A Look At Favourites For AFCON 2019 ~ By Umar Sa’ad Hassan
The Mohammed Salah inspired Pharoahs of Egypt came close at the last edition in Gabon but overall, African football hasn’t changed much in at least the last half a decade; the West still reigns supreme. Each of the last 3 editions have been won by a West African nation with two of those three finals being played by two West African countries.
The only exception being Egypt’s 2017 loss to the indomitable lions of Cameroon.If the dominance of the West would have to be attributed to one thing,it would be the physicality that goes with their flair.
That has proven quite decisive especially in their domination of the North African sides.Whether Morrocco,Tunisia and hosts,Egypt have found a way of making their speed and technical prowess work more in their favour remains to be seen.
Afcon 2019 kicks off this Friday in Egypt and below are the top 3 favourities for the trophy.
The Senegalese have assembled unarguably their best side since the iconic class of 2002 captained by current head coach, Aliou Cisse. The Teranga lions are a perfect blend of flair, pace and strength. They are fast on the ball and hard off it. If they pull their acts together, this may just be their year.
In Napoli’s highly coveted defender, Kalidou Koulibaly, FC Barcelona’s most recent youth sensation, Moussa Wague, Inter Milan’s Keita Balde and Liverpool’s prolific forward, Sadio Mane to name just five, Cisse has the best collection of African players at his disposal.
If the Senegalese have one flaw, it is keeping a cool head under pressure. Most teams looking to beat them will be aiming to score first.
Against the top sides who won’t sit back and defend against them,they have exhibited a propensity to then give away the ball a little too quickly and be rash in their tackles.
The Senegalese were edged out of the 2018 World cup by Japan on the basis of having more bookings (6 as against the Japanese 4) when the fair play rule was used for the very first time in the history of the tournament.
If they are a little more patient off the ball and play their fluid attacking game as best as possible, it will be hard to stop them.
Three of Egypt’s record seven Afcon wins have come when they hosted the tournament and with the Egyptians playing at home this edition,not a few pundits have ruled them overwhelming favourites to win the 2019 Afcon.They have without a doubt been the most outstanding North African team over the last few years and if the Egyptians guarantee anything,it is that if they will only be knocked out by a top side.
They will keep the smaller teams on the defensive with their fast play and will deploy their deft counter-attacking game against the tougher teams.The Pharoahs are a very resourceful side who can find a way to play in even the tiniest piece of space.
On their day,only a very spirited defensive display will check them.
The slump of the Egyptians from the pinnacle of African football is attributable largely to the ageing and phasing out of the bulk of the players who had not only been playing together for the national team but also as team mates for Al Ahly.The crux of the final-reaching 2017 team that also played the 2018 World cup is still very much in place and with more experience as a team,they could reach those same heights.
The North African teams are not noted for scoring much because they shut down after a goal or two but if this Mohammed Salah inspired team will win,they will need to understand when to drop that strategy or at least find a way of making it work against the very energetic West African sides.The one thing their co-finalists in 2017,Cameroon had going for them above every other thing was their youthful strength and persistence.Every permutation on a Cameroonian win was centred on the indomitable lions running them ragged.Egypt scored first and moved to secure the back.That proved costly.
Since the disappointment of missing out on the last 2 editions,the Super Eagles have gone on to become arguably Africa’s best team.The Senegalese are ranked number one by FIFA but if the calibre of the opposition both sides have had to face is taken into consideration,Nigeria will wear the crown.
The Eagles are a very formidable attacking side no one can afford to take for granted.The addition of Ogenekaro Etebo into the midfield is one of the highly underrated achievements of head coach,Genart Rohr.It has substantially helped in ensuring a smooth connectivity between midfield and attack.With Etebo in the most advanced midfield position,returning captain Mikel Obi as playmaker and rumoured Manchester United target,Wilfred Ndidi at the base,the Afcon qualifiers highest goal scorer,Odion Ighalo along with Ahmed Musa and other players up front have a good support cast.
In as much as they dispatch the teams they are expected to with much ease than in the previous years,they tend to get stuck against teams that defend well.The Super Eagles aren’t too enthused by fast play and deploy a possession based plan and in quite a number of games,they appear to run out of ideas against teams that deny them too much space.
Apart from also lacking mobile and enterprising full backs in the class of those of the previous teams,there has also been a lack of stability in the goal keeping department.Severely criticized,Daniel Akpeyi seems to have taken over from the youthful and inconsistent Francis Uzoho.It helps that they are drawn in what is on paper,the easiest for any of the top sides with debutants Burundi,Guinea and Madagascar in Group B.
They are expected to easily top that group and most likely proceed to face either of DR Congo,Zimbabwe or Uganda in the quarter finals while avoiding the Egyptians who are also tipped to comfortably top Group A.It should be an easy route to the Semi Finals for Nigeria if nothing sensational happens and from that point on,they have the trophy in sight.
BEST OUTSIDE CHANCE
There is the Wilfred Zaha led Cote d’Ivoire and also the Mohammed Ziyech driven Morrocan side but the best outside chance to win the 2019 Afcon belongs to the black stars of Ghana.Their most experienced players have not only played together for quite some time now,they form the heart of the team.
Very few may fancy their chances but with Alaves midfielder Mubarak Wakaso,Newcastle’s Christian Atsu and Inter Milan’s Kwadwo Asamoah still pulling the strings,the chances will surely come for veteran prolific goal getter, Asamoah Gyan.
Dependable Jonathan Mensah is still the Minister of defence and the highly impressive Ayew brothers-Feneberche’s Andre and Crystal Palace’s Jordan are still very thick in it.The Ghanaians have a balanced side very much capable of taking the trophy home.
Umar Sa’ad Hassan is based in Kano; Twitter:@Alaye_100; Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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