For Gabon, having fallen at the first hurdle two years ago, a repeat performance on their own turf would be the ultimate disappointment. And despite a draw that sees them in opposition to the highly-rated Morocco and Tunisia, there is much optimism around the Gabon camp. Buoyed by the presence of much-touted France-based stars Bruno Manga, the Lorient defender, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Saint Etienne’s former Milan forward, the Panthers have the quality to escape the first stage for the first time since 1996, the same year they recorded their best Africa Cup of Nations performance in reaching the quarter-finals. Morocco are nevertheless amongst the favourites to win the tournament outright and will be Gabon’s second group opponents, and going into the match with the Lions of Atlas on the back of three points would prove a welcome fillip to Gernot Rohr’s side.
The outcome of Morocco’s meeting with Tunisia will do much to decide the fate of the group. At least one of the pair will drop points – or, in the event of a draw, both will – but to capitalise, Gabon must ensure they defeat Niger, the group underdog playing in their first Africa Cup of Nations. But Niger’s inexperience at this level will not necessarily be a negative trait, least of all in their inaugural match when the excitement of the occasion will be at its highest point. With the adrenaline flowing Niger are as liable to rise to the challenge of playing in front of a partisan Libreville crowd than cower from it. On these occasions it can often be the host nation most worn down by the weight of the expectant supporters. Niger, however, failed to win any of their away games in qualification and ended with a negative goal difference, suggesting they are less than comfortable outside their own nation.
Gabon, meanwhile, having qualified for the tournament as co-hosts, are preparing for their first competitive game in two years, since the last Africa Cup of Nations held in Angola in 2010. Between then and now the Under-23 side has claimed the country’s first continental title, and with four of the successful squad graduating to Rohr’s senior side there is some semblance of competition experience and recent competitive international action. The question now becomes are Gabon prepared for the experience of playing as hosts. If performances are encouraging the crowd reaction will follow suit, potentially spurring Gabon to greater heights. If the team struggles the crowd reaction will go one of two ways – vociferous but good natured encouragement to do better, or visceral criticism brought on by the disappointment. Three points against Niger would mark the perfect start and banish the doubts that inevitably creep into a host nation’s psyche.