THE cream of the crop from African football has descended on Gabon for the African Cup of Nations. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) analyses the best bets from Group A.
AFCON 2017 | Group A | 14-22 January 2017
*Odds in brackets beside nation’s represent the best price available on winning the group.
Burkino Faso (5/1 BetVictor)
Burkino Faso arrived at AFCON 2015 with high hopes of emulating their success in 2013 when the Stallions reached the final. It was the Burkinabe’s best showing on the continental stage and expectations were raised.
But hopes were soon quashed after a car crash performance in Equatorial Guinea. Burkino Faso limped out with just one goal and one point to their name and promptly ditched head coach Paul Put – the mastermind behind their rise to underdog kings.
Paulo Duarte has since arrived for his second spell in charge having lead Gabon at the last finals and the 47 year-old inherits an experienced squad with much the same spine and core from 2013.
The Stallions have reached 10 of the past 12 AFCONs but only twice progressed past the group-stage. However, hopes are once again raised and probably justified too having been pooled in one of the softest groups in 2017.
They may have been a touch unconvincing during qualification – needing a goal in the 11th minute of stoppage-time against Botswana to top their group, qualifying in top spot due a better head-to-head record against Uganda – but their 4-2-3-1 approach and continuity should stand them in good stead.
There’s plenty of attacking intent with Bertrand Traore leading the charge and they’re anchored excellently by captain Charles Kabore in midfield. Player of the tournament in 2013, Jonathan Pitroipa, remains key but like their group rivals, defence is potentially a concern where Bakary Kone is the pick of a bad bunch.
Cameroon 11/8 (SkyBet)
Four-time AFCON winners Cameroon have been chalked up as Group A favourites but it’s hard to find the faith to back the Indomitable Lions despite their form on paper reading well.
Former Belgian international Hugo Broos took charge in 2015, his first national posting following an electric managerial career. The 64 year-old was coaching in Algeria before seeing the vacant post advertised online and is looking to recapture the glories he enjoyed with Club Brugge and Anderlecht in the 90s.
But progress has been tricky with an on-going player v country row ruling the likes of Joel Matip, Allan Nyom, Carlos Kameni, Alex Song, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Stephane Mbia and Sebastian Bassong from inclusion in January.
The Indomitable Lions failed to make it out of their group at AFCON 2015 and I wouldn’t rule a repeat despite gliding through qualification unbeaten, conceding only two goals in the process. You see, Cameroon have a knack for being flat-track bullies and the current crop look worrying short on creativity and cutting-edge in midfield.
Broos’ backline has plenty of experience but centre-back Nicolas Nkoulou – one of the nation’s leading lights – has recently been dropped by Lyon for poor performances in a below-par defence and there has to be doubts over how they’ll feed their generous array of forward talent.
Vincent Aboubakar, Clinton N’Jie and Benjamin Moukandjo pack plenty of attacking punch but the side feels a little lopsided with masses of defensive midfielders often unable to unlock stubborn opposition.
Don’t expect fireworks – only three of Cameroon’s past 24 games have been settled by a margin of two goals or more – and the Indomitable Lions might well make the knockout stages having lost only twice in 25 games against African nations. But as far as favouritism goes, they’re overrated and best opposed.
Gabon (6/4 BetVictor)
Gabon equalled their best ever finish at an AFCON when reaching the quarter-finals as hosts back in 2012 and the Panthers pitched up at 2015’s competition with plenty of pundits tipping the oil-rich nation to upset the odds.
But an early exit disappointed supporters as the ‘golden generation’ that lifted the CAF U23 Championship title in 2013 failed to perform on the continental stage. However, there is hope Gabon can put on a show this time around in front of their adoring supporters.
It’s been a tough time for the locals of late. September’s presidential elections saw the Bongo family remain in power despite widespread allegations of corruption. The nation rioted in response and whilst tempers have calmed, Gabon could do with a decent run at glory to ease tension.
A manageable group plus home advantage should certainly aid the Panthers’ prospects but their preparation has been far from ideal. A poor showing at the African Nations Championship – Africa’s equivalent competition that uses only players based in the continent – plus four friendly losses in five saw Jorge Costa removed as head coach in November after three years in the position.
The vastly experienced Jose Antonio Camacho was given the gig only 45 days before the start of AFCON 2017 and his first taste of competitive action will be against Group A outsiders Guinea-Bissau. It could have been a lot worse.
On the playing-side, little has changed. The Central African nation will line-up in their standard 4-3-3 formation, designed to attack at lightning quick pace. All-time top goalscorer and skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the undoubted star of the side but there’s quality elsewhere.
Sunderland’s record signing Didier Ndong makes up a combative midfield with Levy Madinda and Mario Lemina whilst Malick Evouna and Guelor Kanga are capable of hurting defences alongside Aubameyang. If there’s one concern, it’s defence where Bruno Manga is short on game time at Cardiff.
There are obvious doubts over the coaching situation but Gabon have suffered only one reverse in 20 at home and with Mali, Burkino Faso and Equatorial Guinea all surpassing expectation when hosting, I reckon the Panthers can follow suit and book a place in the last-eight.
Guinea-Bissau (33/1 Ladbrokes)
The only debutants at AFCON 2017 are unheralded rank outsiders Guinea-Bissau.
The Djurtus – meaning African wild dog – were ranked 134th in the world when the qualifying draw took place and favourites to finish bottom behind Zambia, Kenya and Congo. Having collected one point from their first two fixtures, Guinea-Bissau looked all but out.
However, 68 year-old Baciro Cande returned for his second spell as national team boss in February 2016 and proceeded to guide the minnows to back-to-back 1-0 victories over Kenya and a 96th minute winner at home to Zambia to help secure qualification with a game to spare. Remarkable.
Before 2016, Guinea-Bissau had claimed a sole win in 17 outings and only four triumphs in Nations Cup and World Cup qualification combined since first entering international competition just 22 years ago.
And although their fairytale adventure is a welcome feel-good story for a nation that’s been muddled in social and economic issues, the underdogs’ 0 goal difference and 10 point tally in qualification was the lowest of all AFCON 2017 teams.
Cande has spoken candidly about the wonderful team spirit in the ranks and his defence-first 4-5-1 approach could cause frustration for a few of their group rivals. There’s also pace, invention and flair in attacking areas thanks to former Liverpool youth winger Toni Silva and creative fulcrum Zezinho.
But striker Cicero’s injury this month rules out their most experienced forward and captain Bocundji Ca remains without a club. In fact, the most capped player in the squad has 20 international appearances and the Djurtus’ threadbare roster includes players based in Norway, Korea and Romania.
The Guinea-Bissau FA have worked overtime to try and persuade players of Portuguese origin with links to the country to convert and some members of the group don’t even speak the language. And to make matters worse, the players went on strike just a week before the tournament after bonuses went unpaid.
It’s a far from ideal situation for a nation that looks likely to prop up the standings in Group A.
Cameroon appear far too short to consider a viable betting option and having delved a little deeper, the Indomitable Lions could well be ousted in the top-two positions by hosts Gabon and Burkino Faso.
The pair can be supported in the Duel Forecast market at 3/1 (SkyBet) and that looks a handy option to attack if like me you’re down on Cameroon’s prospects.
Elsewhere, debutants Guinea-Bissau should justify their position as rock-solid favourites to finish bottom of the pool with 4/7 available at SkyBet for such a scenario.