ONE of the most open African Cup of Nations tournaments in living memory gets underway in Gabon in January. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) highlights his best outright bets.
AFCON 2017 | 14 January – 5 February | Eurosport
Fifty-one African members began the journey and only 16 have made it. There have been bumps, bruises, mourning and elation but the 31st edition of the African Cup of Nations is here. And boy, it’s bloody open!
A quick scan over the recent history of African’s premier international competition allows us to see that two nations have dominated. Egypt and Nigeria are responsible for winning six of the last 12 AFCON renewals, including four of the last six.
Zambia were shock winners in 2012 to interrupt that run before Ivory Coast finally realised their dreams in Equatorial Guinea two years ago and the Elephants arrive as defending champions.
Two trends remain fairly constant in those tournaments. Firstly, favourites rarely prosper. Just two of the last 11 pre-tournament jollies have ended up lifting the trophy (Egypt in 2008, Ivory Coast 2015).
Secondly, three of the past four winning nations have all boasted squads built largely from domestic-based players (Nigeria 2013, Zambia 2012, as well as Egypt in 2010, 2008 and 2006).
With powerhouses Nigeria failing to qualify, the past nine finals featuring 10 different nations and 15 sides reaching at least the semi-finals in AFCON competition this century, it’s perhaps no surprise to see nine of the 16 teams chalked up at odds of 25/1 or shorter to win the cup outright.
Having ended their 23-year wait for an AFCON trophy last time out, Ivory Coast (4/1 Coral) are once again the team to beat according to the bookies.
Only three nations have successfully defended their title but with a manageable group, the Elephants should find themselves in the knockout stages come week two. And despite the retirements and changes in personnel since 2015, Michel Dussuyer’s squad remains as good as any.
Senegal ready to rise
Ivory Coast are justified favourites but Senegal (11/2 BoyleSports) can’t be ruled out.
Despite being drawn in the ‘Group of Death’, the Lions of Teranga pitch up with the arguably the strongest spine to the starting XI and there’s a lovely balance to Aliou Cisse’s team.
Senegal are still searching for their first ever AFCON crown but few teams can match the backbone of Kalidou Koulibaly at centre-half, Idrissa Gueye, Chekihou Kouyate and Mo Diame in midfield with Sadio Mane and Balde Keita Diao leading a three-pronged attack.
Should the Lions of Teranga progress as expected, they’ll face a Group A side in the quarter-finals – arguably the weakest section in the competition. Avoid the hosts Gabon and Senegal should be looking at a reasonably straightforward route towards the final-four.
Eagles represent outsider interest
I could probably pick holes in the majority of the leading contenders and outside of Senegal, it’s Egypt (10/1 SkyBet) that make most appeal. But I’m willing to discount the Pharaohs – who’ve made wonderful progress under Hector Cuper – and take an each-way interest in two outsiders.
Fellow Group D outfit Mali (22/1 each-way SkyBet) are flying under the radar but have a penchant for outperforming expectations at AFCONs. In six of their past nine tournaments, the Eagles have progressed to the knockout stages.
Alain Giresse’s is back in charge and whilst a number of well-known headline acts have left the stage over the past few years, Mali have a talented crop of youngsters beginning to make their mark on the continental scene.
There’s much to dislike about pool rivals Ghana right now and considering Mali have reached the semi-finals in four of the past seven tournaments, the underdogs appear a spot of value to ruffle a few feathers in the bottom half of the draw.
Don’t discount DRC
I also like the look of DR Congo (25/1 each-way Bet365). The Leopards look best-placed to take advantage of Morocco’s injury struggles in Group C and whilst Yannick Bolasie’s absence is a blow, it’s not the game-changer that some sections of the media are making out.
DRC finished third two years ago and in a competition that’s often low-scoring, at times a little tedious, the Leopards bring a bit of the unexpected. Florent Ibenge’s top-heavy artillery make the Congolese tricky opponents.
DR Congo 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 experience of 2015 should stand the side in good stead and they look overpriced on the outright list.
Backing both DR Congo and Mali each-way will see us collect a third of the odds should either side finish as losing finalists.
AFCON 2017 – Senegal to win outright (11/2 Boylesports)
AFCON 2017 – Mali to win outright (22/1 each-way SkyBet)
AFCON 2017 – DR Congo to win outright (25/1 each-way Bet365)