Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Sun 20 January 2008

African Cup of Nations Preview (Part 4)

Today at 5.00 pm (GMT), the 2008 African Cup of Nations begins with the opening game between hosts Ghana and Guinea. Before the colour, passion and noise bursts into life, let's complete our preview of the four First Round groups by checking out Group D.

Group D
Every major competition seems to have a 'Group of Death', and where this year's African Cup of Nations is concerned, this is it. Whoever gets through to the quarter-finals from here will consider themselves lucky to be alive.

First, there's Angola, a team whose international football history has only really lasted for about 25 years. Even after their first entry to the African tournament in 1982, they only reached the Finals for the first time in 1996 and haven't gone past the First Round since.

What gives them a chance this time, however, is the momentum gained from getting to the World Cup Finals for the first time in 2006. Though they failed to win a match in Germany, they did hold Mexico and Iran to draws and lost only 1-0 against Portugal.

This relative success for a team so lacking in experience transferred to their ACN 2008 qualifying campaign where they cruised to top spot in Group 6 ahead of Eritrea, Kenya and Swaziland. They're another team that seem to be able to score lots of goals from many different sources, so perhaps this is the year for Angola to go beyond Round 1.

Next is Senegal, a team that made their World Cup debut four years before Angola and made even more of an impact by beating reigning champions France in their first game. 2002 was quite a year for them as they also reached the Final of the African Nations Cup in Mali, losing out only on penalties to Cameroon, but since then, Senegal have lost their way somewhat.

Beaten in the quarter-finals of the last competition by eventual champions Tunisia and prevented from qualifying for the 2006 World Cup by Togo has seen Senegal's rise to fame nipped in the bud, but they're still a threat as can be seen by the wealth of recognisable players in their squad.

Names like El Hadji Diouf, Henri Camara, Abdoulaye Faye and Papa Bouba Diop are already familiar to fans of the Premier League and together with numerous others plying their trade in Europe, Senegal should have the strength in depth to go far in this competition.

The third team in the group are somewhat of a curiosity. South Africa are gearing up to host the World Cup Finals in two years time - the first African country to do so - and they'll no doubt be the focus of attention for many onlookers keen to see how their preparations are going.

They may be in for a surprise. With apartheid at an end, the South Africans arrived on the scene and won the ACN in 1996, but a gradual decline in fortunes followed to the point where they failed to progress past Round 1 on the last two occasions. They didn't even score a goal in the 2006 competition and finished bottom of their group.

The concern raised by such under-achievement still remains today. The Bafana Bafana were quietly efficient in reaching Ghana 2008 but not exactly clinical. Three wins from six matches, as well as a couple of draws, was only good enough to get them into second place behind Zambia and even then they only qualified as the third-best of the three highest scoring group runners-up.

Dangerously close to not qualifying at all, South Africa are on a mission to convince the sceptical and while it's entirely possible that they'll win through to the quarter-finals, it'd be a foolish man that bets a lot of money on them winning the competition outright.

Last but not least, Tunisia. As we've already mentioned, they were the winners of the African Nations Cup in 2004 and did so on home soil. Reason enough to win it, you'd think, but at the time everyone was expecting Nigeria to win instead.

It's the first lesson in following Tunisia: dismiss them at your peril. They've become masters at the art of being the backmarker while others set off at a ferocious pace in this sort of contest. The only question is whether they ever actually make a late break for glory or not.

They tried in 2006 but were denied progress beyond the quarter-finals thanks to a penalty shoot-out win by Nigeria and in the run-up to this year's finals they began slowly again by qualifying as runners-up in Group 4 behind Sudan.

Many of the players in the current squad come from the Etoile Du Sahel club that recently played in the FIFA World Club Cup, so they shouldn't be short of confidence and experience. Many of the others are playing their club football around Europe, so if it's discipline, fitness and tactical awareness you want, Tunisia could be the team for you.

This group, however, could be the one that springs the biggest surprise. Chances are, whoever you predict to get out of this group and into the quarter-finals won't, so sit back, watch the action and prepare to raise an eyebrow or two as the biggest saga of the First Round unfolds.

Group D Matches:
Jan 23: Tunisia v Senegal (Tamale)
Jan 23: South Africa v Angola (Tamale)
Jan 27: Senegal v Angola (Tamale)
Jan 27: Tunisia v South Africa (Tamale)
Jan 31: Senegal v South Africa (Kumasi)
Jan 31: Tunisia v Angola (Tamale)

So that completes our preview of the 2008 African Cup of Nations. It'll be great seeing who's the more determined to lift the trophy over the next three weeks and we'll be doing our best to spread the word on the tournament with regular news reports and video clips just for you.

There's also the chance to talk about your thoughts on the competition right here by leaving us a comment or two in our regular posts, or alternatively, why not head over to one of our favourite sites, Pitch Invasion, where you can do the same with other like-minded folk? You'll be jolly glad you did...

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