The Africa Cup of Nations begins today at 10:00 AM CST, and I’m starting to get excited. Not too excited, mind you. This year’s expansion to 24 teams means that the 36 games of the group stage will eliminate only 8 teams. But even if things won’t really get started until the elimination rounds begin on January 23rd, there are a handful of group stage games that will hopefully serve as tasty appetizers. Here’s a quick list of the games I’ll be watching.
Sun, 1/9 Cameroon – Burkina Faso (10:00 AM CST; BeIN Sports rebroadcast, 6:30 PM CST) Whether by plan or by accident, many of the opening fixtures feature the two best teams in the group, with the opening match of the tournament a case in point. Hosts Cameroon may not have as strong a side as in some past tournaments, but in addition to a home crowd they have Bayern’s Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Lyon’s Karl Toko Ekambi (as well as veteran Vincent Aboubakar, now at Al Nasir) up top, as well as Napoli’s André-Frank Zambo Anguissa in midfield. They also have a very solid keeper in Ajax’s André Onana. Burkina Faso also have a solid net-minder in Charleroi’s Hervé Koffi, as well as Leverkusen’s Edmond Tapsoba marshaling their defense. Up top, they will be looking for Aston Villa’s Bertrand Traoré to lead their attack. In addition, they have homegrown manager Kamou Malo bringing a sense of unity and purpose to a squad that is expected to advance with Cameroon to the knockout rounds.
Mon, 1/10 Morocco – Ghana (10:00 AM CST; BeIN Sports rebroadcast, 6:00 PM CST) Amazingly, Morocco is one of the tournament favorites despite manager Vahid Halilhodžić leaving out Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech, whom he considers a disruptive influence. That still leaves PSG’s world-class wing-back Achraf Hakimi, Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat and Angers’ Sofiane Boufal in midfield, as well as the Sevilla trio of goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and strikers Youssef En-Nesyri and Munir El Haddadi. Ghana is a team in transition with the talismanic Asamoah Gyan now retired. But they still have the Ayew brothers, Crystal Palace’s Jordan and Al Sadd’s André, up top; plus Arsenal’s Thomas Partey in midfield and Leicester City’s Daniel Amartey in defense. They also have some promising youngsters, led by Rennes striker Kamaldeen Sulemana, Ajax midfielder Mohammed Kudus, and Bordeaux defender Gideon Mensah.
Tues, 1/11 Nigeria – Egypt (10:00 AM CST) Nigeria arrive at this AfCoN without strikers Victor Oshimon (Napoli, injury/Covid), Emmanuel Dennis (Watford, not released), and Odion Igahlo (Al-Shabab, contractually forbidden to play). That still leaves them with Union Berlin’s Taiwo Awoniyi, Villarreal’s Samu Chukwueze, and the Leicester City pair of striker Kelechi Ịheanachọ and midfield general Wilfried Ndidi. Add to that Everton’s Alex Iwobi and Brentford’s Frank Onyeka and they should still have more than enough to reach the knockout rounds. Under manager Carlos Queiroz, Egypt’s is supplementing a largely home-based squad with Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneyny and Aston Villa’s Trezeguet–and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, on the short list of those who at the moment could be described as the best player in the World. Anything is possible with Salah, though serious Egypt fans will worry about Queiroz’s omission of Zamalek midfielder Tarek Hamed, arguably the straw that stirs Egypt’s (non-alcoholic) drink.
Fri, 1/14 Senegal – Guinea (7:00 AM CST) With most of the key fixtures scheduled for the opening round of the group stage, Senegal’s meeting with Guinea is likely to be the shining star of the second set of fixtures. Senegal boasts strength and depth in a roster that is primed to win the tournament now. Even with Watford with-holding Ismailia Sarr (who is recovering from an injury) and Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly in camp but also recovering from injury, manager Aliou Cissé will have little problem filling out his side. Liverpool’s Said Mané will likely play behind a striker–either Villarreal’s Boulaye Dia or Strasbourg’s currently en fuego Habib Diallo, though Calgiari’s Keita Balde is also available. In midfield, PSG’s Idrissa “Gana” Gueye can be joined by Leicester’s Nampalys Mendy and/or Marseille’s Papa Gueye (among other options). Crystal Palace’s Cheikhou Kouyate is an option either in midfield or defense, where he would join PSG’s Abdou Diallo, AC Milan’s Fodé Ballo-Touré, and Bayern Munich’s Bouna Sarr. Though significant underdogs in this game, Guinea are favorites to finish second in the group, with a solid midfield duo in Liverpool’s Naby Keita and Roma’s Amadou Diawara. In addition, striker Mohamed Bayo is having a strong first campaign in Ligue 1 with newly promoted Clermont Foot. Add to that an experienced and solid goal-keeper in Östersunds’ (of Sweden) Aly Keita, and Guinea will feel they have the ability to compete, in the group stage–and hopefully beyond.
Thu, 1/20 Côte d’Ivoire – Algeria (10:00 AM CST) While the final round of group games will no doubt have some unexpected must-win games, this heavyweight contest should be compelling even if (as expected) both Algeria and Côte d’Ivoire have already qualified for the round of 16. Defending champions Algeria are again amongst the tournament favorites. Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and AC Milan’s Ismail Bennacer are probably the biggest names, but Lyon’s Islam Slimani and Napoli’s Adam Ounas mean that players like West Ham’s Saïd Benrahma and Galatasaray’s Sofiane Feghouli are likely to start on the bench. Their defense features Nice’s Yousef Attal, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Rami Bensebaini, and Villarreal’s Aïssa Mandi. Equally importantly, they have in Djamal Belmadi a young and apparently talented manager. He certainly has Algeria winning, as they enter the tournament on a 34-game undefeated streak, just three games shy of Italy’s current international record. Should they arrive at this third game still in position to tie that record, Côte d’Ivoire will relish the opportunity to play spoiler. Despite having failed to qualify for the World Cup (having lost out to group-mates Cameroon), they are loaded with talent. Up top they boast Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Ajax’s Sébastien Haller, the Champions League’s top-scorer this season. AC Milan’s Franck Kessié and Sassuolo’s Hamed Traorè feature in midfield, with a range of options out wide: Arsenal’s Nicolas Pépé, Burnley’s Maxwel Cornet, Sivasspor’s Max Gradel, and Sassuolo’s Jeremie Boga. In defense, they feature Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, Wolverhampton’s Willy Bolly, Villarreal’s Serge Aurier, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Odilon Kossounou. Whether they are more than the sum of their parts remains to be seen; but the parts are not unimpressive.