum. Mashaba’s role as
a father figure helped the squad to overcome the tragic loss of stand-in captain Senzo Meyiwa, who was shot in a botched robbery in October.

COACH
Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba was a leading player in the domestic league in the 1970s and 80s. He became assistant national coach and later steered the under-23s to a famous victory over Brazil at the 2000 Olympics. He became national coach in 2002 only to be fired just before the 2004 Nations Cup. The 64-year-old was brought back in recent years to again coach the under-20s, and when negotiations with Carlos Queiroz failed in August, he was offered the senior job.

KEY PLAYERS
South Africa may not have the best players in each position but they hope those they blood will gain invaluable experience. Thulani Serero is arguably key, although often wasted by Mashaba on the right. Dean Furman may play in the English third tier for Doncaster Rovers but he has impressed with his application.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-3-3):
Darren Keet; Anele Ngcongca, Mulomowandau Mathoho, Tefu Mashamaite, Thabo Matlaba; Andile Jali, Dean Furman, Oupa Manyisa; Thulani Serero, Tokelo Rantie, Bongani Ndulula.

 

GROUP D

CAMEROON

INTORDUCTION
Have undergone a dramatic turnabout since the World Cup finals, which were an embarrassing episode characterised by squabbling over money, personality clashes and violent play. Amid the resultant clear-out of players, coach Volker Finke doggedly held onto his job and refused to bow to public demand.

Loudest of the firing squad was Roger Milla, but all have now been silenced by the vast improvement in form and Finke enjoys begrudging admiration as Cameroon dominated a strong qualifying group. Only Egypt have a better Nations Cup record than Cameroon, who were winners in 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2002.

COACH
Finke was appointed after 16 years at Freiburg, during which time he saw them promoted and relegated three times in the longest single coaching spell in German professional football. He has a two-year deal which ends in June and is fluent in English and French.

KEY PLAYERS
Vincent Aboubakar quickly stepped into the striking void left by Samuel Eto’o but it was the newcomers who stole the show. Fabrice Ondoua, Jerome Guihoata and Clinton Njie were thrust into the heat of battle with little or no senior experience but came through with flying colours. Stephane Mbia has taken up the leadership role vacated by Eto’o and Nicolas Nkoulou could blossom into a major star.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-4-2):
Fabrice Ondoua; Stephane Mbia, Nicolas Nkoulou, Jerome Guihoata, Henri Bedimo; Clinton Njie, Eyong Enoh, Benjamin Moukandjo, Edgar Salli; Leonard Kwueke, Vincent Aboubakar.

 

GUINEA

INTRODUCTION
Qualification came against massive odds as the ravages of the Ebola virus in the country saw Guinea banned from hosting any qualifiers. They staged games in a virtually empty stadium in Casablanca and won one and drew two of their “home” matches, but they did suffer intense prejudice and twice a day they had to have their temperature checked in Morocco by health authorities.

“Some measures we’ve felt have been discriminatory,” said coach Michel Dussuyer.

Guinea’s best Nations Cup was in 1976 when they were runners-up to Morocco.

COACH
It is a second spell in charge of Guinea for 55-year-old Frenchman Dussuyer and a fifth time at the Nations Cup. He led them to the quarter-finals in 2004 and was assistant to fellow countryman
Henri Michel when Ivory Coast were runners-up two years later. In 2010 he qualified Benin for the tournament, then went back to Guinea, taking them to the 2012 finals. Dussuyer has also coached French club Cannes in between his African assignments.

KEY PLAYERS
The squad is mostly made up of European-based players. Ibrahima Traore brings Bundesliga experience and Ibrahima Conte is from Belgian champions Anderlecht. Boubacar Fofana, who plays in Portugal, is an underrated defensive midfielder. Florentin Pogba is elder brother of France midfielder Paul Pogba.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-5-1):
Naby Yattara; Baissama Sankoh, Mohamed Diarra, Florentin Pogba, Issaiaga Sylla; Ibrahima Conte, Thierno Bah, Boubacar Fofana, Naby Keita, Ibrahima Traore; Idrissa Sylla.

 

IVORY COAST

INTRODUCTION
Ivory Coast eased themselves over the qualifying line in a series of displays that asked more questions than it answered. It left new coach Herve Renard recalling two old stalwarts, Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora, and bidding to entice Didier Drogba back too.

The Frenchman replaced Sabri Lamouchi after the World Cup but has a delicate task of replacing an ageing generation. For the last five tournaments the Elephants have been strong favourites but will go into this tournament with no such status.

COACH
Renard, 46, returned to take charge of Zambia for a second spell just before the 2012 Nations Cup and led them to their first continental title. He had left after the 2010 tournament to become coach of Angola, but was fired after just six months and moved on to USM Alger in Algeria.

His second spell with Zambia ended after failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup but he was hired by Sochaux, who he almost saved from Ligue 1 relegation in May. He was appointed Ivorian coach after the World Cup.

KEY PLAYERS
Kolo Toure, Yaya Toure and Siaka Tiene will play in a sixth successive finals, with Gervinho and Salomon Kalou going to a fifth in a row. That means considerable experience but there are also gaping holes that make the Ivorians much less of a force. Boubacar Barry has lost his place in goal after over a decade and centre-backs Ousmane Viera and Kolo Toure do not inspire.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-2-3-1):
Mande Sayouba; Serge Aurier, Ousmane Viera, Kolo Toure; Siaka Tiene; Serey Die, Cheikh Tiote; Salomon Kalou, Yaya Toure, Gervinho; Wilfried Bony.

 

MALI

INTRODUCTION
After two successive third-placed finishes, Mali hope to kick on and prove their ability at this Nations Cup despite an inconsistent qualifying campaign. Mali have only played at eight Nations Cup tournaments, but on six of those occasions reached the final four. They were runners-up in 1972 and semi-finalists in 1992, 2002 (as hosts), 2004, 2012 and 2013.

COACH
Polish-born Henryk Kasperczak, 61, returns to take charge at his sixth Nations Cup finals, having already taken a team to the Final. The former World Cup defender was the coach of Ivory Coast at the 1994 finals, Tunisia two years later, Morocco in 2000, Mali when they hosted the 2002 finals and Senegal in 2008. He steered a youthful Tunisia to a surprise appearance in the 1996 finals, where they lost to hosts South Africa. He held the record for most number of matches coached at the finals before it was broken by Frenchman Claude Le Roy in 2006.

KEY PLAYERS
Mali have retained 10 players from their last Nations Cup squad, even if they are over-reliant on Seydou Keita and Bordeaux forward Cheick Dibate, whose knees have troubled him recently and could miss the tournament. Drissa Diakite and Adama Tamboura are 10-year veterans while centre-back Salif Coulibaly could emerge as one of the finds of the competition.

LIKELY STARTING XI (4-2-3-1):
Oumar Sissoko; Drissa Diakite, Molla Wague, Salif Coulibaly, Adama Tamboura; Tongo Doumbia, Yacouba Sylla; Sigamarry Diarra, Seydou Keita, Sambou Yatabare; Cheick Diabate.

 

Read our introduction to the finals.