ONE of the most open African Cup of Nations tournaments in living memory gets underway in Equatorial Guinea this month. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) highlights his best outright bets.
African Cup Of Nations | 17th January – 8th February 2015 | ITV4
Fifty-four African members began the journey and only 16 have made it. There have been bumps, bruises, mourning and elation but the 30th edition of the African Cup of Nations is here. And boy, it’s bloody open!
A quick scan over the recent history of African’s premier international competition allows us to see that two nations have dominated. Egypt and Nigeria are responsible for winning six of the last 11 ACON renewals, including four of the last five. Zambia were shock winners in 2012 to interrupt that run.
Two trends remain fairly constant in those tournaments. Firstly, favourites rarely prosper. Just one of the last 10 pre-tournament jollies have ended up lifting the trophy (Egypt in 2008). Secondly, the past three winning nations have all boasted squads built largely from domestic-based players (Nigeria 2013, Zambia 2012, as well as Egypt in 2010, 2008 and 2006).
With neither Nigeria nor Egypt on show and all sides bar Congo available at odds as short of 30/1 to win the cup outright, it promises to be hugely competitive. Below I’ve covered my thoughts on the main contenders to take the crown in Bata on the 8th February. However, I’ll also be providing team-by-team outlooks in the group previews, to come.
As well as the aforementioned two trends, I’m also keep to add a third pointer into the mix – the group-stage draw. With Morocco withdrawing as hosts and Equatorial Guinea stepping into the breach, the draw wasn’t made until December. And look at what it’s thrown up…
The bulk of the African powerhouses are congregated in the bottom-heavy pools of C and D and that could pave the way for an unlikely semi-finalist or two. Seven of the top nine in the betting find themselves in that bottom-half and face an almighty fight just to make the quarter-finals.
With that in mind, I can’t justify including any of the leading lights as an outright selection. As much as I absolutely adore Algeria for landing me a 5/1 winner in the To Qualify market from last summer’s World Cup, they just can’t be entertained at 5/1 to go the distance. They could be on their way home after a week!
Cameroon were the one nation to make my whittled down shortlist of three (more about them in the group previews) but even the 12/1 on offer wasn’t enough to move me in their direction. Instead, we simply must focus on two teams in the easier top-half of the draw, with a potentially straightforward route to the final four.
Tunisia (11/1 SkyBet)
Egypt are the only North African side to win the tournament outside of North Africa and there’s no doubt that fact is a sticking point when selecting Tunisia at 11/1. The Carthage Eagles should benefit from being given a favourable draw alongside Zambia, Cape Verde and DR Congo and have the added advantage of a possible quarter-final against a relatively week Group A opponent.
Tunisia have come a long way in the past 12 months. Having missed out on World Cup qualification for 2014 twice (seriously, long story), the appointment of Belgian boss Georges Leekens has inspired a comeback. The pragmatic boss favours a defensive approach but can also be described as ruthless due to his ‘win at all costs’ attitude.
The 65-year-old is a wily character and tends to have a plan in place for any opposition. That was certainly the case during an unbeaten qualifying campaign with the Carthage Eagles keeping clean sheets in both fixtures against Senegal, a side lauded for their attacking stars.
Eight of the Tunisian squad featured in five of their six qualifiers and Leekens is unlikely to deviate to far from his tried-and-trusted methods. A youthful squad, with a strong smattering of local talent, heads to Equatorial Guinea in buoyant mood and ticking both boxes in our quest for a winner – domestic-based players and a good draw.
Tunisia won’t light up the tournament, far from it. They’ve scored more than two goals just twice in their last 32 internationals and front man Fakherredine Ben Youssef isn’t the striker that’ll hog the headlines. But they make up for it with their five-man defence of Aymen Abdennour, Syem Ben Youssef, Bilel Mohsni, Hamza Mathlouthi and Ali Maaloul playing a pivotal role.
Belgium are the only side to beat the Carthage Eagles in 2014, they came through one of the toughest qualifying sections (with Egypt and Senegal) and look like a side primed for knockout football. I’m more than happy to give them a go at 11/1 with SkyBet.
Burkino Faso (20/1 Bet365)
One of the continents most likeable sides could also rocket their way into being a punters best pal over the next few weeks. The Stallions shocked Africa when making their way to the final of the Nations Cup two years ago and I’m giving them a big thumbs up as they bid for a repeat in Equatorial Guinea.
I’m an absolute sucker for a coach who can ‘find a way’. You know, over perform and beat the odds to upset the rivals. Mick McCarthy’s a great current example but you could even say, Sir Alex Ferguson produced similar results with, at the time, some average Manchester United sides. Well, let me introduce you to Paul Put.
Yep, bizarre name but mean manager. The Belgium boss has been in charge since early 2012 and has quite rightly been eulogised for his achievements. Burkino Faso deal with the power of the collective; they’re a team, a unit and Put knows his players capabilities inside out.
The Stallions missed out on a World Cup place on the away-goals rule against Algeria (yes, the Algeria side that almost beat world champions Germany) but qualified comfortably for the Nations Cup. One loss to Gabon was the only black mark and Burkino Faso arrive at the tournament meaning business.
The squad remains largely similar to the one that went the distance in South Africa in 2013 with Bakary Kone and Mohammed Koffi both taking their place in a settled and resolute defence. But Put’s charges enjoy an attractive, fast-paced game that marries up nicely alongside their organisational strengths.
Jonathan Pitroipa is the ‘star’ name and netted five goals during qualifying but forward Alain Traore deserves a mention, if he can stay fit. He's their chief goal-getter.
But Burkino Faso will be quick to stress that there are no standout names, no egos and the whole squad are ‘stars’ in their own right. It’s that sort of attitude and application that make them a danger.
Group A should be negotiated fairly comfortably and then there's a quarter-final against a relatively weak Group B side. Like Tunisia, the semi-finals are in reach, the trends match-up nicely and they should give us a good run for our money at a decent 20/1 price with Bet365.