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 D.
There’s not one but TWO Groups of Death for punters to try and negotiate at the 2015 Nations Cup. Thankfully, Group D isn’t quite as tricky with Ivory Coast and Cameroon joined by Mali and Guinea.
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 D teams.
Ivory Coast (4/5 Coral)
Ivory Coast arrive at the Nations Cup with the favourites tag hanging around their neck, again. We’ve been here before with the Elephants and so often they fail to realise their potential in front of a global audience. Reaching only two of the last five finals (winning zip) is simply not good enough.
So how do you solve the problem? Well, the Ivory Coast went out and signed up Nations Cup winning coach Herve Renard. The strict-enforcer guided Zambia to a stunning 2012 triumph and has been seen, at least by the Elephants’ FA, as the answer to the continuing under-performance at major tournaments. But I’m not convinced.
Punters and the public are often transfixed by the quality the Ivory Coast boast in attacking areas. Dider Drogba may have gone but Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony are hypnotising names. However, Bony may not even be fielded from the off having been dropped for their final two qualifiers. And Yaya’s under pressure to consistently show his club form at international level. Yes, there’s an abundance of fantastic talent going forward but there’s still serious issues at the other end of the pitch.
Defensively, the Elephants remain a shambles. A 4-1 defeat to group rivals Cameroon and a 4-3 home loss to DR Congo in qualifying (their first home defeat in nine years) brought about a return for Kolo Toure in an attempt to shore things up. Their 11 goals conceded meant they had the most porous backline of all qualified sides and it’s a huge red stop sign in my face when viewing the Elephants as potential champions, and even group winners.
They’re physically imposing, they’re athletic, they’re good on the ball, they’re combative in the middle and they have a superb array of attacking talent but you’re not going to go far unless you stop haemorrhaging goals. Just ask Brendan Rodgers.
Should it all come together then of course they’re a threat but we’ve been here before and there’s no way I could be interesting in such short prices for the group or to win the competition outright. Yuck.
Cameroon (12/5 Ladbrokes)
Now here’s a team I like. It may surprise you to learn that since the World Cup debacle, Cameroon are a changed team. Coach Volker Finke was given a stay of execution and boy, has he repaid his employers. I’ve been so seduced by the turnaround of the Indomitable Lions, I think they can go the distance.
Samuel Eto’o and Alex Song were the big name casualties as Finke completely remodelled his personnel and retooled ahead of the qualifying campaign. The new-look side have been renovated and reaping the rewards for showing faith in young stars and moulding them together seamlessly with some of the continents best performers.
Amazingly, 15 of the 23 players Finke took to Brazil haven’t started a match for the Indomitable Lions since. Vincent Aboubakar, Nicholas N’Kolou and Eric Choupo-Moting are a match for most in Africa and they form the core of the new-look venture. They’re now solid and consistent at the back, effective up front and most importantly, hard working and well-drilled at their high-pressing game.
Cameroon topped their qualifying pool ahead of group rivals Ivory Coast and were unbeaten across the six games, leaking just the once. Barcelona B goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa is just 19 but looks destined for greatness in goal whilst starlet Clinton N’Die has been a breath of fresh air since bursting onto the scene to add even more armoury in attacking areas.
There’s a concern about a lack of experience and tournament know-how but the team are full of confidence and should be backed by a strong following – Cameroon are playing close to home just off the coast in Malabo during the group-stage – and I’m genuinely excited to see how this team can flourish. Has the transformation come too quick? Potentially. But having seen plenty of surprises in recent tournaments, I’m happy to put my faith in the Indomitable Lions.
Mali (8/1 BetVictor)
Warning! What you’re going to see from Mali at the Nations Cup ain’t going to be pretty. Unless you’re a supporter of Stoke, and then it’ll be right up your street. Physically imposing, direct, disruptive, ugly. What more would you expect from a side featuring an abundance of players over six feet tall.
Well, Eagles fans will point to successive third-placed finishes and four semi-finals appearances in their past six showings at the Nations Cup. No doubt, that's a great record but there’s reason to believe it’ll end in Equatorial Guinea. That’s not my protest against their style of play, more a likely summarisation of where they’re now at in the continental game.
Mali made hard work of qualifying, losing at home to Ethiopia and away to Malawi, conceding five goals across those two defeats. A final day win against already qualified Algeria secured their place but it’s far from encouraging form. Coach Henryuk Kasperczak, who finished third in the World Cup as a Polish player in 1974, is at his fifth Nations Cup but despite his previous success, has come under the spotlight. Team selection has been littered with inconsistencies (both goalkeepers from qualifying have been axed, for example), and their remains a huge weight on 35-year-old Seydou Keita’s shoulders as the leading emotional and technical light.
The Eagles simply don’t have the tools to unlock opposition defences. They rely on their physical nature to get on the end of crosses and set-pieces and with teams like Ivory Coast and Cameroon in their group for company, it’s hard to see them coming close to recapturing another semi-final place in 2015. Their last 17 matches have resulted in nine defeats and so apologies Mali fans, but I’m willing your team to fail.
Guinea (14/1 William Hill)
So we’ve slagged off Mali and that means we’ve got some space in our hearts to give to Guinea, right? Most definitely. They were hands-down the story of the qualifying phase and we must all show them as much emotional support as possible. Just don’t be too quick to show them financial support yet…
Guinea were forced to play all their home games in Morocco after the deadly Ebola pandemic spread across the nation but Michael Dussuyer’s side defied expectations, stigma and upheaval too book their place in Equatorial Guinea. After four games they had just four points to their name but wins in their final two fixtures saw them take second spot, finishing just a point behind Ghana. Incredible!
Those two victories came against Togo and Uganda, both of whom were still fighting for a qualification place. They smashed six goals across the two matches and it’s that clinical finishing which makes them a threat to the super-powers of Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Ibrahima Traore is joined by Seydouba Soumah and Mohammed Lamine in a quality forward line that plays predominantly on a lightning quick counter-attack and electric transitions.
Dussuyer’s is in his third stint as Guinea boss and his strong leadership has been a big advantage to the team during difficult circumstances. As is the continuity throughout the squad – five players started all six qualifiers – but if there’s a weakness it could be at the back. The Sparrow Hawks kept only one clean sheet during the qualifiers, which doesn’t bode well for a side that adopt a safety-first attitude.
Having already produced a minor miracle to get this far can their siege mentality take them further? It’s a mighty tall order against some of the continent’s highest-powered nations. Sadly, their defensive deficiencies are likely to be exposed against ruthless opponents and they could be heading home early.
No prizes for guessing what my best bet is in Group D. It’s all about Cameroon and interestingly, we can get a bigger price on the Indomitable Lions winning the group (12/5 Ladbrokes) than we can on the straight-forecast with Ivory Coast taking second spot (6/4 BetVictor).
The romantic in me wanted to take the 7/2 (Betfair) on Guinea qualifying but facing the big-two in their first two fixtures is a huge ask. Just promise me you’ll reserve all your love for the Sparrow Hawks and give none of it to Mali. Cheers.
Cameroon to win Group D (12/5 Ladbrokes)