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 C.
AFCON 2017 | Group C | 16-24 January 2017
*Odds in brackets beside nation’s represent the best price available on winning the group.
Ivory Coast (8/13 Paddy Power)
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Ivory Coast had too often flattered to deceive on the continental stage and just two African Cup of Nations finals in five tournaments despite their perennial pricing as competition favourites looked like leaving the Elephants’ golden generation trophy-less.
But the nation installed AFCON specialist Herve Renard to coach the team in their supposedly last hurrah. Renard made it his business to fix the defence, organising his outfit into a 5-4-1 and the pragmatist added basic organisation to the backbone of the team.
Despite a slow start, the Elephants soon bought into Renard’s ideals and it paid dividends. In 2015, Ivory Coast defeated Ghana in the final on penalties to claim their first title since 1992. Naturally, there was an outpouring of emotion and various senior members of the squad decided to bow out after that high.
The Toure brothers are no longer about, penalty hero Boubacar Barry hung up his boots, Didier Drogba had already gone and Dider Zokora’s also no more. Renard also walked away with mission complete and Michel Dussuyer is the new man in the dugout, tasked with defending the title – only three nations have previously done so.
Dussuyer’s a vastly experienced coach having twice guided Guinea to the quarter-finals in 2004 and 2015. The former goalkeeper knows the continent well – this will be his fifth AFCON – and he’s also had a spell in charge of Benin, as well as a role as Ivory Coast’s assistant boss in 2006 when they reached the final.
The Elephants are unbeaten since the start of AFCON 2015 and haven’t been beaten by African opposition since October 2014. But it would be wrong to suggest it’s all sunshine and brightness. The team have reverted to their 4-3-3 approach but they’re a much more youthful and inexperienced outfit.
Salomon Kalou is the only squad member with more than 50 caps and despite decent results, performances haven’t always convinced. Ivory Coast’s W1-D3-L0 return against Sudan and Sierre Leone also suggested Dussuyer was yet to stumble across the magic formula.
Wilfried Bony lacks match fitness and may even be usurped by Jonathan Kodjia in the central striking role. Gervinho’s injury robs the Elephants of their most fearsome creative force but Wilfried Zaha’s inclusion should at least give the attack a much-needed injection of confidence.
Surprisingly, it’s in defence where Ivory Coast standout. Lamine Kone, Wilfried Kanon, Eric Bailly and Serge Aurier make-up three of their four key defenders from the 2015 triumph and with Franck Kessie in the heart of midfield alongisde Serey Die and Jean-Michael Seri, there’s plenty of engine, bite and box-to-box ability.
Ivory Coast have been chalked up as pre-tournament favourites and although a few key players are out of form or short on game-time, the defending champions have enough in their tank to safely navigate Group C.
DR Congo 13/2 (Betway)
DR Congo finished third at AFCON 2015 despite winning just once in 90 minutes en-route to the third/fourth play-off. The Leopards have often failed to turn potential into points on the continent’s biggest stage but their performances encouraged and there’s hope they can build on such a finish here.
Injury to Yannick Bolasie has dampened the mood back home but if there’s one area DR Congo have cover in, it’s in the final third. The squad is top-heavy, packed with power, pace and bundles of trickery. In fact, the Achilles heel for Florent Ibenge’s men is their front-foot midfield.
Ibenge remains in position having taken charge in August 2014 – the same year he guided AS Vita Club to the 2014 CAF Champions League final, a position he still holds – and the boss has taken to fielding the likes of Chancel Mbemba in the holding midfield role alongside Youssuf Mulumbu in an attempt to stiffen up his side.
At the back, Gabriel Zakuani and Marcel Tisserand are far from an assured centre-back pairing but legendary goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba is no more so there are less accidents waiting to happen. In fact, the framework has at least been put in place to be defensively successful.
The Congolese have suffered just one defeat in all competitions since AFCON 2015 and over the past two years only Senegal have won more fixtures in Africa. The Leopards made light work of qualification – winning five of their six games with only Algeria scoring more goals than DR Congo’s 16.
During 2018 World Cup qualification, the side have already impressively beaten Libya and Guinea – chuck in their success in the 2016 African Nations Championship (a competition where only domestic based players in Africa can play) and the nation are feeling reasonably buoyant about their prospects.
And why not when you’ve a useful team ethic in place and an embarrassment of riches, such as Cedric Bakambu, Herve Kage, Neeskens Kebano and Dieumerci Mbokani to call upon.
With social and political problems back home, DR Congo have the ability to upset the odds at AFCON 2017 and raise a smile for those struggling to cope back home during difficult times – they certainly look like great value at 5/4 (SkyBet) to qualify.
Morocco (4/1 Bet365)
It’s been a turbulent two years for Moroccan football. But having supposedly been banned from the next two AFCON tournaments after deciding against hosting in 2015 due to the Ebola virus, the Atlas Lions were the first nation to book their place at AFCON 2015.
However, that doesn’t tell the full story. Despite taking maximum points from their first two qualifiers, boss Badou Ezzaki was ditched following a long-term period of instability and inconsistency. Morocco brought in AFCON-winning specialist Herve Renard as his replacement.
Renard was given the gig in February and is chasing a record-equalling third AFCON title. He’s been handed a target of the semi-finals as well as 2018 World Cup qualification but he’s been hit hard by a spate of key injuries to his squad in the lead-up to Gabon.
Playmaker Sofiane Boufal, number 10 Younes Belhanda and tricky wideman Nordin Amrabat have all been ruled out through injury, whilst Ajax star Hakim Ziyech was left out of the squad despite scoring five goals in nine appearances.
The North Africans sole success in this competition back in 1976 and the quality they’re missing could prove pivotal in their attempts to reach the final-four. The nation went unbeaten in 2016 and have lost just three of their past 23 against continental rivals but for a time now, performances have failed to convince.
Renard’s been accused of not knowing his best XI – the defensively-minded coach prefers a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 approach but bar skipper Mehdi Benatia at the back, a rejuvenated Karim El Ahmadi and Mbark Boussoufa in midfield plus Youssef El-Arabi in attack, the remaining places in the side are up for grabs.
Morocco will be well organised defensively, relatively strong but not quite as potent as they could or should be. I’m not sure there’s enough in forward areas to really concern opposition defences and they look vulnerable in the qualification stakes from Group C.
Togo (25/1 BetVictor)
Togo are perhaps the luckiest team to be at AFCON 2017.
The Sparrow Hawks finished second in their qualification group but grabbed the last of two places for the best runners-up, progressing to Gabon by the skin of their teeth on goal difference – that was all thanks to the thrashing they served up whipping boys Djibouti.
But it’s also worth highlighting the role that legendary African Cup of Nations coach Claude Le Roy played. Now 69, the veteran of eight AFCONs with five other nations, Le Roy replaced Tom Saintfiet in April 2016 and engineered a turnaround in Togolese fortunes.
Having triumphed in the tournament with Cameroon in 1988, Le Roy has only once failed to reach the quarter-finals and having the floppy-haired tactician in camp must be seen as a major positive. The head coach commands respect and has forged a unity between players and the FA.
Le Roy wouldn’t have taken the role on if he didn’t feel there was quality to work with and although there’s a decent XI, squad depth could be a problem. Nevertheless, ‘The Witchdoctor” as he’s know, will take his standard conservative approach with a likely 4-5-1 formation centered around solidity and staying compact.
There’s little creativity in the middle of the park with club-less Emmanuel Adebayor taking on the main attacking mantle, flanked by the exciting Serge Gakpe and Floyd Ayite. The wings are clearly Togo’s strongest suit but they also pack plenty of threat from set-piece situations.
Alaixys Romao’s tenacity in midfield is possibly the Sparrow Hawks’ redeeming feature and whilst goalkeeper Kossi Agassa’s return from international exile is a major boost, I’m just not sure Le Roy has enough spells in his locker to give Togo the necessary nudge into the knockout stages.
The Sparrow Hawks have only claimed two triumphs in 15 on the road and have only once gotten past the group-stage in eight previous tournaments. It’s Adebayor’s last hurrah and whilst I wouldn’t want to rule them out with Le Roy in charge, they’re the weakest link in a trappy pool.
Having conceded that Togo are the unlikeliest team to reach the last-eight, I’ve still little interest in even-money quotes on the Sparrow Hawks propping up Group C, if only down to the Claude Le Roy factor.
Le Roy’s contest as Togo boss against his trusty star pupil Herve Renard with Morocco is bound to be an emotional affair between two close allies and that showdown on matchday two could prove pivotal for either nations prospects.
Defending champions Ivory Coast boast the pool’s strongest squad and their drastically improved defence should stand the favourites in good stead. But I’m more than happy to throw my weight behind DR Congo to join the Elephants in the knockout stages.
The 15/8 (SkyBet) in the Duel Forecast appears our best option with the Leopards more than capable of picking up vital points against all three opponents. The Yannick Bolasie injury is disappointing but the Congolese are far from a one-trick pony and can negotiate their way to at least the quarter-finals.
AFCON 2017 – Ivory Coast and DR Congo duel forecast (15/8 SkyBet)