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 D.
AFCON 2017 | Group D | 17-25 January 2017
*Odds in brackets beside nation's represent the best price available on winning the group.
Egypt (1/1 SkyBet)
After a seven-year absence, the continent’s most successful side in African Cup of Nations history is back on the main stage. Egypt were the first ever AFCON winners back in 1957, have gone on to play more AFCON games than any African rival and have also picked up six more AFCON titles.
The Pharaohs peaked earlier this century when claiming a hat-trick of AFCON trophies but that unprecedented success soon turned to misery as Egypt failed to even qualify for the following three tournaments amidst widespread unrest and turmoil back home.
Following the Port Said stadium riot in 2012, which killed 73 people, domestic football was suspended and when it resumed, it was played behind closed doors. The political troubles have also hit the country hard financially and many football clubs have struggled to survive.
But the sport is recovering and the national outlook is positive with the Pharaohs quite possibly the most adept-tactical side in Africa since Hector Cuper took charge in March 2015.
The Argentine coach famously led Valencia to successive Champions League finals and won the 1999 La Liga Coach of the Year award. But Cuper’s international experience was limited to a brief and unhappy spell in charge of Georgia.
There were doubts about his ability but the 18 months he’s had at the helm have seen Egypt suffer only three defeats – none of which arrived by more than a one-goal margin.
The Pharaohs haven’t now lost when scoring since November 2014 and whilst Egyptian teams are renowned for their swashbuckling forward play, Cuper has put the emphasis on a disciplined unit that sits deep and plays on the counter-attack.
It’s an approach that worked a treat during qualification against Nigeria and then again when Egypt overcame Ghana in 2018 World Cup qualification. The 4-2-3-1 features Mohammed El Nenny sitting alongside Tarek Hamed in the centre of midfield protecting the defence with Mohammed Salah’s searing pace utilised on the break.
Salah scored five goals during AFCON qualification and is the undoubted star of the side –his speed, directness and movement causes defences all sorts of problems and despite being only 24, the Roma star is already ninth on Egypt’s all-time top goalscorer list.
If there’s a weakness it’s defensively and between the sticks. There are few highlight performers at the back and goalkeeper/skipper Essam El-Hadary turns 44 soon enough – he’ll break AFCON records as the oldest ever player to perform in the competition.
However, Cuper does his best to hid Egypt’s flaws by leaving little space in behind his backline, relying on the collective conservatism, unity and organisation of his side to snuff out any threats.
As always, expectation is sky high in Egypt and many fans expect the Pharaohs to return home with an eighth AFCON title. I’m lukewarm to such suggestions but I do believe Cuper’s charges represent the best option to take top spot in Group D.
Ghana (7/4 Betfair)
Avram Grant was given just a month to prepare Ghana for African Cup of Nations duty in 2015 but the veteran Israeli impressed many when he guided the Black Stars all the way to the final, only to suffer a defeat on penalties to Ivory Coast.
Having been given a heroes welcome for the work achieved in minimal time, Grant’s position has come under major scrutiny since. Turning 62 this month, the ex-Chelsea boss is highly unlikely to have his contract renewed following a serious of uninspiring Ghanaian performances.
Sure, the Black Stars have only been beaten twice in competitive matches under his watch but the most recent – a 2-0 reverse to pool rivals Egypt during 2018 World Cup qualification – has put enormous pressure on the nation to reach Russia.
Ghana are without an AFCON title since 1982 and whilst they qualified unbeaten, Grant’s group were handed a very soft pool alongside Rwanda, Mauritius and Mozambique. They still managed to draw twice and appeared far from assured throughout their six fixtures.
In 2016, the Black Stars’ only victories came against Mauritius and Mozambique and they arrive in Gabon winless in five – all against beatable opposition. It’s a situation that’s gotten the locals nervous and a sixth successive run to the AFCON semi-finals appears out of reach right now.
However, the four-time champions do boast an experienced and settled squad. The remnants of their successful 2009 U20 World Cup team remain around and about but doubts persists over a number of players in key positions.
Asamoah Gyan leads the line alongside Jordan Ayew in Grant’s preferred 4-4-2 formation. Neither forward have enjoyed regular game-time this season and have struggled with form and fitness.
The same could be said of Andre Ayew and 2015 Player of the Tournament Christian Atsu on the midfield flanks whilst there’s an accusation that Ghana lack bite, protection and creativity in the heart of midfield where Afriyie Acquah and Mubarek Wakaso could feature ahead of Thomas Partey.
Columbus Crew pair Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah are joined at the back by Daniel Amartey and Baba Rahman in a decent enough defensive system with John Boye available as back-up should Grant require any mid-tournament surgery.
Ghana have a knack of reaching the business end of AFCON tournaments but their inability to go the distance, plus the widespread criticism of Grant and the team can’t be ignored. The side feels a little too reliant on Gyan and looks like it needs a little freshening up.
They’re in a battle to progress.
Mali (4/1 Bet365)
Mali arrive at their sixth successive African Cup of Nations with a point to prove following their unfortunate group-stage exit in 2015. The Eagles finished level on points with Guinea with identical records and subsequently lost out in the drawing of lots.
It was only the third occasion in nine AFCONs that Mali had failed to progress past the group-stage and having finished third in 2012 and 2013, the side has undergone major surgery since Alain Giresse returned to the hot-seat in 2015.
This will be Giresse’s fourth AFCON and the 64 year-old’s experience in spearheading Mali’s run in 2012 should stand the side in good stead with the old guard slowly making way for another emerging force of exciting youngsters.
The Frenchman saw Mali go unbeaten during a soft qualification pool (W5-D1-L0) – only dropping points to Benin. And whilst the head coach has a reputation for safety-first football, armed with a squad of European regulars and the best of the exciting U20 World Cup squad from 2015, the Eagles could upset the apple cart here.
Traditionally, the side are physically imposing, direct, disruptive and a serial threat from set-pieces. Sure, Mali will be solid, functional and far from flashy but there’s now a purpose about them too – there’s pace across the park and a much needed injection of invention in the final third.
Attacking midfielder and Monaco man Adama Traore won the best player award at that U20 World Cup in 2015 and is joined by goalkeeper Djigui Diarra and Youssouf Kone in a squad that’s settled into a system playing either 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2.
At the back, former French international Molla Wagu has broken into Udinese’s side and will partner one of Africa’s leading centre-halves Salif Coulibaly in a formidable partnership. Hamary Traore’s an exciting right-back that loves to get forward and in attack Mali may have finally found a replacement for Freddie Kanoute.
Moussa Marega is enjoying an excellent season in Portugal with Vitoria de Guimaraes and up until recently was sitting joint-top goalscorer in the top-flight. He’s a wild card but he’s physical and shown this season he has the finishing ability to trouble opposition defences.
With Yacouba Sylla, Sambou Yatabare and Bakary Sako all operating in midfield, there’s no shortage of experience, physicality or trickery and so with a nice balance and plenty of belief amongst a capable squad, the Eagles have every right to believe they can perform above expectations once more.
The 5/4 (Bwin) in the To Qualify looks too good to ignore. Remember, this is a nation that loves to upset the odds and reached the semi-finals in four of the past seven tournaments.
Uganda (16/1 Bet365)
It’s 38 years since Uganda’s last appearance in the African Cup of Nations and after a series of near misses, the Cranes finally booked their place at the continent’s top table. And boy, did the nation celebrate.
In 1978 Uganda finished runners-up and although a repeat of that feat looks highly unlikely, this team shouldn’t be ruled out before a ball is kicked. For starters, the Cranes boast the longest-serving coach out of all 16 teams.
Milutin Sredojevic has been in charge since May 2013 following a colourful coaching career that started in his homeland of Serbia in 1994. But the 47 year-old has spent the past 16 years in Africa – a spell that’s included successful title-winning years with Uganda’s SC Villa side.
Sredojevic has worked overtime to create a positive national team culture and has immaculately prepared his troops for action. The squad have spent the majority of December at training camps, working hard on team-building, as well as honing their strangling game-plan.
Uganda boast a settled team that’s full of experience and know-how. Every player knows their role and what’s required and they’re a difficult team to breakdown. There’s pace on the break to hurt sides but for the most part games are keenly contested and rarely one-sided.
In 2016 the underdogs failed to score on seven occasions but five clean sheets is testament to the work Sredojevic has done on the defence. It helps to have one of the continent’s best goalkeepers in tow in Denis Onyango and the well-drilled backline can also call upon the very capable Isaac Isinde.
The players are based all over the globe – Tanzania, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iceland and Finland to name just a few – but their collective responsibility and team ethic ensures Uganda are no easy prey. The Cranes are the first East African team to reach AFCON since Ethiopia in 2013 and they’re determined to make it count.
Their awkwardness as opposition has lead to Ghana failing to beat the Cranes in three meetings since 2014 and should they repeat such a feat in Gabon, qualification certainly isn’t out of the question.
However, Farouk Miya – one of their leading playmakers – has barely played a minute for Standard Liege this season and whilst Tony Maweje has the capacity to score from midfield, Geofrey Massa’s never been a clinical forward and Uganda may struggle to make inroads in the final third.
The even-money (SkyBet) on offer for a rock-bottom finish may appear harsh but it’s an accurate assessment of the Cranes’ standing.
Hector Cuper’s influence at Egypt, plus the outstanding quality of Mohammed Salah leading the line, should see the Pharaohs justify their position as market favourites to clinch top spot in Group C.
And although Ghana arrive with great AFCON pedigree, I’m just not convinced their squad is strong enough to back them the Black Stars in any market. The widespread negativity surrounding the camp is a major deterrent and I really believe Avram Grant’s men are worth opposing in Gabon.
Mali are a fine option to take in the To Qualify market at 5/4 (Bwin). There’s numerous talented youngsters making impressive progress in the squad, a talented coach that’s adept at keeping the door shut and enough options in attack to hurt the stingiest of defences.
The romantic in me believes Uganda are worth a pop in the To Qualify market at the odd quote of 45/17 (Bwin) but I’d be more surprised if Egypt missed out so the Duel Forecast comes into play at a tasty (10/3 SkyBet) alongside Mali.
AFCON 2017 – Mali to qualify (5/4 Bwin)
AFCON 2017 – Egypt and Mali duel forecast (10/3 SkyBet)