Holders Zambia face tough path at African Cup of Nations
JOHANNESBURG (dpa) – Zambia face a difficult road to defend the title they surprisingly won last year in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon when the 29th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations kicks-off Saturday in Johannesburg at the imposing National Stadium.
The Ivory Coast, with an established squad including Didier Drogba, Yaya and Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora, are the clear favourites following their surprising defeat in last year’s final.
The Elephants last won the African Cup of Nations in 1992, and in a strong group C face traditional North African powerhouses Algeria and Tunisia, plus fellow West Africans Togo.
In an interview with a football website, Ivorian forward Gervinho said: “When you want to win a competition you have to play all the best teams. Whether it’s Algeria, Tunisia or Togo. For me, the most important thing is to win my games and qualify for the next round.”
Waiting for them in a possible quarterfinal showdown are Zambia. The defending champions are grouped with Ethiopia, appearing for the first time since 1982, possible title contenders Nigeria, and Burkina Faso in group D.
Nigeria, last champions in 1994, are led by Spain-based forward Ikechukwu Uche, John Obi-Mikel in midfield and highly experienced skipper Joseph Yobi in defence.
The Super Eagles have the quality and experience to top the group, leaving Zambia and Burkina Faso likely contesting second place, with Zambia favourites.
Ethiopia for their part would surprise the continent if they bested any of their group opponents, with their last appearance at the African Cup of Nations in 1982. They are expected to be followed by a large travelling support.
Group B has Ghana, the best African side at the 2010 World Cup and African champions on four previous occasions, take on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Niger.
The Black Stars are missing key players Kevin Prince-Boateng and Andre Ayew, but are led by striker Asamoah Gyan.
“Ghana, Ivory Coast, Zambia are the favourites,” said the Al-Ain striker. “Zambia were lucky to have won the last time and they will find it extremely difficult to retain it. I expect the competition to be full of surprises.”
Their main competition to top the group would come from Mali, who have brought a squad largely based in France, and are led by experienced midfielder Seydou Keita, a former Barcelona and Sevilla player now playing in China.
Niger, making only their second ever appearance at the African Cup of Nations following their debut last year, will offer their group B opponents the easiest and most winnable fixture in the group. Hosts South Africa, Morocco, Angola and newcomers Cape Verde make up a competitive group A.
South Africa open the tournament on Friday at the National Stadium against Cape Verde, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations with a population of just over half a million.
The form shown by South Africa leading up to the tournament has been mixed, with a draw, win and loss apiece in their last three matches while Morocco and Angola boast better records.
Cape Verde dispatched the highly-fancied Cameroon on their way to South Africa, and with a largely foreign-based squad led by central defender Nando, the Blue Sharks are the highest ranked nation in the group.
Any of the four countries can top the group with South Africa starting as favourites due to home advantage.
It is summer in South Africa, with two of the host cities on the Highveld, being Johannesburg and Rustenburg.
Johannesburg’s National Stadium – which hosted the 2010 World Cup final and is the venue for the final on February 10 – is more than 1,700 metres above sea level while the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg is 1,170 metres above sea level. Nelspruit, in the Lowveld, is 700 metres above sea level.