Ghana, a perennial powerhouse in African football, has not won the Cup of Nations in 30 years. The Black Stars will be one of the favourites for AFCON 2012. Mali and Guinea, two nations who have been extremely consistent in AFCON in last 20 years, are all set to give a tough challenge to Ghana. Botswana, on the other hand, qualified after a solid campaign and can cause an upset in this group.
FIFA Ranking: 80
Best Performance: Runners-up (1976)
Guinea shocked the football world by piping star studded Nigeria in qualifiers. This will be their 10th AFCON appearance and they will be looking to improve on their hattrick of quarter final appearances between 2004 and 2008. Their best finish in AFCON came in 1976. That year Guinea finished ahead of Egypt in preliminary round to qualify for the final round. In 1976, the winner was decided after a final phase of round robin league between 4 teams. Guinea didn’t lose a game in the final phase, including a 4-2 win over Egypt, but finished a point behind Morocco to end as runners-up.
Guinea will miss out the services of Genoa midfielder Kevin Constant, who opted out of national duty. Sochaux striker Abdoul Camara has chosen to play for Guinea, despite representing France in youth level. Former Dynamo Kyiv striker Ismael Bangoura will be the first choice striker for Guinea. Bangoura, who made his debut in 2006 AFCON, has scored 12 goals for the national team so far.
The squad has a good blend of youth and experience. Among the older heades, ex-Celtic FC defender Bobo Balde is one of the best known footballers from Guinea. Talismanic attacking midfielder Pascal Feindouno has been one of the most important players for Syli Nationale since making his debut in 1999. He recently quit beleaguered Swiss outfit FC Sion and is likely to use AFCON 2012 as a springboard to re-enter European football. With 21 goals in 55 appearances, Feindouno is the leading scorer in current Gabon team.
The likes of Ibrahima Traore and Mamadou Bah represent the future of Guinea football. Goalkeeper Naby Yattara was especially impressive during the qualifiers. Along with Balde, ex-Hull City defender Kamil Zayatte will add stability to their defence.
Coach Michel Dussuyer is not new to AFCON, having led Benin Republic to the main round in the 2010 edition. Having knocked out one of the continental heavyweights in the qualifiers, expectations will be high on Guinea. Dussuyer will have to deal with the fact that some of his most important players lack match practice, having spent considerable time on the bench at their European clubs.
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch out for: Pascal Feindouno, Naby Yattara
FIFA Ranking: 29
Best Performance: Champions (1963, 1965, 1978, and 1982)
The Black Stars are one of the traditional powerhouses of African football and second most successful nation in AFCON. Over the last decade Ghana National Team has gained fame for their performance in World Cup, reaching the Round of 16 in 2006 and quarter-final in 2010, despite being dropped into Groups of Death on both occasions. Ghana’s performance in AFCON has not tallied up with their World Cup exploits in this period, surprisingly. The Black Stars will be looking to end a 30 year old draught in the 2012 edition; the Federation has promised rich rewards for the players to do it.
The biggest head-ache for Goran Stevanović on route to the tournament will be the fitness of Gyan Asamoah. The Sunderland striker, an expert in playing the lone striker in Ghana’s system, is doubtful to be fully fit by the time AFCON starts. Other than Gyan, the Black Stars don’t have any injury worries and will be taking one of the most exciting squads to Gabon, containing as many as nine under-23 players in the team.
23 year old Kwadho Asamoah has been one of the central figures in Udinese’s brilliant performances in Serie A over last two seasons. Along with Asamoah, Ghana has an abundance of defensive midfielders with Sulley Muntari and Derek Boateng in the squad. Andre Ayew, son of the legendary Abedi Pele, is looking strong to make a name for himself with his consistent performances for Marseille. His showings earned the 22 year old BBC’s African Player of the Year award ahead of some illustrious names.
Captain Johan Mensah and John Paintsil, two of the oldest and most experienced players in the Black Stars squad are most likely to form the crux of Ghana defence. Two potential problems for Ghana might be the lack of experience at the back. Rest of the defenders are relatively inexperienced. The situation can get more difficult in goalkeeping department where none of the selected members have an experience of playing more than 10 international matches.
In the absence of Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria, Ghana is one of the biggest favourites to list the Cup. However, their success will depend on the fitness of Gyan.
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch out for: Andre Ayew, Kwadho Asamoah
FIFA Ranking: 97
Best Performance: Qualified for first time
Grouped with the likes of Tunisia and Togo, few expected minnows Botswana to qualify for AFCON 2012. Fewer predicted the brilliant form the Zebras showed in qualifiers. They won five out of eight matches and their only loss came when qualification was already assured. The Zebras’ campaign included a superb away win against Tunisia in their opening match. Having scored just 7 goals in 8 matches, Botswana showcased a well disciplined approach which is rare in African football. When they needed a result, Stanley Tshosane always managed to get it with grit and determination. It was not a surprise when they received the CAF team of the Award in 2011.
Stanley Tshosane deserves a lot of respect for transformation of Botswana football. Three years ago, when he took over a team reeling after a shock loss to Madagascar few would have guessed that the Zebras would qualify for their first every major tournament. Botswana’s squad is comprised of a majority of home based players. 17 players play in local league while others play in South Africa. One of the fittest and most athletic teams in AFCON 2012, Botswana’s play will be based on a solid defensive line and fast counter attacks. The local league was suspended few months back in order to prepare the team for AFCON. Zebras’ preparations were hit by a strike where players demanded bonus payments. The football association made it clear that they didn’t have enough money for extra payments. Botswana president Ian Khama had appealed to the players to put the nation’s interest first and the strike was subsequently called off.
With 15 goals Dipsy Selolwane is the best known player in Botswana team and also their all-time leading scorer. The veteran striker will miss out Botswana’s opening match due to an injury. 26 year old striker Jerome Ramatlhakwane was Botswana’s highest scorer during qualifiers and the winning goal against Tunisia in both legs. Central defender Mompati Thuma is one of the most experienced players in the squad with over 60 international appearances. Goalkeeper Modiri Marumo, one of the six South Africa based players, missed out first few matches during buildup to AFCON but is likely to be the first choice ‘keeper.
It will be interesting to see if issues of bonus payments have a negative impact on Botswana team. They are one of the best prepared teams going into this AFCON and can upstage some of the bigger names.
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch out for: Dipsy Selolwane , Jerome Ramatlhakwane
FIFA Ranking: 67
Best Performance: Runners-up (1972)
Between 1972 and 2004 every single one of Mali’s four appearances in AFCON ended with the Eagles reaching last four. Compared to those performances, their meek exit in first round in last two appearances makes a sordid reading. To improve their performance in the continental tournament Mali will be travelling to Gabon with an youthful squad. Mali’s squad selection has met with a frown in their homeland with some sections of the press calling it the weakest team ever sent by the nation to AFCON. Their squad is comprised of a number of players based in French football with as many as 14 players playing there.
Coached by Alain Giresse, a legendary member of the French team which won Euro ’84, Mali began their qualification round indifferently but came back strongly to eventually top the group. The players were whisked off to a camp in Togo before start of the AFCON in order to get acclimatized to the weather.
The most important player in Mali’s set-up has to be Seydou Keita. The midfielder has been one of the unsung heroes is all conquering FC Barcelona side. His arrival boosted Mali’s chances in last two rounds of qualifying matches. In absence of senior players, Keita will be the one leading a young squad. Giresse will be expecting Keita to replicate his blazing form of 2004 AFCON where he was one of the main driving forces behind Mali’s journey to semi-final. In absence of Freddy Kanoute, the Eagles will be counting on burly center-forward Cheick Tidiane Diabate for goals. Diabate has scored 6 goals in 13 matches, including four in qualifiers, for the national team but is yet to consistently perform in top level.
Some sources suggest that Mali will deploy a 4-3-3 formation with Diabate flanked by Modibo Maiga and Mohamed Kalilou Traore on both flanks. Keita is likely to play the role of anchoring the central midfield. Adama Tamoura and Mohamed Fofana are expcted to pair up in central defence with Cedric Kante and Drissa Diakite slotting in as left and right back respectively.
Ghana is expected to qualify, if not top Group D leaving the second spot up for grabs. The current Eagles squad may lack experience at top level but they are capable of qualifying to the knock out round.
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch out for: Cheick Tidiane Diabate, Seydou Keita