African Cup of Nations
(SIPA USA/PA Images)

2021 African Cup of Nations Preview

While domestic leagues around the world have begun the second half of their seasons, the world’s second largest continent is hosting its biggest international tournament. The CAF (Confederation of African Football) African Cup of Nations is Africa’s equivalent to the UEFA European Championships and the CONMEBOL Copa Americas. This year is the 33rd edition of the tournament and while it is taking place in 2022 it is still considered the 2021 African Cup of Nations due to it being postponed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2021 African Cup of Nations is being hosted by Cameroon in Central Africa and is taking place in five cities across the country. This is the second time that Cameroon has hosted this competition with the first time coming in 1972 where the Congo became champions. The tournament kicked off on January 9th and will end on February 6th with the final in Yaoundé, Cameroon at the Olembe Stadium. Here is everything you need to know about the six groups of four teams.

Group A (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Ethiopia)

This group is led by hosts and dark horse contender Cameroon. Cameroon has won the African Cup of Nations five times and last held the trophy in 2017. Along with the hosts, Group A consists of Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, and Ethiopia. Of those three teams, it will likely be a battle between Burkina Faso and Cape Verde to finish second in the group behind Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions have been by far the hottest team of the group coming in with wins in five of their last six matches. However, Cameroon did lose to Cape Verde 3-1 in March, 2021. Burkina Faso has had some recent success in this competition by finishing second in 2013 and third in 2017. Burkina Faso’s competition for second, Cape Verde, come into their third African Cup of Nations looking to improve on their quarterfinal appearance in 2013. Rounding out the group is Ethiopia who won the 1962 African Cup of Nations and finished second and third in the two prior tournaments in 1957 and 1959. Despite early success for Ethiopia in this competition, it has been far from that ever since with the team only qualifying twice in the last 20 tournaments dating back to 1982.

Players to watch out for

Cameroon is by far the deepest team of the group with multiple players playing their club soccer in one of Europe’s big five leagues. Leading scorer Vincent Aboubakar and Bayern Munich forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting lead the way for the Indomitable Lions in attack while Ajax goalkeeper André Onana holds the fort down in defense. A few other players to keep an eye on are Aston Villa forward Bertrand Traoré for Burkina Faso and Ethiopian forward Getaneh Kebede who is Ethiopia’s all-time top goalscorer with 31.

Prediction

It will be hard for anyone to challenge Cameroon in this group especially with the home nation behind them. After them I see Burkina Faso and Cape Verde being rather close but have the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde edging out Burkina Faso for second place in the group. It may be another few years until Ethiopia starts making strides in this competition as I have them finishing last in Group A.

Group B (Guinea, Malawi, Senegal, Zimbabwe)

Similarly to Group A, this group is very much at the mercy of one country, Senegal. Senegal comes into this tournament as the 20th ranked country in the most recent FIFA Rankings, the highest African side on the list. In the last African Cup of Nations in 2019 Senegal lost in the final to Algeria making them runners-up for the second time in 20 years. This year however they come in as favorites to win the entire tournament, which would be the first time lifting the trophy. After Senegal, there is plenty of uncertainty in this group with Guinea being winless in seven straight matches before finally winning in a pre tournament friendly. That is still better than Zimbabwe who has just one win in their last 18 matches played. All that was happening while there were issues with the board that had led to their suspension. The unrest that appears leaves Malawi in a good spot to potentially take advantage of Guinea and Zimbabwe. Malawi is making their third appearance in the tournament but has never managed to get out of the group stage. Malawi has a young team with no players over the age of 29 years-old giving them hope not only for this tournament but for future ones as well.

Players to watch out for

Two of Liverpool’s finest find themselves in this group with Sadio Mane playing for Senegal and Naby Keita playing for Guinea. Senegal have quality all over the field with PSG midfielder Idrissa Gueye, Napoli center back Kalidou Koulibaly, and Chelsea goalkeeper Édouard Mendy. 

Prediction

Senegal should run right through and get three wins out of three. In a toss up between the other three, I see Guinea’s midfield begin to gel and be enough with Keita’s leadership to get out of the group stage with Malawi finishing third and Zimbabwe in last.

Group C (Comoros, Gabon, Ghana, Morocco)

What could be the group of death with Morocco, Ghana, and Gabon involved leaves Comoros fighting for any result in their first ever African Cup of Nations. All three of the other countries are currently ranked inside the top 90 in FIFA’s latest ranking with Morocco leading the way in 28th, Ghana in 52nd, and Gabon in 89th. Morocco are one of the favorites in the whole tournament and look to regain the title they held once before in 1976. Morocco comes in without a loss since being knocked out of the 2019 African Cup of Nations in the round of 16 by Benin. A whopping 24 match unbeaten run has them in good form coming in. The only other team in the group to have won this tournament is Ghana who have done it four times but not since 1982. The Black Stars have made the semifinal in six of the last seven African Cup of Nations with the only exception being in the 2019 tournament. Gabon is likely only going to go as far as captain and leading goalscorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can take them. The furthest they have progressed recently was to the quarterfinals in 2012 when Aubameyang was tied as the tournament’s top scorer with three.

Players to watch out for

One of the most discussed players in the last month and a half is Arsenal and Gabon’s Aubameyang who has been seemingly dropped by Mikel Arteta as Arsenal’s captain. This tournament will give Aubameyang the opportunity to play significant minutes for the first time since December 2nd. Another player that has had issues with coaching recently is Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech that misses out on the chance to play for Morocco after having a feud with coach Vahid Halilhodzic. Morocco will have the use of PSG star Achraf Hakimi. Hakimi has started in all but four of the French side’s 20 matches in Ligue 1 and could very easily continue his form over to the Morocco side. Ghana is led by the Ayew brothers, Jordan and team captain André. 

Prediction

There will not be any dull matches in this group, but Morocco is just a little too far ahead of the rest and should win this group. Unless Aubameyang regains his form second place will be Ghana’s with Gabon third and Comoros finishing their first major tournament in last.

Group D (Egypt, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Sudan)

In a group that contains two of Africa’s most successful countries and one of the best players in the world all eyes fall on Group D. Egypt has won the African Cup of Nations seven times including three consecutive from 2006 to 2010. The Pharaohs will look to return to the top and anything less will be a let down especially with Mohamed Salah leading the way. Egypt comes in as the betting favorite to win the group, but it is very much a toss up between them and Nigeria. Nigeria made sudden changes when they fired their coach just four weeks before the tournament started. They have brought in Augustine Eguavoen for his third tenure as the team’s head coach. Eguavoen will be looking for his side to challenge for the title which would be their fourth and first since 2013. The only other team in this group to have had success in the African Cup of Nations in the past was Sudan who won in 1970, but have not qualified since 2012. As far as Guinea-Bissau go this is their third consecutive appearance in the competition after having never qualified prior, but there is very little chance that they will go any further than the group stage as was the case in 2017 and 2019.

Players to watch out for

Salah has been the hottest player in the world this season with 23 goals in 26 matches for Liverpool across the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League. The ‘Egyptian King’ returned to an Egyptian side that lost in the semifinals of the FIFA Arab Cup without him giving a huge boost to the team ahead of the tournament. Nigeria is also led by Premier League players Leicester City forward Kelechi Iheanacho and midfielder Wilfred Ndidi. Beyond those two keep an eye out on Ahmed Muse, who has over 100 caps for Nigeria, to make an impact.

Prediction

It can go either way but it will be Nigeria and Egypt getting out of the group with Sudan and Guinea-Bissau being left behind. 

Group E (Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone)

Algeria comes in with one goal at mind to retain their title after winning the 2019 African Cup of Nations 1-0 over Senegal. This group should not be able to do too much to stop them from advancing to the knockout stage. Another storyline for Algeria is that they have gone 33 matches without a loss in international play. Italy set the record last year by reaching 37 without a loss. A trip to the quarterfinals would be enough for Algeria to match the Italian’s record. The Ivory Coast is the second best team in the group and should have no trouble reaching the knockout stage. The Elephants are in a restart period as players from the golden generation are in their mid to late 30s and players in the new generation are getting into the swing of things. The two time winners could be able to better their performance in 2019 that saw them knocked out by Algeria on penalties in the quarterfinal, but do not quite crack the top as a favorite to win. Rounding out the group are Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone this is the third time qualifying for both countries with Equatorial Guinea finishing in fourth place in 2015 and Sierra Leone never having advanced out of the group stage. For Equatorial Guinea, this is the first time they have qualified not as the hosts of the tournament. 

Players to watch out for

Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez is the biggest name in this group and leads the very strong Algeria side. Other Algerian players to keep an eye on are West Ham’s Saïd Benrahma and Al-Rayyan midfielder Yacine Brahimi, who has 23 goals in 48 matches for the Qatari side. The Ivory Coast is able to match the big names of Algeria with Wilfred Zaha of Crystal Palace, Eric Bailly of Manchester United, and Franck Kessié of AC Milan. An under the radar player that has been outstanding this season is Ajax forward Sébastien Haller. The Ivory Coast frontman has scored 22 goals in all competitions for Ajax this season and could cause problems for opposing defenses in his first major international tournament.

Prediction

Algeria will keep their hot streak going and finish first in this group with the Ivory Coast as a close second. For the bottom two teams, I could see both teams finish with one point each, but I would have to give a slight advantage to Equatorial Guinea over Sierra Leone.

Group F (Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Tunisia)

Two years ago Tunisia made the semifinal before losing to Senegal 1-0. Tunisia comes in off a second place finish in the Arab Cup where they lost 2-0 against Algeria. The pace of the group should be set by Tunisia who are the 30th ranked team in FIFA’s rankings. They are a contender to win the cup and look to win their second African Cup of Nations after glory as hosts in 2004. A lack of experience in this competition is on display in this group with Mauritania making their second qualification (2019) and Gambia making their debut in the African Cup of Nations. With that Mali should be able to take advantage as the second best team in the group. Mali finished second in 1972, but has failed to get past the round of 16 in any of the last three African Cup of Nations. The Eagles are flying high as they have made the World Cup play-offs for the first time putting them one step away from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

Players to watch out for

This group does not contain a lot of star power but that is made up with the number of good young players that will be called upon to play a big role for their countries. 18-year-old Tunisian midfielder Hannibal Mejbri has only made one appearance for Manchester United this season, but the young talent is more than capable of making an impact for Tunisia. Another young player that should be key for his team is Ibrahime Koné of Mali. The 22-year-old plays his club soccer in Norway with Sarpsborg 08 and has scored 11 goals for the team while scoring eight goals in six matches for Mali. Mali has another key player in Adama Traoré. The forward from Sheriff Tiraspol was part of the Moldovan side’s historic Champions League performance and will bring the same for Mali.

Prediction

Tunisia are favorites to contend for a reason and should be able to comfortably get out of the group with only Mali posing a real test. Mali should finish second and could even win the group if they upset Tunisia. It will likely be over in the group stage for both Gambia and Mauritania.

Final Prediction

Senegal 2-1 Egypt

In a battle of the last two runners-up Senegal will have enough to finally get over the hump and win their first African Cup of Nations while giving Sadio Mane bragging rights over his Liverpool teammate Mohamed Salah.

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