THE cream of the crop from African football has descended on Equatorial Guinea for the African Cup of Nations. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) analyses the best bets from Group B.
Tunisia, Zambia, DR Congo and Cape Verde make up Group B with all four teams having serious aspirations for reaching the quarter-finals.
I’ve outlined my Outright selections here but below I’ll assess the chances and the best bets on offer for all four of the Group B teams.
Tunisia (7/5 Ladbrokes)
Tunisia are the team I’ve got to be with in Group B. Like Group A, it’s a very winnable pool and the Carthage Eagles should be able to bully their way through to the quarter-finals without too many problems. After all, Belgium are the only side to beat them in 2014.
The North Africans have made plenty of progress in the past year since failing to qualify for the World Cup with Belgian boss Georges Leekens overseeing a new steely determination in the squad. They’re now defensively resilient, unglamorous, hard-working and thanks to Leekens, have a game plan for all opposition.
Qualifying for the tournament was impressive but arguably more eyebrow raising were their back-to-back clean sheets against Senegal, a side much vaunted for their abundance of attacking talents. In all, Tunisia conceded just twice during the qualifiers and it’ll be that backline that should hold them in good stead this year.
There’s also a strong sense of familiarity about the squad. Eight of the 23-man group featured in five of their six qualifiers and Leekens is unlikely to deviate to far from his tried-and-trusted methods. They’re youthful, buoyant and built on a strong core of domestic-based players meaning no egos to disrupt the camp.
Front man Fakherredine Ben Youssef will throw his weight around in attack whilst captain Yassine Chikhaoui, Wahbi Khazri and Youssef Msakni can win matches and change games meaning, despite their defensive outlook, the Carthage Eagles have the tools to unlock the best defences. They're understandable favourites.
Zambia (10/3 Betfair)
Zambia sent shockwaves around the globe when upsetting the odds to take 2012 Nations Cup glory but just a year later the defending champions exited the competition at the group-stage with a whimper. But that shouldn’t have been as big a surprise as their 2012 triumph.
The Copper-headed Bullets had failed to advance past the first stage of the tournament in seven previous renewals so perhaps their flop in South Africa was just the side returning to par. A failed World Cup bid followed but head coach Honour Janza has rung the changes, to positive effect.
Janza has insisted he has a long-term goal, alleviating pressure on the team and also breeding a younger, hungrier squad. Part of the backroom team for the last six years, the 48-year-old has named 13 players aged 24 or below with maverick goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene the oldest in the group at 30. Look out for Mweene; prone to blunders but also pops up with the odd penalty too. Yeah, a goalscoring keeper!
Supporters have been encouraged by the fact Zambia enter the tournament in better form than they did in 2012. Just one loss in qualification and a record of W4-D3-L2 since the end of the summer shows they’re no slouches. And they’ve a lucky omen behind them too – all five of their ACON games en route to the final in 2012 were played in Equatorial Guinea.
But that’s where the dreaming should end. The current squad could only manage six goals during qualifying, three of which came at home to minnows Niger, and there’s fragility to their attack. A lack of power or enforcers also make them brittle across the park, meaning their easy on the eye approach is often interrupted against more imposing opposition.
What’s more, 2012’s winning skipper Christopher Katongo, a former African Player of the Year, has been dropped after rumours of ill-discipline whilst defender Henry Nyambe’s injury suffered in a fatal car crash has reduced Janza’s slim options.
Cape Verde (4/1 Boylesports)
The past 10 years has seen Cape Verde rise rapidly to join the continental’s elite, making this their second successive Nations Cup tournament having dined with the minnows for most their footballing lives. Their 2013 qualification was the first major tournament for the Blue Sharks and with that experience under their belts, they’re back and tooled up for another bash.
The Blue Sharks impressed in South Africa, reaching the quarter-finals before succumbing to a controversial penalty against Ghana. Although they missed out on World Cup qualification, Cape Verde were amongst the first teams to book their place for 2015’s ACON and are currently ranked fourth in the continent. Not bad for a small island nation, eh?
And there’s a familiarity about their group opponents. The Blue Sharks topped their relatively easy qualifying pool ahead of Zambia and also came up against Tunisia during the World Cup preliminaries. Their record of W1-L3 in those four fixtures doesn’t inspire too much confidence but they’ve a settled side, a positive often taken for granted.
Coach Rui Aguas has benefited from the Portuguese influence and the Portuguesa coach will know his wealth of attacking players must start unlocking defences if they’re to continue their blistering rise to prominence. In 2014 alone Cape Verde have failed to break down Zambia, Mozambique and Luxembourg.
Helton, of Sporting, is the key man. A threat from set-pieces, the diminutive attacking midfielder will shoulder the creative burden. However, his game time has been limited this season; not ideal when fellow headliner Ryan Mendes has struggled to kick on from his promising displays two years ago.
It’s a kind group draw for the Blue Sharks and with Aguias holding the reigns, they should be capable of progressing. Their lack of goals is a concern but the 2013 experience along with their familiarity and settled side should be a big advantage when the games kick-off.
DR Congo (7/1 Unibet)
Predicating and summarising DR Congo is no easy task. They could be brilliant. They could be atrocious. What we do know is, they were all over the place in qualifying but managed to book their place as the best third-placed finishers. On the surface it sounds unremarkable but they were in a very tough group along with Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
The Leopards did lose three of their four games against the big-two but a 4-3 win over Ivory Coast in Abidjan was the Elephants’ first home defeat in nine years and warrants maximum respect. Going by that achievement, DR Congo have enough quality to mount a challenge for their first quarter-final berth since 2006.
Premier League pair Youssouf Mulumbu and Yannick Bolasie will be recognisable names but tiny Cedric Mabwarti and Bolasie are the diamonds in the rough. Bundles of pace and trickery make them difficult customers for opposition defenders and the Leopards will need both to be on song if their aspirations are to be realised.
Jeremy Bokila and Junior Kabananga are bustling forwards who will require close attention but if there’s one obvious weakness, it’s that the Leopards could be too top-heavy. Central defence is an area of strength but Florent Ibenge’s men are often undone by their attack-minded midfield whilst legendary goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba is always an accident waiting to happen.
Ibenge led DR Congo club side AS Vita Club to the African Champions League last year but their domestic team are considered continental giants. A coach who’s willing to allow his side to express themselves, the 52-year-old will need his attack to sparkle and hope all are aware of their defensive responsibilities. Whether they can find that balance (and more importantly) stick to it is the question that needs to be answered.
With Tunisia standing out, I’ve got to make them the best Group B bet to come out on top. I’m happy seeing anything at odds-against so the 7/5 on offer from Ladbrokes is right up my street.
It’s my only position. I’d like to make a case for Cape Verde in the To Qualify market but there’s not enough juice in 5/4 (BetVictor) as, along with DR Congo and Zambia, it’s easier to pick holes in their armoury than shout about their positives.
With a gun to my head, I’d have a small nibble on BetVictor’s 6/1 Straight Forecast for Tunisia-Cape Verde but I’ll keep my pounds in my pocket on this occasion.
Tunisia to win Group B (7/5 Ladbrokes)