AFRICA'S premier international tournament is upon us. International football obsessive Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) has delivers his betting guide ahead of the 2019 AFCON event.
Africa Cup of Nations | 21st June – 19th July 2019 | Eurosport
The 32nd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations begins on Friday night in Cairo and the continent’s premier international competition promises plenty of thrills and spills over the coming three weeks of action from the ancient land of Egypt.
Fifty-one African members began the journey but an expansion to the tournament has garnered 24 qualifiers, three of which are debutants (Burundi, Madagascar and Mauritania). The tournament has also been switched to the summer for the very first time and the blistering heat of North Africa could play its part en-route to the final on 19th July.
AFCON outright trends
A quick scan over the recent AFCON history allows us to see that three nations have tended to dominate. Hosts Egypt, Nigeria and defending champions Cameroon are responsible for winning nine of the last 13 renewals, including eight of the most recent 11.
A few trends remain fairly constant in those tournaments. Firstly, favourites rarely prosper. Just two of the last 12 pre-tournament jollies have ended up lifting the trophy (Egypt in 2008 and Ivory Coast 2015).
Defending your crown is often an arduous task also. Egypt sensationally won three titles in a row in 2006, 2008 and 2010 but Nigeria failed to make the 2015 edition having lifted the trophy in 2013, while 2015 champions Ivory Coast crashed out at the group stages in 2017 as they failed to win a single game. Only three nations have successfully defended their title.
The past four editions have seen seven different nations reach the showpiece final with only the Ivory Coast making more than one appearance, whilst the past nine finals have featured 10 different sides with 15 teams reaching at least the semi-finals this century, highlighting the open look to Africa’s elite event.
Host nations have landed 11 titles from 31 previous tournaments when playing on home soil. However, a visiting team has won each of the most recent six renewals, although the standard of host sides has been rather sub-standard since Egypt last housed AFCON in 2006.
Surprisingly, three of the past five winning nations have boasted squads built largely from domestic-based players (Nigeria 2013, Zambia 2012, as well as Egypt in 2010, 2008 and 2006). However, it’s not a fact I’m too fond of, or will read too much into.
Climate and population key
In the past, three key factors have often correlated well with plotting AFCON success: climate, population and previous tournament form (the latter of which I’ve already covered in brief above).
Africa is a vast continent with varying landscapes and weather. As an example, Cairo will be pushing 40°C this weekend whilst Johannesburg will be close to freezing at night. The desert area of the north is distinct in its own climate compared to the tropical west, centre and east, and the more varied south. Teams tend to flourish in their more familiar environment.
With Egypt hosting this summer, it’s worth noting that North African nations have taken top honours in nine of the previous 15 occasions AFCON has been staged in this region. The Pharaohs themselves have taken gold in three of the previous four competitions when hosting the tournament; they, along with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia hold an advantage.
Population can also prove a handy pointer. Fourteen of the past 16 winners boasted a population of at least 20m, and on average the winner ranked sixth across the last 12 tournaments in terms of their population-size. In order of qualified sides, Nigeria, Egypt, DR Congo, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Algeria, Uganda, Morocco, Ghana, Angola, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Cameroon and Mali all fit the bill.
The importance of the draw
Being a 24-team tournament, there are various quirks involved when plotting a path to the final. I’m not one to get too bogged down in mapping out routes to outright success – this is football after all, remember Leicester winning the Premier League? – although it would be foolish not to investigate where potential advantages may occur.
For starters, Egypt have a reasonably kind draw. Presuming the Pharaohs finish top of the pile in Group A, the pre-tournament favourites will play all their games en-route to the final at their 75,000 capacity home in Cairo – the base where Egypt are unbeaten against African opposition for almost five years.
Peculiarly, whoever wins Group C would probably see Egypt in its half of the knockout draw (again presuming Egypt win Group A), with a possible meeting due in the semi-finals. However, finishing second in the group could prove to be a better bet.
Elsewhere, the winners of Groups B and F would be scheduled to meet in the quarter-finals – should the draw play out as expected, that would be Nigeria and Ghana, whilst Group D winners enjoy a much kind route, avoiding another group winner until the semi-finals (and Egypt until the final). Thumbs up then to Ivory Coast and Morocco.
Egypt (9/2 Unibet)
I absolutely despise pinning my colours to favourites in international competitions. I ignored Brazil’s claims for home Copa America success – mainly due to their poor perceived value price around even-money – but it’s difficult to dismiss Egypt’s prospects at 9/2 (Unibet) despite recent favourites often struggling to live up to their pre-tournament billing.
The record seven-time winners come out trumps in almost all the above stats and trends and have a strong recent history for performing well at AFCON. The Pharaohs have reached the final in four of the past seven renewals – lifting the trophy on three occasions – as well as boasting home advantage and a squad geared up to go very close.
Mo Salah’s injury scuppered Egypt’s hopes of making a splash at last summer’s World Cup with Hector Cuper’s ultra-defensive approach centered around the Liverpool star’s strengths on the counter-attack. But incoming head coach Javier Aguirre has given the Pharaohs the opportunity to express themselves and shifted to a more attack-minded attitude.
The onus is on being more fluent in the final-third and Egypt have racked up 20 goals in their eight outings coming into the competition, returning an impressive W6-D1-L1 under Aguirre. Salah averages 0.62 goals per-game for his country but has a strong supporting cast with Trezeguet and Marwan Mohsen keen to make their own impact.
The pressure will be intense and the excitement almost overwhelming but if Aguirre can manage the outside influences, Egypt have the nucleus of a group capable of improving on their runners-up medal in 2017. They’re a highly competent and experienced squad with a great pedigree of performing when hosting African opposition in matches that matter.
A passable pool makes progress likely, although Egypt’s renowned defence under Cuper has shown a few signs of weakness following their shift in approach. As long as Aguirre can find a happy medium and a bit more balance to his team’s structure, the Pharaohs should feature in the latter stages mix-up.
Morocco (12/1 BetVictor)
Morocco haven’t tasted AFCON success for 43 years but look well placed to contend this summer. The Atlas Lions made a positive impression at the World Cup 12 months ago despite their early exit, giving both Portugal and Spain plenty of headaches, and the underachieving North African nation could be primed for a strong assault in Egypt.
Head coach Herve Renard is attempting to make AFCON history by becoming the first boss to lift the trophy with three different teams following triumphs with Zambia and Ivory Coast, and the suave Frenchman isn’t shying away from the challenge, saying, “Everything is possible” in Morocco’s quest for outright glory.
Grouped with Ivory Coast, South Africa and Namibia, a knockout place is entirely within reach and should Morocco pip their pool rivals to the summit, they won’t face another group winner again until the semi-finals, as well as possibly avoiding hosts and favourites Egypt until a potential final, should the schedule play out as expected.
Doubts have certainly surfaced around the Atlas Lions’ ability to manage expectations with a series of unflattering and uninspiring warm-up matches returning three defeats from four winless outings, but Renard remains positive about his team’s chances. And so he should with Morocco well-suited to the conditions, climate and an exciting squad of players.
Morocco feel stronger for their World Cup experience and the 2004 runners-up might only be lacking a touch of steel in midfield. Experienced defender Medhi Benatia leads the side from the back alongside Romain Saiss, with full-backs Noussair Mazrao and Achraf Hakimi strong options to have either side.
The Atlas Lions prefer to monopolise possession with two deep-lying playmakers with a target-man most likely leading the line in Youssef En-Nesyri. Set-piece supremacy is key to this side but their starring light arrives from Amsterdam with Hakim Ziyech fresh off a thrilling campaign with Ajax. Indeed, few sides will be able to match their speed and flair.
Since the turn of the century, Africa Cup of Nations tournaments have averaged just 2.31 goals per-game. Only twice in those 10 competitions have the goals per-game surpassed the 2.50 mark and the low-scoring nature of the event makes picking a Top Goalscorer selection devilishly difficult.
The above paragraph, coupled with the reasonably open betting heat of AFCON 2019, plus the poor return of big-name players in the market, is more than enough encouragement to look a little below the radar as we search for a goalscorer to support this summer.
Baghdad Bounedjah (33/1 Paddy Power)
Algeria have only made the semi-finals of AFCON once since they last lifted the trophy in 1990, with that fourth-place finish coming in 2010. The Desert Foxes have often flattered to deceive on the continental stage and collapsed when arriving at the competition as pre-tournament favourites two years ago.
An unconvincing qualifying campaign is of concern, as well as their seemingly revolving door of head coaches. French boss Djamel Belmadi was installed on a four-year deal last August and the continental powerhouse at least arrive in a bit of recent form (W4-D2-L0). And when Algeria are at full tilt, few can match the invention and ability in their roster.
Riyad Mahrez, Sofiane Feghouli and Yacine Brahimi are an experienced and hugely talented trio to have supplying your leading striker, who just happens to be in red-hot condition. Baghdad Bounedjah has scored nine goals in his last nine starts for the Desert Foxes and was the world's top-scoring footballer in 2018 thanks to his phenomenal strike rate for Al Sadd.
The recent naturalisation of Andy Delort puts his starting place under threat, although Belmadi is expected to keep faith with Bounedjah following his fabulous goal-grabbing performances over the past 18 months, which includes notching in seven of his past nine appearances for Algeria.
A tricky pool alongside the well-fancied Senegal, defensively-minded Kenya and enterprising Tanzania isn’t straightforward but Bounedjah should be backed to make his mark at a fancy 33/1 (Paddy Power) with each-way money returning for a place inside the top three overall.
Youssef En-Nesyri (50/1 Bet365)
I’ve already covered Morocco in more depth above, outlining the Atlas Lions as capable contenders for the AFCON crown this summer. However, I’m amazed to see their leading striker at odds as big as 50/1 (Bet365) to finish top of the goalscoring standings.
All the attention is understandably on Hakim Ziyech but Youssef En-Nesyri should not be ignored. Morocco have often lacked a natural finisher but the emergence of the 22-year-old – who only played 18 minutes at the World Cup yet scored against Spain – could solve their long-standing source for a consistent goalscorer.
Having made minimal impact during Malaga’s relegation from La Liga in 2017/18, En-Nesyri found his feet with Leganes this term. He became the first-ever Leganes player to score a hat-trick in the Spanish top-flight and contributed 11 goals across 34 appearances in a promising campaign that’s reportedly attracted interest from clubs such as Arsenal.
A bullish, powerful forward, En-Nesyri is a big threat in the air thanks to his fantastic jumping reach and is a major threat from dead-ball situations. He’s overpriced for a player likely to lead the line for a nation with serious aspirations of taking the title.
Africa Cup of Nations – Egypt to win outright (9/2 Unibet)
Africa Cup of Nations – Morocco to win outright (12/1 each-way BetVictor)
Africa Cup of Nations – Baghdad Bounedjah to be Top Goalscorer (33/1 each-way Paddy Power)
Africa Cup of Nations – Youssef En-Nesyri to be Top Goalscorer (50/1 each-way Bet365)