With the 31st edition of the Africa Cup of Nations set to kick off in Gabon, 16 nations will vie for continental honours. Here, we preview Group C, a daunting section that features the tournament’s reigning champion.
Check out the previews for Groups A, B, and C below:
Like the sun rises in the east, one thing in African football that you can set your watch to is Egypt facing Ghana in a meaningful match rife with storylines. After the Black Stars booted Bob Bradley and the Pharaohs in a two-legged clash for World Cup 2014 qualification, Egypt arrives in Gabon looking for revenge.
Profile: A month after a heated World Cup qualifier in Alexandria, Egypt will again face Ghana, with the winner likely to top Group D and book a spot in the last eight.
The record seven-time Africa Cup of Nations winners bested the Black Stars 2-0 in November, and after having failed to qualify for the last three AFCONs on the heels of winning three on the bounce, the two Group D behemoths will lock horns with similar expectations.
Crafty Argentine Hector Cuper was handed The Pharaohs’ gig with eyes set on a first World Cup since 1990, and with four players left from the squad that won the 2010 AFCON title, Egypt is a favourite this time around courtesy of a blend of experience and youthful vigour.
Key Player: Cuper’s squad is littered with names largely unknown to the novice football fan, with 11 of the 23 players plying their trades in the Egyptian top flight with domestic giants Zamalek and Al Ahly, though it’s one of the players who stars abroad that stands out.
Arguably Serie A’s best winger, Roma’s Mohamed Salah is nightmare fuel for full-backs, combining a lethal cocktail of pace and passing acuity. As likely to streak down the flank as he is to swiftly cut in a la an unpredictable Arjen Robben, Salah is one of AFCON’s in-form stars.
Also look for a midfield featuring Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny and Hull winger-cum-full-back Ahmed Elmohamady to play an integral role in Egypt’s search for an eighth continental conquest.
Trivia: With 92 million inhabitants, Egypt is the most populous state in North Africa and the Arab world, and the third-most populated on the continent behind Nigeria and Ethiopia.
Profile: Ghana’s role as Africa’s bridesmaid is starting to wear on its supporters.
The 2015 finalist arrives in Gabon having made the last-four in each of the last five AFCONs – a continental record it has achieved twice – though those successes mean little considering the Black Stars haven’t won the continental tourney since 1982.
Former Chelsea manager Avram Grant will again lead Ghana, but unlike in 2015 when he bossed it to a final’s loss to the Ivory Coast after just a month in charge, the Israeli manager is treading on thin ice under the looming threat of missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 2002. The 2-0 defeat to Egypt in Alexandria only heightened the derision aimed at Grant, and should Ghana fail to advance to the last eight, expect the gaffer to pay the local job centre a visit.
Key Player: With a back-line led by Schalke’s Baba Rahman and Leicester City’s Daniel Amartey and a midfield occupied by Atletico’s Thomas Partey and Newcastle’s Christian Atsu, if Ghana is destined for another deep run it will be because of a trio of strikers well-versed in international play.
Black Stars captain, all-time leading scorer (48) and most-capped player (97) Asamoah Gyan is certain to play a role, as are Ayew brothers Jordan and Andre, with both able to ply their trades either up top or in support of Gyan.
Trivia: Ghana ranked as Africa’s fifth-least corrupt and politically corrupt nation according to the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Get in lads!
Profile: The Eagles have made nine AFCON appearances since finishing as runners-up in 1972, though Mali will look at successive third-place standings in 2012 and 2013 as a metric for recent successes and a source of hope.
Led by Bordeaux legend and well-travelled international manager Alain Giresse, Mali will look to top either Egypt or Ghana to ease a path to the knockout stage. A good showing in Tuesday’s tilt against the Pharaohs at the Stade de Port Gentil will go a long way towards making the last eight for the fifth time in eight tries.
After bossing the Eagles to a third-place finish in 2012, Giresse is back after a two-year spell to manage a cohesive unit highlighted by a host of dazzling midfield talents.
Key Player: Mali arrives in Gabon with a side heavy on the attack and porous at the back. While Crystal Palace winger Bakary Sako led the Eagles by scoring four times in six qualifiers, an attacking midfield pairing of Monaco’s Adama Traore and Werder Bremen’s Sambou Yatabare may provide Mali’s best chance of progression.
Montpellier’s Yacouba Sylla is likely to join that tandem in Giresse’s midfield, while Rostov youngster Moussa Doumbia and Karabukspor veteran Mustapha Yatabare could chip in with some timely goals. Unfortunately for Giresse, all-time leading scorer (25) and caps winner (102) Seydou Keita isn’t in the picture.
Trivia: Mali has 29 airports, eight of which have paved runways.
Profile: 38 years since the Cranes last played in Africa’s marquee tournament, Uganda returns to AFCON with the odds stacked against the landlocked East African nation.
Serbian manager Milutin Sredojevic leads the Cranes into battle, and among the 12-non African managers at AFCON 2017, few have the continental experiences of the former striker after spells managing clubs in Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and in South Africa with domestic giant Orlando Pirates.
Even as the underdog in a stacked Group D, Uganda will be buoyed by warmup victories over Slovenia and Slovakia three days apart the first week of January and a win over Ghana in World Cup qualifiers.
Key Player: Unlike most AFCON competitors boosted by attacks rife with pace and panache, Uganda is a side supported by disciplined defending and the gallant goalkeeping of Denis Onyango.
Onyango helped guide South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns to a 2016 CAF Champions League triumph over Egyptian giant Zamalek – a side that sends four players to Gabon with The Pharoahs. With Mamelodi, Onyango was part of an outfit that also won African Club of the Year, as the 31-year-old shot-stopper took home 2016 African Player of the Year for footballers plying their trade on the continent. Standard Liege teenage midfielder Farouk Miya will also be one to watch. Hard not to cheer for this lot.
Trivia: Uganda qualified for the 2011 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the first time but were unable to attend because of visa complications.