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 A.
Host nation Equatorial Guinea are joined by 2013 finalists Burkino Faso, Gabon and Congo. It’s been considered one of the weakest pools in the tournament with Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo averaging 60/1 to win the competition outright.
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 A teams.
Burkino Faso (15/8 Ladbrokes)
Ah, Burkino Faso! We meet again. Yes, those who’ve read my thoughts on the outright winner will know I’m very fond of the Stallions. Surprise finalists and runners-up in 2013, they’re back and ready to go the distance, again.
Belgian coach Paul Put is the mastermind behind the Burkino Faso side, transforming the nation from international nobodies to underdog kings. They may no longer have the surprise factor but you can bet your bottom dollar that Put will have them ready for battle.
The Stallions favour a fast-paced counter-attacking game and rely heavily on their collective spirit, intelligence and organisation. They’re very difficult to beat, have a stable defence and a continuity around the squad – many of the 2013 team are back and begging for another pop at the title.
Group rivals Gabon were the only side to defeat Burkino Faso in qualifying and pipped the Stallions to top spot. Although they should make the quarter-finals with room to spare (and hopefully a lot further), there’s better bets than Ladbrokes’ 15/8 on them topping Group A.
Gabon (3/1 Unibet)
That better bet comes in the form of Gabon. The Panthers are reaping the benefits of a golden generation breaking through, took four points off Burkino Faso in qualifying and are potentially the most likely to ‘do a Burkino Faso’ in 2015 (apologies, I'm gunning for the record of Burkino Faso mentions in one article). To see Gabon over one point bigger than the group favourites in the betting just doesn’t do them justice.
Jorge Costa is the coach in charge of the Panthers, who qualified without a defeat in their six fixtures (W3-D3) – only one of four sides to boast an unbeaten qualifying record. The former Portuguese international has put the side back on track after a dismal showing at the 2013 Olympics and eyes are already on a repeat of their quarter-final effort when hosting the competition in 2012.
The golden generation from their CAF U23 Championship title in 2013 are beginning to flourish with 13 of their 20 outfield players 23-yeas-old or younger with six of those 13 part of that triumphant U23 team. And Costa has named no outfield player over the age of 27! They’re young, hungry and fast.
Yes, very fast. Built on a lightning quick counter-attack strategy, Gabon will keep the ball on the floor and hit their electric front-three of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Frederic Bulot and Malick Evouna in wide areas as fast as possible. After all, they have no obvious target man.
Costa’s one of Africa’s highest-paid coaches, a real disciplinarian but he seems to have the handle on this exuberant young squad. They’ll be fearless; they’re playing very close to home (Gabon shares a border with Equatorial Guinea), have little pressure on their shoulders and are here to make a real impression.
At the prices on offer, I’d be much happier backing Gabon to top the group at 3/1 over Burkino Faso at 15/8. In the two qualifying matches, as well as taking four points off their group rivals, the Panthers caused Burkino Faso endless problems with their pace on the break and so, in my eyes, deserve more respect from the markets.
Equatorial Guinea (7/2 Betfair)
Oh hello, Equatorial Guinea! Now this should be fun… where shall we start? How about qualification? Yes, qualification. In June 2014 the National Thunder were booted out of qualifying for fielding an ineligible player. But five months later they were fast-tracked into the tournament having agreed to take over the hosting duties from Morocco.
But that’s only the start of it. Equatorial Guinea have a dark history of fielding, umm… non- Equatoguinean players? Yep, believe it or not the nation of around one million inhabitants were recruiting foreign nationals to wear the jersey for years. Luckily FIFA and CAF eventually cottoned onto the sordid behaviour and the majority of this year’s squad are now eligible to play.
Want more? Sure. Well Spanish coach Andoni Goikoetxea was sacked at the turn of the year with plenty of different theories behind the decision and Argentine Esteban Becker given the dubious job of building this team in preparation for the tournament. Interestingly, Becker previously enjoyed success coaching the Equatorial Guinea women’s team. Imagine that happening in Europe?
Well preparation hasn’t gone to plan. Their late call-up to replace Morocco hasn’t helped; they’ve not played since June, haven’t won a registered game in two years and have lost six of their previous nine of those known matches.
That’s because all pre-tournament friendlies have been played behind closed doors. Bizarrely they used 33 players during seven matches before being named Nations Cup hosts but 12 of their 23-man squad didn’t feature in any of those games. It’s a crazy situation for a side that weren’t even looking favourites to make the final qualifying round before being kicked out.
Anyway, with their Spanish influence (no, we're all eligible, honest!) they’ll look to play a possession-based game but bar veteran central midfielder Juvenal and a few lively forwards, the squad is bereft of quality talent and they should become the first host nation since Tunisia in 1994 to fall at the first hurdle.
Congo (13/2 Paddy Power)
Hello, who's speaking? Ineligible players. Oh, not you again? Yep. They remain alive and well in Africa and Congo were another great example. Having bowed out of the second qualifying round to minnows Rwanda, the Red Devils were given another chance because of, you guessed it, Rwanda fielding one of those ineligible players.
Congo took that chance with both hands, dumping out defending champions Nigeria as they finished behind South Africa to book their place in Equatorial Guinea. All is good, oui? Not quite; more of that later.
Experienced Frenchman Claude Le Roy is well versed in Nations Cup protocol. This will be the 66-year-old’s eighth tournament with the Red Devils the fifth African side he’s been in charge of. And he’ll have to work wonders to get this group in a condition to challenge for the quarter-finals.
The veteran boss will opt for a defensive-first approach and so don’t be surprised if they send you to sleep with 10 men behind the ball when under pressure. Speedster Thievy Bifouma is the outlet with plenty of hope pinned on of his partnership with the bullocking Ferebory Dore in attack.
That’s because Congo are fragile, weak and slow at the back. Centre-halves Boris Ngounga Moubhio, Magniokele Bissiki and Igor Nganga are all very susceptible to pace and goalkeeper Chancel Massa has been known to drop a clanger or two. It’s not an ideal mix when you’re taking on two pacy outfits in Burkino Faso and Gabon.
Congo could prove awkward opponents but are unlikely to make a strong claim for a place in the last eight. The combative and bustling style may cause the less physical Burkino Faso side a few issues but their struggling defence is a weak spot that even Le Roy won’t be able to gloss over.
I’ve trumped Gabon plenty of times above and although the 3/1 does hold plenty of interest, I’ve decided to settle on the 9/4 (BetVictor) Duel Forecast on Gabon and Burkino Faso. The two teams should be streets ahead of the two outsiders in the group and it seems the most sensible play, albeit at a shorter price. With this selection, we’ve got ourselves a winner should both teams make the quarter-finals.
Equatorial Guinea should become the first hosts to exit the competition at the group-stage since 1994 but at the time of writing there were no odds on offer for teams ‘Not To Qualify’.
Burkino Faso-Gabon – Duel Forecast (9/4 BetVictor)