African Cup of Nations - Eye on Africa: Focus on Toon as Senegal peak
With the African Cup of Nations starting on Saturday, Senegal are among the favourites as - led by Newcastle United's exciting new forward duo - they bid to end what has been a surprising lack of success at continental level.
Much has been made of Ivory Coast’s repeated inability to win the African Cup of Nations despite boasting a golden generation of talent that boasts two of the continent’s most successful players – Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure – not to mention a host of stars plying their trades for Europe’s top clubs.
But the Elephants have at least won the tournament, in 1992, while Senegal – surprisingly given the number of Europe-based players, and a precedent set by their powerful surge to the quarters in the 2002 World Cup – are yet to break their African duck, having been runners up during that fateful World Cup year.
Ivory Coast are always tipped to win but often come unstuck against teams with a better work ethic, and there appears to be no clear evidence that this is set to change: they may have won all six qualification games but it was in a nonsense group comprised of Benin, Burundi and Rwanda.
Indifferent recent form is not something, however, that has blighted Senegal’s recent exploits, leading the Francophone charge with an unbeaten qualifying campaign where they won five and drew won in a pool boasting shock flops Cameroon and African heavyweights DR Congo. No mean feat, and one that consisted of 16 goals from probably the best attack in the competition.
Senegal’s attacking triumvirate is hardly an unknown quantity: Newcastle United’s Demba Ba, new team-mate Papiss Cisse (formerly of Freiburg) and Lille’s Moussa Sow have been among the top scorers in three of Europe’s major (and most competitive) leagues, while turning out for sides outside the traditional top draws. Ba has 15 in 19 for Toon this season, Cisse was second-top scorer in Germany while playing for a small club, while Sow is the spearhead for that glorious Lille attack led by Eden Hazard and Joe Cole.
They are all fearsomely quick, and in the cases of Cisse and Ba dominant aerially and with great feet to match. Goals come easy for them at the highest level and should flow freely in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, with Ba and Cisse getting a head-start on what should be an exciting combination for Newcastle.
We should also remember Mamadou Niang, a veteran now at 32 and playing in Qatar, who hit five goals in qualifying, the joint second-highest scorer behind Tunisia’s Issam Jemaa, and will provide the experience and guile his more enthusiastic team-mates might lack.
Well-marshalled defensively by rugged French-based pair Souleymane Diawara and Moustapha Bayal, (although admittedly lacking in the goalkeeping department, somewhat stereotypically), the Lions of Teranga are peaking just at the right time and have the aforementioned attack trio with points to prove after struggling early in their careers.
They’re in form, have good balance and appear to play as a team this time – possibly thanks to the absence of a certain character, who may have turned out for Liverpool, Bolton, Blackburn and Rangers but is largely reviled wherever he treads. El-Hadji Diouf now turns out for Doncaster and the team is conspicuously free of his presence.
I mentioned a Francophone charge and it is true that – particularly with Egypt and Nigeria absent – Ivory Coast and Tunisia have a better chance, but Ghana sit alongside Senegal as my joint favourites.
Their run to the quarters at the last World Cup was no great surprise – an even younger version of that side finished beaten finalists in the preceding African Cup of Nations, unlucky to lose 1-0 to Egypt.
And they are more experienced now and no less organised. They appear to have what a lot of their West African contemporaries lack – teamwork and defensive unity – although the absence of any real strikers to partner the inconsistent Asamoah Gyan remains a small problem.
But anyway, much of their threat comes from out wide from the Ayew brothers, while in midfield Sulley Muntari, Agyemang Badu and Kwadwo Asamoah more than make up for the continued absence of Michael Essien.
The stage is set for these two sides, who have a combination of youth and experience; attack and defence; teamwork and flair; and, crucially, some of the in-form players in Europe right now.
The runners and the riders
PROBABLES: Senegal and Ghana. In bloom, in form and in the tournament - unlike Cameroon, Nigeria and Egypt. If they win their groups they are set for a semi meeting though, so someone else is likely to face one of these two in the final.
POSSIBLES: Ivory Coast and Tunisia. Regional heavyweights but often come unstuck in latter stages, like the favourites set to meet in the last four, although both have tricky groups, with Tunisia needing to negotiate a tough local derby against Morocco, who have some good attacking players but lack the defensive nous of the past and are a touch ragged organisationally.
OUTSIDERS: Mali and Guinea always do well in qualifying and have plenty of flair up front and bite in midfield, usually going by the name Sissoko or Bangoura. They are in the same group though so for both to make it through would require a monumental upset - the elimination of Ghana.
ONES FOR AN UPSET: They have no chance of winning the thing, but Niger and Botswana could stun a giant or two and make sneak into the quarters. Both were excellent in qualifying, winning tough groups having built around solid defences and a star striker. For Niger, the talented but flaky Ouwo Moussa Maazou has been brilliant in Belgium but flopped at a higher level - described as a “a bit odd” by Eurosport.fr editor Maxime Dupuis, and as having started well in Russia but fading badly after insisting on fasting when Ramadan fell at a crucial point in the season. Botswana, meanwhile, are an unknown quantity but have the joint second top-scorer in qualifying, previously unheralded journeyman striker Jerome Ramathlakwane, without a club at the moment having played mostly in South Africa.
MAKING UP THE NUMBERS: Co-hosts Gabon, Group A’s Libya and Zambia, and Group B rivals Angola, Burkina Faso and Sudan have qualified before and usually come away with a point or two, Zambia historically being the best of the third-tier African sides. But, while nothing in qualifying or friendlies hints at anything other than a group-stage exit, at least two of these sides will qualify by default thanks to the seeding of co-hosts and no-hopers Equatorial Guinea in Group A, and the presence of three such sides in Ivory Coast’s group. Unlikely to progress further than the last eight though, and in case of the Equatoguineans, lucky to get a point.