There was widespread carnage in the qualifiers for the 2012 African Nations Cup as some of the continent’s biggest names failed to make the cut – most notably the reigning champions Egypt, who finished bottom of their group.
With Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa also missing out, the 2012 tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon marks what could well herald a significant shift in the balance of power of African football.
Ivory Coast, Ghana, Morocco and Senegal head the list of the 16 qualifiers, although the likes of Guinea, Mali and Zambia will all fancy their chances of upsetting the old order.
The Ivorians will take an experienced and a star-studded squad to the three-week tournament in Bata, Malabo, Franceville and Libreville, but they will also arrive with the knowledge that their golden generation needs to deliver.
They are the highest placed nation in the FIFA rankings (at 16th) and have looked to be the team to beat at the last three Nations Cups, yet a penalty shoot-out defeat in the 2006 Final, followed by two lacklustre quarter-finals points to a failure to deliver on the biggest tournament stages.
For players such as Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora and Emmanuel Eboue time is running out and this may be their last chance to fulfil their potential at international level.
Ghana are still on something of a high after reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in South Africa but will again be going to a tournament without the presence of the influential Michael Essien – and also face a battle to keep the experienced John Mensah fully fit. Their key man is likely to be Asamoah Gyan although there are also big injury doubts hanging over the mercurial striker in the run-up to the tournament. As a result, much responsibility will lie on the young shoulders of the Ayew brothers.
Senegal, who dismissively dispatched Cameroon in their qualifying group, have a forward line bristling with talent. Mamadou Niang, Moussa Sow and Papiss Cisse all scored freely in the qualifiers and have bounced the Lions of Teranga right back into the spotlight – drawing comparisons with the 2002 side who made the World Cup quarter-finals and the Final of the African Nations Cup.
Sow was many pundits tip to be 2011 African Footballer of the Year, yet did not even make the final trio of candidates. However, he remains a real threat and will be key to Senegal’s hopes.
Morocco coach Eric Gerets has managed to mould together a very competitive line-up, introducing a number of second-generation European-born players. The days of fights between home-based stars and non-Arabic speaking “imports” are now largely a thing of the past and there is a growing expectation that this squad might just have what it takes to land a second African Nations Cup.
Of the other contenders, the unpredictable Guinea have the potential to go all the way – it will just depend on which team turns up on the day.
Twice runners-up, Zambia been consistent qualifiers for the final stages and, with coach Herve Renard back at the helm, they will once again be aiming to go that one step further and claim a first African title. Mali have also gone close at previous tournaments, twice finishing fourth during the 2000s and there is enough potential for them to at least go as far this time around.
Tunisia are the only winners from the previous nine championships to have made it through qualifying. However, their recent form has been unconvincing and they only made it to the finals courtesy of Malawi conceding a 94th-minute equaliser to Chad.
Co-hosts Gabon will be backed by a passionate home support but a patchy recent record suggests they will do well to make it past the group stage. Joining the other co-hosts Equatorial Guinea as debutants in the final stages are Niger and Botswana. Niger came througha tough group which also included Egypt and South Africa thanks to a 100 per cent home record, although their form away from Niamey has been far less impressive.
Botswana lost only once in their five-team group but have had their build-up disrupted by a threatened players’ strike over bonus payments.
Making up the finalists are the 2010 hosts Angola, Burkina Faso and the two runners-up in qualifying with the best record: Sudan and Libya – who played all but one game away from home.
By Mark Gleeson
Equatorial Guinea v Libya (Bata)
Senegal v Zambia (Bata)
Libya v Zambia (Bata)
Equatorial Guinea v Senegal (Bata)
Equatorial Guinea v Zambia (Malabo)
Libya v Senegal (Bata)
Ivory Coast v Sudan (Malabo)
Burkina Faso v Angola (Malabo)
Sudan v Angola (Malabo)
Ivory Coast v Burkina Faso (Malabo)
Sudan v Burkina Faso (Bata)
Ivory Coast v Angola (Malabo)
Gabon v Niger (Libreville)
Morocco v Tunisia (Libreville)
Niger v Tunisia (Libreville)
Gabon v Morocco (Libreville)
Gabon v Tunisia (Franceville)
Niger v Morocco (Libreville)
Ghana v Botswana (Franceville)
Mali v Guinea (Franceville)
Botswana v Guinea (Franceville)
Ghana v Mali (Franceville)
Botswana v Mali (Libreville)
Ghana v Guinea (Franceville)
Gp A 1st v Gp B 2nd (Bata) (QF1)
Gp B 1st v Gp A 2nd (Malabo) (QF2)
Gp C 1st v Gp D 2nd
Gp D 1st v Gp C 2nd
QF1 v QF4 (Bata)
QF3 v QF2 (Libreville)