Group C is easily one of the toughest groups in AFCON 2012. It contains Morocco, boasting Barclays Premier League players like Taarabt and Chamakh along with their north African rivals Tunisia. Co-Hosts Gabon and Niger, who knocked out Egypt and South Africa in qualifiers will look to upstage the two North African teams.
FIFA Ranking: 61
Best Performance: Champions (1976)
In 1986, Morocco became the first African team to qualify to knock out stages of a world cup. The Atlas Lions have flattered to deceive in the continental scene since reaching the final 8 years ago. In recent times, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation has made several changes to bring back the glory days. Belgian Eric Gerets, with experience of winning league titles in 5 countries, has been roped as coach while a number of foreign based Moroccan nationals have also been included in the team. The Atlas Lions made their way safely through a tricky qualifier group containing local rivals Algeria (whom they beat 4-0 in a highly charged encounter).
Since joining Udinese in 2010, Mehdi Benatia has become an integral part of the Friuliani squad. The central defender will be a key figure in Moroccan defence. Badr El Kaddouri had been one of the best full-backs in the Ukraine Premier League during his peak years with Dynamo Kyiv. Aged 30, he has lost some of his pace but he remains one of the ever-present figures in Morocco’s defence. The much travelled midfield general Houssine Kharja will don captain’s arm band.
Two of Morocco’s best known players currently ply their trade in the Barclays Premier League. Marouane Chamakh was a key figure in Bordeaux’s league and Cup double in 2008/09 season. His performances in France earned him a place in Arsenal. Adel Taarabt joined Tottenham Hotspur as a raw talent and struggled to find his feet in the club. He was shipped off to another London club Queens Park Rangers. In QPR, Taarabt transformed into one of the best, if not the best player in nPower Championship. The attacking midfielder has often been tipped for a move to a bigger club and a strong performance in AFCON will increase those chances.
Morocco has been slightly goal-shy in recent times with none of their strikers scoring regularly. Eric Geret’s team needs to be more clinical if they intend to go far in the AFCON.
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch out For: Marouane Chamakh, Adel Taarabt, Houssine Kharja
FIFA Ranking: 71
Best Performance: Quarter-Final (1996)
Gabon didn’t participate in any edition of AFCON till 1992 but has managed to qualify for four out of last six editions. The Panthers are not among powerhouses of African football but can cause an upset because of home advantage. The Gabonese authorities have been busy in making sure that the football stadia at Franceville and Libreville. AFCON 2012 will be one of the biggest events ever experienced by one of the most prosperous countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Experienced German coach Gernot Rohr, who famously guided FC Bordeaux to a UEFA Cup final in 1996, will be at the helm of the team. Rohr has assembled a team which has correct balance of youth and experience with five players being U23. Among these five players is 22-year-old striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, former AC Milan Academy player who now plays for St Etiene in Ligue-1. Center-forward and ex-Hull City striker Daniel Cousin notched up a historic goal for the Tigers in September 2008 to lead them to a 2-1 win over Arsenal. He is likely to pair up with Aubameyang upfront.
Some of the most experienced players in the squad will be part of Gabon’s defensive line-up. Like right-back Rodrigue Moundounga, who has represented his country 52 times till date. Central defender Bruno Ecuele Manga is another exciting player in defence and replaced Arsenal bound Koscielny effortlessly in FC Lorient.
Cédric Moubamba and Bruno Mbanangoyé Zita are a stable combination in central midfield, having played close to hundred games between themselves. Zita also has experience of playing in UEFA Europa League as part of Belarusian giants Dinamo Minsk. The host nations have won 10 out of 28 editions of AFCON, Gabon is not likely to change that number but they will be looking to improve their 1996 showing.
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch out For: Mbanangoyé Zita, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
FIFA Ranking: 59
Best Performance: Champions (2004)
In 1978 Tunisia became the first team from Africa to win a match in World Cup when they defeated Mexico 3-1, despite conceding first in front of a partisan crowd. The Carthage Eagles followed up their victory with another creditable 0-0 draw with defending champions West Germany with goalkeeper Mokhtar Naili dishing out a brave performance in front of German onslaught. The North Africans have been a traditional giant in the continent. Tunisia’s triumph in 2004 AFCON makes them the last team to win the title before the Egyptian juggernaut became unstoppable.
Tunisia was placed in Group K in qualifiers meaning that top two teams would automatically qualify for the main tournament. The Eagles saw off stiff challenge from Malawi to qualify behind group winners Botswana. Their performance in the 2010 edition left Tunisian fans frustrated as the team finished with three draws in as many matches.
As expected current Tunisian and African champions Espérance has contributed maximum, six players to the national team. Though his career in Europe hasn’t flourished as expected, Isam Jemaa remains the best known face in Tunisian football right now. The 27-year-old striker has an impressive return of 26 goals in 54 matches for the Carthage Eagles. Jemaa is all-time leading scorer in Tunisan National team history. During qualifiers he banged in six goals in eight matches including an emphatic hattrick against Chad.
Captain and defensive mainstay Karim Haggui has established himself as a starter for Bundesliga outfit Hannover 96. The 27-year-old has represented Tunisia over 70 times and was part of team in previous versions of AFCON.
Like Egypt and Libya, Tunisia was also engulfed in the unrest of “Arab Spring”. The footballers have already achieved something significant by qualifying for the tournament. Coach Samir Trabelsi, who captained Tunisia in 1998 World Cup believes that his side has undergone a positive transformation after the revolution. In February 2011, he led Tunisia’s home based players to a Africa Nations Championship title. The coach will be hoping that success in that tournament rubs off in AFCON 2012.
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch out For: Isam Jemaa, Karim Haggui
FIFA Ranking: 97
Best Performance: Qualifed for first time.
In a group containing continental heavy weights South Africa and Egypt, few expected Niger to qualify for AFCON 2012. When Mousa Maazou’s goal handed them a 1-0 win over Egypt in the second qualifying match it was deemed as a shocking albeit one-off result. The Mena’s qualifying campaign was hardly smooth as they lost half of their matches. Their group became tantalizingly close in the end with all three among Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone standing a chance of qualifying for the main tournament as the last round of matches began. They slumped to a 3-0 loss against Egypt in last match but got a massive slice of luck as South Africa bizarrely misinterpreted the rules to get themselves knocked out.
For a team which has qualified for AFCON for the very first time, Niger’s sailing has not been smooth in last few months. The Niger FA has often been hit by lack of cash inflow which has hindered the national team’s participation in continental qualifiers. Most recently Niger was hit by severe food crisis due to a draught. Niger government expressed their inability to pay for the National team’s travelling and lodging expenses and lodged an appeal for fund-raising. The team was saved when contributions arrived from local telephone networks.
23-year-old striker Moussa Maazou averages a goal in every two games for Niger. The bulldozing center forward who plies his trade in Belgian football has scored the all-important goal against Egypt in qualifiers and is likely to be their main source of goals. Custodian Kassaly Daouda has represented Niger over 50 times and also has the experience of winning four league titles with Cameroonian club Cotonsport Garoua. For creating chances in midfield Niger will be depending on another Cotonsport Garoua player, the versatile Lassina Abdoul Karim.
Harouna Doula Gabde’s team qualified under miraculous circumstances but their away record in qualifers was poor, having lost all three matches. Niger is not expected to repeat their shock performance of qualifying round in one of the toughest groups of AFCON 2012.
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch out For: Moussa Maazou, Kassaly Daouda