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 B.
AFCON 2017 | Group B | 15-23 January 2017
*Odds in brackets beside nation's represent the best price available on winning the group.
Algeria 7/4 (BetVictor)
It’s been 17 years since Algeria claimed top honours in the African Cup of Nations and after taking the 2014 World Cup by storm, the Desert Foxes quickly installed themselves as the continent’s best ranked side.
Vahid Halidhozic’s had moved on and legendary former Lorient boss Christian Gourcuff had taken up the reigns in time for an underwhelming quarter-final exit at AFCON in 2015.
The North Africans recovered to breeze through qualifying (W5-D1-L0), topping the goal chart with 25 against limited opposition but Gourcuff walked out in April 2016 following a spate of poor friendly results and the offer of a return to Ligue 1.
Algeria have since been in a state of flux. Milovan Rajevac was hired and then fired after just one World Cup qualifier in a though pool alongside Nigeria, Zambia and Cameroon with former Belgium boss George Leekens now the third head coach to take charge in 2016.
Leekens took Tunisia to the quarter-finals in 2015 but was sacked by Lokeren in his last management role and spent a short spell at the helm of Algeria 2013. The 67 year-old pragmatist wasn’t a popular choice and many supporters have become disillusioned with the lack of progress at arguably one of Africa’s strongest squads.
World Cup hopes have receded – they trail Nigeria by five points after two of six fixtures – confidence is low in the camp and there’s been suggestions of player power and inflated egos affecting team performance. The happy ship of 2014 appears to have long since sailed.
Algeria are making their 17th appearance at AFCON but haven’t made the semi-finals since 2010 and whilst the personnel on the pitch are as good as any in Gabon, there must be doubts about the North Africans following their malaise.
The Desert Foxes do boast two of the last three African Footballer’s of the Year, have attacking options with Islam Slimani, Rachid Ghezzal and El Arabi Hillel Soudani plus a host of quality in midfield thanks to Nabil Bentaleb, Yacine Brahimi, Riyad Mahrez amd Adlene Guedioura but even Leekens’ tactics can be questioned.
Defensively they’re nowhere near as strong as group rivals and the Belgium boss is known to prefer to play with the handbrake on, with five at the back or in a narrow, condensed formation. Will that get the best of this bunch in tournament football? I’m not so sure.
Senegal 11/8 (SkyBet)
There’s a touch of the England football team about Senegal this century but unlike the Three Lions, the Lions of Teranga could be ready to rid their tag of underperformers on the continent’s biggest stage in 2017.
Ever-since a wonderful 2002 when Senegal made international headlines in the World Cup and claimed their sole African Cup of Nations title, the nation has arrived packed with promise and potential to kick-on and claim more silverware.
But the Lions of Teranga have struggled to translate such expectations into tangible success, failing to qualify for the World Cup since and exiting AFCON at the group stages in the three tournaments they’ve qualified for from 2006. That’s a poor return for a side that often arrives with high expectations.
But much has changed since 2015. After being part of the Senegal set-up since 2012, captain of the 2002 dream team Aliou Cisse was given the role as national team head coach and the West Africans have flourished under his leadership, albeit against questionable opposition.
The Lions of Teranga were the only side to qualify with a 100% record and an unfortunate defeat against South Africa via 2018 World Cup qualifying remains their only reverse in competition action under Cisse. Expectations are again building back home and I’m keen to chuck my support behind Senegal too.
There’s a balance about the squad. The 4-3-3 approach favoured by Cisse features arguably the tournament’s best defender Kalidou Koulibaly partnered by the impressive Kara Mbodji at centre-half with a midfield three of Idrissa Gueye, captain Cheikhou Kouyate and Mohammed Diame as good as any in Gabon.
And further forward, the West Africans can call upon the continent’s most expensive player, £34m-man Sadio Mane plus Moussa Sow, Moussa Konate and Keita Balde – there’s pace, power, strength, trickery and a clinical nature that provides the side with all the artillery they’ll need to unlock stubborn defences.
Senegal have often arrived at AFCON lauded and I’ve often picked holes in their ability to go the distance but 2017 feels a little different. They’re young, hungry and driven, there’s a talented spine to the side and there’s a coach in charge that all in the county believe in.
This is their best chance at silverware since 2002.
Tunisia (4/1 William Hill)
Tunisia are making their 13th successive African Cup of Nations appearance but their consistency in making the continent's showpiece hasn’t bee matched by success on the pitch. The Carthage Eagles have claimed only one winners medal and that came in 2004 as tournament hosts.
The North Africans were ousted at the quarter-final stage two years ago in controversial circumstances by then hosts Equatorial Guinea and following vigorous protestations towards CAF, the nation was almost banned from even taking part in qualification.
So there’s a feeling amongst Tunisian supporters that 2017 is their opportunity to put a distressing 24 months behind them with a positive showing. The odds are certainly against the group that are now managed (for the second time) by AFCON legend Henryk Kasperczak.
The 70 year-old has handled the reigns at five other African nations and this will be his seventh AFCON. The Pole was Tunisia’s boss when they finished runners up in 1996 and was given the gig again in July 2015. He’s built on the solid foundations to forge a cohesive unit that’s devilishly difficult to beat.
Tunisia have won seven of nine competitive outings under Kasperczak and sit joint-top of their World Cup qualification group. But performances haven’t always matched results and the Carthage Eagles only secured their place in Gabon on the final day of qualification.
Nevertheless, the steely determination in the squad and resilient back-line is suited to tournament football and the strong core of domestic-based players has given Kasperczak plenty to work with. Sure, Tunisia won’t be a thrill-a-minute but their unglamorous and effective.
Aymen Abdennour and Syam Ben Youssef hold a strong back-five together in Kasperczak’s preferred and settled 5-4-1 formation. Attacking flair is in short supply and Tunisia do lack explosive attackers so Whabi Khazri is integral to their success; the Sunderland man is a crucial creative hub in the hole.
The North Africans’ lack of a killer instinct in the final third could prove their undoing – of their 16 goals in qualification, eight came in an 8-1 rout of Djibouti – but with only two defeats since 2014, this supremely organised outfit shouldn’t be underestimated in tournament football.
Zimbabwe (25/1 William Hill)
Zimbabwe were banned from 2018 World Cup qualification after the Warriors’ bankrupt FA failed to pay money owed to three former coaches so few would have expected to see the side reach the African Cup of Nations for the first time since 2006.
Wealthy patrons and benefactors were called on to fund Zimbabwe’s journey through qualification but even so, the Warriors squad were forced to endure nine-hour bus journeys across the continent with cash fiendishly tight.
But the experience galvanised the group. Zimbabwe emerged as surprise group winners in a manageable qualification pool alongside Swaziland, Malawi and Guinea with head coach Casllisto Pasuwa leading the side to just a sole defeat in their last 11 competitive outings.
Pasuwa doubles up his role as national team boss alongside leading the popular Dynamos club back home where he collected 12 trophies in a glittering four years. The 46 year-old has achieved everything domestically and is now keen to put Zimbabwe back on the international map having been appointed in April 2015.
The Warriors’ strengths are found in their forward play. The team are packed full of pace and skill with plenty of attacking weapons capable of hurting slow or ponderous defences. Knowledge Musona is arguably the star of he side and the Oostende speedster has the ability to create and finish.
The 4-3-3 formation that alternates with a 4-2-3-1 system features a strong team ethic and a noticeably direct attack from the flanks. Zimbabwe do lack a playmaker from midfield but they make up for it with their variation in the final third where Khama Billiat can also be relied on for goals.
However, the Warriors are likely to suffer from a porous defence. Goalkeeper Tatenda Mukuruva will be the youngest cat in the competition at 20 and is often called on to make far too many interventions due to Zimbabwe’s sieve like backline. The team kept just two clean sheets in six qualifiers.
Zimbabwe have never passed the group-stage of AFCON and having been drawn in the ‘Group of Death’ it’s hard to imagine they’ll break that record in 2017. Still, they’ll be good fun to follow and underestimate them at your peril.
The odds look about right in the ‘Group of Death’ but as we all know, nothing ever goes to plan in international tournaments, especially in the African Cup of Nations.
For me, there’s traction in the price of Tunisia to qualify at 11/8 (William Hill). They’re a robust outfit that’s knows how to get results. The Carthage Eagles arrive in confident mood and with a game-plan to suit tournament football.
There’s absolutely no doubting Algeria’s squad or potential but the way in which national optimism has turned to doom and gloom over the past two years, plus a series of coaching changes and a questionable defence, means I’m more than happy to oppose the Desert Foxes.
With Senegal looking like one of the strongest sides in the competition, I’ll take the 10/3 (SkyBet) available on both Senegal and Tunisia progressing via the Duel Forecast market.
AFCON 2017 – Tunisia to qualify from Group B (11/8 William Hill)
AFCON 2017 – Senegal and Tunisia duel forecast (10/3 SkyBet)