Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughLast chance saloon for elephants as ACON rides into town once again - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Last chance saloon for elephants as ACON rides into town once again - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Last chance saloon for elephants as ACON rides into town once again

It’s not even a year since Zambia’s famous victory last time out but as of Saturday the African Cup of Nations returned back on our screens.

This is a tournament famed for its unique carnival like colourful atmosphere, where the football can go from the sublime to the truly horrific in literally a space of minutes. Audiences will be hoping that the current tournament being held in South Africa can provide the excitement and entertainment that has typified the ACON over the last couple of decades.

This is a tournament where we have been amazed in by unknown talent, where the shocking seems normal and something which is so different from the football we see on our own continent. Things in African football though are not as they were; the once iconic superpower nations are no longer, the style of football at the last few tournaments has grown overly cautious as a result of a greater European influence and these days that once unique element of shock that this competition possessed is no longer quite so prominent as it once was.

The first thing worth noting about South Africa 2013 is just who is not there, with traditional power-houses Cameroon and Egypt both failing to qualify whilst the talent packed Senegalese were also casualties of an unforgiving qualifying system. Initially the absence of Egypt and Cameroon might raise a surprise but its worth noting that both did not make the tournament last year so their failure is not exactly a complete bolt out of the blue.

What their inability to qualify highlights is not only that the order of supremacy is changing but there is now no longer any easy games on this great continent, with African football now at its most open and competitive as it has ever been. You only have to view the results of not only the last cup of nations but also the last couple of World Cup and Cup of Nation’s qualification campaigns for evidence of just how competitive and unpredictable African football has become.

This current tournament again looks to be there for the taking, even if on paper the Ivory Coast look clear favourites. Being favourites will be nothing new to the Ivorians having gone into the last four competitions as the team to beat, however it is not a tag that they have dealt with well and at each of these tournaments they failed to lift the trophy. Without question they are nation who over the past decade have possessed the greatest wealth of talent on the continent and for them to have lifted no trophies during this time is a little short of a travesty, for this has been the nations golden generation of footballers.

A large proportion of this so called golden generation are now nearing the twilight of their careers and this looks to be a last chance to finally deliver some silverware, this though is only likely to generate more pressure on a team that has consistently been found lacking in mental toughness. Possessing talent like Didier Drogba, Kolo & Yaya Toure, Cheick Tiote and many more means that nobody is going to match them for out and out quality, the problem is that nobody has seemingly been able to get them competing collectively as a team and this is again the big question mark and an area where others will feel they can make up the gap in talent. Further to this there has often been the criticism that the Ivorians are often overly cautious, therefore meaning they don’t make full use of explosive attacking talent they possess which results in almost a levelling up of the playing field. They should coast through the group stage; however the danger will again be that should they meet a well drilled, committed and purposeful side in the knock out stages then they might just come unstuck, particularly if a fear of losing takes hold of them as it has done in past tournaments.

There will be plenty who will fancy their chances of upsetting the Elephants should we see their now customary slip up take place. Ghana look the most significant threat, possessing several players who were key figures in their run to the World Cup quarter finals in 2010, whilst there is also a new generation of highly promising young talent which has broken into the squad. Nevertheless they have been hurt by a few notable absentees such as Andre Ayew, Michael Essein and Samuel Inkoom. Further to this they themselves have struggled to deal with high expectations and found the knock out stages difficult to negotiate, with just a single runner up spot all they have to show for going into the last three tournaments with strong sides. Despite the absentee’s and their past history they should not be written off given that they do generally click as a unit and in the likes of Kwadwo Asamoah, Agyemang Badu and Asamoah Gyan they have quality that can only be matched by the Ivory Coast.

Mali are another nation who will have visions of taking home the trophy, having banished the demons of successive group stage failures last time by coming third they will now be looking to go a couple of steps further here. They boast a squad with both a wealth of experience at international level and at European club football level, with their main strength looking to be the power and steal they have in the middle of the park which is likely to make them tricky customers to beat should they reach the knock out stages. Seydou Keita in particular is a huge presence in the heart of the midfield and despite now being the 33 the ex Barcelona has the ability to control the game like few others in this tournament. The obvious weakness though looks to be in the form of creativity, although strikers Cheick Diabate and Modibo Maiga do have goals in them the majority of their strong midfield players are more defensively than offensively minded. Despite this weakness they are certainly a danger and should they get on a role they will be a tough proposition to beat, a characteristic which has typified winners of the last few tournaments.

Zambia will be back to defend their title and if they can match the levels of resilience and determination that they displayed in 2012 then they will once again be a threat. Led by Inspirational coach Herve Renard, Chipolopolo showed just what is possible with strong organisation and team ethic as they upset the odds to clinch what was the most shocking of tournament victories. This time though they will no longer be able to use the surprise factor with teams now well aware of their threat, whilst recreating that historic triumph looks to be a hugely difficult task although they are arguably stronger than last time given that key man Jacob Mulenga return having missed the 2012 contest. 

Expectations for Nigeria are not quite as high as they have been in past given that they are now far from the star studded outfit they were over a decade ago, whilst they have gone through their fair share of turmoil in recent years which has had a detrimental affect on results on the pitch .

The downgrading of expectation and an unusually quiet and uneventful build up means that they could be at their most threatening for years, the current squad is more youthful looking than those of past tournaments with several so called bigger names left out. Nevertheless they still bring with them countless players of real quality and top class experience, with Victor Moses and Ikechukwu Uche notable threats. If coach Stephen Keshie can get this young group working from the same hymn sheet something which Nigerian sides in recent years have struggled to do, then undoubtedly they have the potential to go all the way in this tournament.

Aside from those sides mentioned above there are several others who will be looking to shake things up in South Africa and as Zambia showed us last time out it would be foolish to rule anyone out. DR Congo are back having failed to qualify for the last three tournaments and led by experienced coach Claude Leroy they have enough ability in their squad to cause an upset, with striker Dieumerci Mbokani looking a significant threat.

Morocco have struggled to make an impact at recent tournaments however they posses a squad with undoubted talent and having being dealt a favourable group stage draw they will be looking to finally making a sizeable impact at this tournament, they certainly have the tools to succeed with Younes Belhanda being the man they will be looking at to pull their strings. If Morocco have been a figure of inconsistency in recent tournaments Tunisia are the opposites, having reached the quarter finals in three of the last four tournaments. Their approach will again be based on a disciplined more European style of football and they should again negotiate the group stages; however it remains to be seen whether they can find that extra bit of quality to go any further.

Angola will be another side confident of escaping their group given a generous draw as they have done in two of the past three tournaments, although again there are questions over whether they possess the quality to go further given their predominantly home based squad which could be described as lacking in match winners.

Burkino Faso have failed to escape the group stages in the last five tournaments that they have qualified and with a difficult draw this term against Nigeria and Zambia it looks tough for them to finally reach the knock out stages, although there is enough quality in their group to suggest that should the others falter they have the ability to step up. Togo will get the chance to showcase their skills having been forced to withdraw from the last competition and they are boosted by Emanuel Adebuyor’s decision to take part, however they are side who have never once reached the knock out stages and a difficult draw would make you think that it is likely to be the same story again this term. Joining Togo in that difficult group are an Algeria side who will be typically dogged and tough to break down, their issue though looks to be scoring goals and that might prove to be their undoing.

Hosts South Africa have failed to make any progress since the World Cup and without Steven Pienaar it looks a tough ask for them to make an impact here, although if they can use the home advantage to generate a little bit of momentum they have at least been dealt a group which does not include any of the favourites. In that group are debutants Cape Verde, a side whose qualification alone should be considered a significant achievement so with that in mind it looks tough for them to take their miraculous journey beyond the group. Niger return following their debut tournament last term and they will again be huge underdogs having lost all three games last time, any improvement on this effort should be considered a good turn out.

The final spot in the tournament is taken up by An Ethiopia side who are making their first appearance at the finals since 1982, having impressively seen off last terms quarter finalists Sudan to make it here. Getting beyond the group looks tough however they are a team confident in their ability and over the last year they have surprised several sides in both world cup qualification and this tournaments qualification therefore meaning they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

If the Ivory Coast can finally find their best form then without question they should win the title, however should they again stumble there are a whole host of sides who will be confident of taking the trophy back to their land. What we will be hoping for more than anything is that this tournament can continue the ACON legacy and we do not see vast numbers of cagey drab games which have often typified recent tournaments, although the growing influence of European football and the largely negative nature of international football in recent years means that it would not be surprising for us to witness such games. Nevertheless this will always be a tournament like no other in world football and you only have to look back to the 2012 tournament last year for evidence of just what magical stories and incredible action the African Cup of Nations can generate.

Matt Carter