Africa Cup of Nations Focus – Shining stars on early collision course

The Pharoahs, The Indomitable Lions, The Super Eagles, The Desert Foxes – some fantastic team nicknames are doing the rounds again, it must be the Africa Cup of Nations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, pundits and bookmakers alike have earmarked all five World Cup qualifiers as the main prospects for the 27th African Nations Cup in Angola. Of those five, Ghana and the Ivory Coast are the two shining lights and this time next week we will have a strong idea of whether their challenges will sparkle or fade. Paired in the obligatory ‘group of death’, Michael Essien’s Black Stars will take on Didier Drogba’s Elephants next Friday in the most anticipated match-up of the group stages. It’s a compelling tie to whet the appetite, but which team can make the biggest impression on the other and, indeed, the three-week championships as a whole?

Expected to be Africa’s strongest representative at this summer’s World Cup, the Ivory Coast have the most powerful and balanced squad in this competition. Familiar faces and undisputed talents in Europe, such as Salomon Kalou (Chelsea), Emmanuel Eboue (Arsenal), Yaya Toure (Barcelona) and Kolo Toure (Manchester City) will all feature in the starting XI. The main player shouldering the weight of heavy expectations is, of course, Didier Drogba, who left Stamford Bridge in scintillating form last week. Yet the main concern for Bosnian Coach Vahid Halilhodzic will be the risk of burn-out to his prized asset: “We are worried for all our players’ fitness in the squad, especially players like Drogba, who are always involved in so many matches. He is a human being, not a machine.” With 40 goals in just 60 internationals and the absence of a prolific striking partner, Drogba’s performances look set to make or break the Ivory Coast’s title bid. This was evident in the Elephants’ unsatisfying 1-0 warm-up victory over Tanzania – a glut of opportunities, yet Drogba the only scorer. Despite concerns over Kolo Toure’s demise and the lack of an experienced centre-back partner, criticisms of a weak defensive underbelly seem relatively unfounded given that Halilodzic has presided over just one loss in 20 games.

Group B rivals, and second favourites, Ghana arrived in Angola after a tumultuous and unsettled build-up. A foray of untimely injuries has seen The Black Stars’ defensive spine crumble – centre backs John Pantsil (Fulham), John Mensah (Sunderland) and robust midfielder and captain Stephen Appiah (Bologna) will all miss out. Pantsil’s absence is especially damaging given that he had Drogba in his proverbial pocket two weeks ago in the Chelsea vs. Fulham Premier League clash. To add insult to these injuries, influential midfielder Sulley Muntari (Inter Milan) has been dismissed from the squad by Serbian Coach Milovan Rajevac after picking and choosing when to play for his national side. As a result, the Black Stars will draw from Michael Essien’s experience and dogmatic presence more than ever before. This is an especially tough ask given that he has hasn’t played for over a month; Ghana’s ambitions may well be left hanging by his hamstring. Forced to draw on eight members of the Under-20 squad who triumphed in their respective World Cup last year, Rajevac will lead one of the most intriguing squads in Angola. Dominic Adiyiah, top scorer in that tournament and now on AC Milan’s books is certainly one to watch. Previous boss Ratomir Dujkovic has said that the uncapped individuals may well be a blessing in disguise: “The young players Rajevac is taking to the Nations Cup are the future of Ghana football. They will cause problems for many countries.”

On the 14th the two West African giants will lock horns for the first time since the third place playoff at the 2006 African Nations Cup. That day, Ghana came off the better winning 4-2. Whether they can follow through again and defeat the considerably more experienced Ivory Coast seems heavily dependent on their ability to keep Drogba quiet, keep Essien ticking over and a fast integration of new blood into the starting line-up. The Ivory Coast, meanwhile, must live in the present – heralded as strong favourites and reliant on star names sustaining their peak form, they will be keen to strike whilst the iron is hot.

A climate of ‘will he, won’t he’ has dogged the Algerian coach Rabah Saadane this week after media reports of a dispute with his players and superiors. Speculation suggests that a potential resignation may be linked to Saadan’s recent downgrading of expectations for African Nations success: “This competition comes at the wrong time for the team. We went through the playoffs tired. The fans should not expect miracles in this tournament.” Such was the momentum of rumours within the North African country, the Algerian FA were forced into making a statement to alleviate tensions: “We are anxious to reassure the public that an excellent mood reigns in the squad. No dissension exists between the Coach and the players.” With England set to face off against Algeria in South Africa this summer, Fabio Capello will no doubt monitor the situation with interest.

This year’s African Nations takes place in south-central state Angola. Apart from the excitement of hosting a fantastic festival of football, the tournament is also an opportunity for Angola to cultivate national unity. The former Portuguese colony is still rebuilding itself logistically and psychologically after a 27-year-long civil war, which finally came to an end in 2002 (it claimed 500 000 lives). Ivory Coast defender Kolo Toure spoke poignantly yesterday about football’s ability to heal national tensions and dilute damaging divides: “We had a really tough time in Ivory Coast. I think Angola had more than us but it was still the same political problem. Football is so powerful and we football players can bring our country together because we are from different parts of our country.” It is hoped that the success of the tournament’s four widespread venues will kick-start local investment around the country and the development towards a national infrastructure of roads, energy production and further regional integration. More than 4 000 foreign visitors are expected to come to the 2010 tournament.

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