2010 Africa Cup of Nations – Week 1 preview

Week 1 – The 27th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations bursts into life this weekend as hosts Angola kick off the tournament with a tough opener against Mali.

The debut hosts swapped war for peace a little over six years ago and Sunday’s match is certainly the biggest event to hit the nation. A lot will be resting on the powerful shoulders of striker Manucho – briefly of Manchester United – whose goals will be crucial for a side better known for their defensive quality than attacking verve. The Black Antelopes have lost just once in nine matches, but have drawn six of those fixtures under Manuel Jose who took over last summer. Opponents Mali are the competition’s dark horses according to many pundits. Led by canny Coach Stephen Keshi and inspirational Sevilla forward Frederic Kanoute, they possess a frightening midfield triumvirate of Momo Sissoko, Mahamadou Diarra and Barcelona’s star man this season, Seydou Keita.

The game of week one by a country mile, and a good reason to skip the pub on Friday night, sees favourites Ivory Coast in a heavyweight encounter against West African giants Ghana. So many questions surround the Elephants – can they go one better than 2006 and 2008 and add to their sole title success, will this be this be the first step on a road marked World Cup glory? But what isn’t in doubt is the ability of their very own ‘Golden Generation’. From back to front, there’s quality in abundance: Kolo Toure at centre-back, Emmanuel Eboue at full-back, Barcelona enforcer Yaya Toure and former Spur Didier Zokora in midfield. Up-front is Chelsea pair Salomon Kalou and, on his day, the most unplayable front-man in Didier Drogba. In truth both teams should qualify from the group, but a psychological advantage is definitely there to be won.

Opponents Ghana are second favourites with the bookies and boast the tournament’s most powerful presence in the man the French called Le Bison, Michael Essien. Even more will be expected from the Chelsea midfielder, with captain Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari absent – through injury and disciplinary issues respectively. The squad contains eight of last year’s under-20s World Cup winners, including Twente’s Ransford Osei whose eye for goal could make all the difference for the Black Stars this time round.

Egypt, the holders and most successful team in the tournament’s history, open their campaign with a humdinger against two-time champions Nigeria. The competition finds them at their weakest however, having missed out on World Cup qualification in an emotional play-off against Algeria last month. The Pharaohs are also without the important trio of playmaker Mohamed Aboutreika, Mohammed Barakat and ex-Wigan forward Amr Zaki, but can call upon midfield-maestro Ahmed Hassan. Nigeria are a traditional powerhouse of the continent but lack the class of the 1996 Olympic winners – Jay-Jay Okocha and the classy Kanu. But in John Obi Mikel they have a player that Manchester United and Chelsea once went to war over, and the fire-power of Yakubu and Obafemi Martins, while Taye Taiwo is a much-coveted left-back. Added spice to the occasion is Egypt’s failure to beat Nigeria in over 30 years.

Cameroon, under the charge of Paul Le Guen, could be the most interesting story and their game against Zambia could go a long way to deciding if they top the group or not. In Samuel Eto’o they have a class act. The three-time African Player of the Year would love a hat-trick of titles and is capable of doing it alone. Luckily he has ample support in the form of Achille Emana, a creative force from Real Betis who has turned heads in England. At the back, goalkeeper Carlos Kemini is an agile presence, while Nicolas N’Koulo of Monaco is rated the best young player in France. According to those in the know, Zambia are a better team than given credit for. They’re heavily reliant on brothers Christopher and Felix Katongo, but have a proud footballing history and manager Herve Renard is desperate for a second round spot.

Week 1 fixtures

Sunday January 10, 2010
Angola vs. Mali, 19:00

Monday January 11, 2010
Malawi vs. Algeria, 13:30
Ivory Coast vs. Burkina Faso, 16:00
Ghana v. Togo, 18:00

Tuesday January12, 2010
Egypt vs. Nigeria, 16:00
Mozambique vs. Benin, 18:30

Wednesday January 13, 2010
Cameroon vs. Gabon, 16:00
Zambia vs. Tunisia, 18:30

Thursday January 14, 2010
Mali vs. Algeria, 16:00
Angola vs. Malawi, 18:30

Friday January 15, 2010
Burkina Faso vs. Togo, 16:00
Ivory Coast vs. Ghana, 18:30

Saturday January 16, 2010
Nigeria vs. Benin, 16:00
Egypt vs. Mozambique, 18:30

Sunday January 17, 2010
Gabon vs. Tunisia, 16:00
Cameroon vs. Zambia, 18:30

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