Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Wed 16 January 2008

African Cup of Nations Preview (Part 1)

Rejoice and regale for the African Nations Cup will be with us once again on Sunday!

Whatever your opinion on African football, few can deny it's raw, entertaining and often exciting in a way that few other parts of the world can match. The African Cup of Nations brings together the best 16 teams from The Dark Continent in a bid to prove that very point, and this year the action takes place in Ghana, a country that has won the title on four previous occasions.

In a competition where being the host can give you a handy advantage towards winning outright, Ghana could well be looking a fifth title. The last time they hosted the competition on their own in 1978, they picked up the trophy, but having won it only once since in 1982, the Ghanaians may be excused for thinking it could be their time to win again.

So what lies ahead for the host nation and the fifteen qualifiers over the next three weeks? SPAOTP aims to tell you, and to make it all the easier to digest we're breaking down our guide into four pieces, looking at the teams in Groups A to D. Today, naturally enough, it's Group A...

Group A
Ghana, the host nation, can do big things in this tournament. Their recent record has been quite impressive, particularly against fellow African countries, and they have a few players that are making their talent known abroad too.

Top of that list unquestionably is Chelsea's Michael Essien. He'll be the rock in midfield that the rest of the team will be based around. Then there's Sulley Muntari of Portsmouth, another midfielder that's scored four goals already this season, and to complete an excellent midfield line-up is captain Stephen Appiah. Formerly of Juventus and Parma, he's now making a name for himself at Fenerbahce.

If you're looking for familiar names in the Guinea team, there's really only one - Bobo Balde, known to Celtic fans everywhere. Yet he's just one member of a team that collectively made sure Algeria didn't even get to the Nations Cup by finishing top of their qualifying group. The last time that happened to Algeria was 1978, so that's quite an achievement in anyone's book.

Yet for all that, Guinea looked at times decidedly average during the qualifiers. They lost their second match 1-0 to the Cape Verde Islands and had to rely on Gambia beating Algeria 2-1 in the last round of games to secure top spot in the group. They've reached the quarter-finals of the last two African Nations Cups but don't be so sure on Guinea making it three on-the-trot this time out.

Next, we have Morocco, a powerhouse of African football in the 1990's, yet strangely haven't qualified for a World Cup since. In qualifying for this year's Nations Cup, they had an easier task than most in that they featured in a team of three rather than four, and promptly ended the group six points clear of second-place Zimbabwe. All well and good, except the Moroccans were rather economical in the goal-scoring department, putting the ball in the net no more than twice in any of their four games.

Morocco are also hanging on to past glories where the team sheet is concerned. There are still one or two familiar names that once graced the Premier League to conjure with, but their star has long since faded. Talal El Karkouri, previously of Charlton Athletic, has now moved onto the Qatar Sports Club, Youssef Safri labours on with Southampton in the Championship, and the likes of Mustapha Hadji have long since left the national team altogether.

It's not inconceivable that this could be Morocco's fourth Round 1 exit in their last five attempts, but they'll have to deal with Guinea first if they're to prove otherwise.

Finally, Namibia, a relative newcomer to the African Cup of Nations. They didn't even enter the competition until 1998, and since then have only qualified for the Finals once back in 1998 when they crashed out in the first round.

In qualifying for this year's ACN, they were pitted in, what was by their standards, a tough group consisting of Ethiopia, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. With the latter set as favourites to win a place in the Ghana Finals, it was an achievement in itself that Namibia put paid to their chances, especially after they lost two of their opening three games.

Yet their persistence paid off and when it came to their final must-win game against the Ethiopians, they held their nerve to win 3-2 while Congo DR were drawing 1-1 with Libya. Unconvincing they may have been at times, but a battling side they have proved to be and it may that particular quality that puts paid to Morocco or Guinea getting through to Round 2 of the Finals if it doesn't help themselves.

Group A Matches:
Jan 20: Ghana v Guinea (Accra)
Jan 21: Namibia v Morocco (Accra)
Jan 24: Guinea v Morocco (Accra)
Jan 24: Ghana v Namibia (Accra)
Jan 28: Ghana v Morocco (Accra)
Jan 28: Guinea v Namibia (Sekondi-Takoradi)

Coming next in Part 2: Benin, Ivory Coast, Mali and Nigeria...

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