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 C.
‘Welcome to the Karma Hotel, looks like heaven but could be hell, where pleasant screams transform to yells’. Cheers Spooks. Their one-hit wonder sums up the landscape in the Group of Death perfectly with all of Algeria, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa all staking a claim to go the distance.
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 C teams.
Algeria (6/4 BetVictor)
It’s a quarter of a century since Algeria claimed top honours in the African Cup of Nations but there’s a widespread feeling that the current crop might just be the best the country has ever produced. Officially ranked as the continent’s best, the Desert Foxes arrive in Equatorial Guinea as one, if not, the team to beat.
A magnificent World Cup last summer won hearts and minds of football fans around the globe and despite Vahid Halidhozic’s departure as coach, the North Africans have continued their rise to prominence. Legendary former Lorient boss Christian Gourcuff is the new man in charge and Algeria have arrived at the next level.
Gourcuff has adapted Halidhozic’s methods to suit his own brand of football. The Desert Foxes will look to dominate possession and mesmerise opposition with a beautiful short-passing system. They won’t deviate from this plan and that could work against them in the long turn with no plan B arising. It’s also worth pointing out that their first two group games are in Mongomo, where hastily laid plans to host the tournament have resulted in a hastily-laid pitch; not ideal for side that are solely focussed on passing the ball.
But the glass is most definitely half full.. No, three-quarters full! There was no World Cup hangover as they raced through qualifying, taking 15 points from a possible 18, only losing once qualification was assured. The bulk of last summer’s squad are back (only six players who didn’t travel to South America played during qualifying) with more experience, a big-game mentality and a clear idea of what’s expected of them in their individual roles.
Yacine Brahimi is the undoubted key man and alongside Sofiane Feghouli and Riyad Mahrez, Algeria boast an outstandingly talented attacking midfield trio tucked in behind Islam Slimani. It’s a slick operation and an exciting prospect for neutrals. They should realise their potential and go the distance but we all know the fate of previous ACON favourites. Saying that, it’s hard to find too many faults in the Desert Foxes.
Ghana (2/1 Ladbrokes)
Ghana! What to make of Ghana!? A proud pedigree and appetite for football was damaged after a poor performance at the World Cup last summer. But the most damage was done off the pitch as bust-ups threatened to tear the squad apart. Restoring pride and confidence remains the number one aim.
One defeat from six during qualifying sounds decent enough but failure to beat Uganda home or away coupled with bland and conservative tactics led to not just one but two coaching dismissals. So arise Avram Grant. The former Chelsea boss has been given the role of reviving the Black Stars in front of their continental rivals.
Gone are the bad eggs. Kevin-Prince Boateng, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien have been moved on and several young domestic players have come in to take their place. The majority of star names are around the 23-24 mark but packed with experience, all thanks to the success of their youth teams from the past eight years.
Ghana haven’t tasted ACON glory since 1982 but the four-time champions have reached the final four in each of the last four editions. Qualification for the quarter-finals will be expected and it’s hard not to envisage them getting through. They remain a difficult team to beat, flourishing with energy, pace and power but can Grant realise their dreams at such short notice? Probably not.
Senegal (5/1 Betfred)
It’s good to have Senegal back on the world stage. When Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the 2012 competition, the Lions of Teranga exited without a point despite being amongst the pre-tournament favourites. A year later, Senegal failed to even qualify for the continent’s major competition.
That’s when the masterstroke arrived. Former French international Alain Giresse was given the role of rebuilding the team in January 2013 and with bags of experience at international level, Giresse has started to see the fruits of his labour come to the fore. Plenty of tough love was handed out but now the Senegalese are primed and ready.
There’s a misconception that the Lions of Teranga will be a free-flowing, attack-minded side due to the large stock of supremely talented forwards at their disposal. Well, sorry to ruin the illusion but they won’t be. Instead, Giresse has made them quite an ugly side to watch; well-drilled, difficult to beat, defensively dogged but most importantly, quite effective.
Indeed, during qualifying Senegal managed just eight goals in six games and five of those came against group whipping boys Botswana. They did however beat Egypt home and away and booked their place with the highest number of points for a runner-up whilst conceding just once – a last-minute winner in Tunisia.
Giresse’s side are notoriously tough to beat and his record of W10-D9-L4 is testament to the work that’s been done since his arrival. Defence is a surprisingly under-celebrated area in the squad and they’re protected by three defensively-minded midfielders. They do lack a match-winning playmaker to supply their star strike-forece and that could prove their undoing in a tight group. Sadio Mane's injury certainly hasn't helped.
Should Senegal progress they’ll be very dangerous opponents. The team look set-up to play knockout football but they’ll only get there if they can start to find a way of linking their defensive solidity to their lack of supply. It’s a tough formula to find but should Giresse go close to finding the answers, Senegal could start to realise some of the support that’s come their way from punters.
South Africa (6/1 Ladbrokes)
Bafana Bafana, it’s good to have you back. And boy, how they’ve come back. Just two defeats in 18 (one against Brazil) and an unbeaten qualifying campaign ensured South Africa qualified for a major tournament (without hosting) for the first time since 2008.
The transformation owes a huge amount of credit to coach Ephraim Mashaba. Now in his second spell, Mashaba was dumped on the eve of the 2004 Nations Cup having led the team through qualifying. But 10 years later, differences have been patched up and the understanding and connection the 64-year-old has with his squad cannot be overstated.
Mashaba’s first job when appointed in July 2014 was to start bringing through younger, hungrier talent and discard the old heads and under-performing big names from previous regimes. Nine games later and Bafana are a united group and remain undefeated under his tutelage; they could be the wild card in a frighteningly tough Group C.
The team has been built from the back. Only four goals were conceded during qualifying and two of those came once they’d booked their place in Equatorial Guinea. What makes that achievement standout even more is the fact that Bafana fielded a different backline in five of their six games.
Nevertheless, Mashaba’s side stayed strong and solid even in the aftermath of the murder of captain and goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa. There’s no question that this group will tear down brick walls in the pursuit of success; if only to commemorate the loss of their former leader.
Problems may lie ahead for Mashaba’s charges. Thulani Serero, arguably the Bafana’s X-Factor has been sensationally axed after missing a squad meeting and the partnership of Tokelo Rantie and Bongani Ndulula ignite only sporadically. The little-and-large forwards are likely to be fed on scraps with Serreo absent and so they’ll need to be razor sharp with their finishing if they’re to edge out the likes of Algeria, Ghana or Senegal.
This is no easy task. As you’ve probably seen, there are positives and negatives to be found in all four sides. I could easily make a strong case for/against any but with Algeria still close to my heart and looking even better than they did six months ago, I’ve got to give the Desert Foxes a place in the quarter-finals.
So who joins them? I’ve grave concerns about Ghana, I’m convinced Senegal are a knockout danger but can even get there? Whilst the tournament may have come a year too soon for the progressive South Africans. I’m sure it’s going to come down to goal difference.
Ghana’s showdown with Senegal in the opening round of games could be pivotal. If Ghana avoid defeat, I’m relatively confident they sneak through, as they always seem to in Nations Cups. It’s dull and nothing earth shattering but BetVictor’s 7/2 on the Algeria-Ghana Straight Forecast is the only betting proposition, at the prices on offer, that’s worth a look.
Algeria-Ghana straight forecast (7/2 BetVictor)