Morocco got qualification underway with a disappointing home goalless draw with Central African Republic but an away victory against Tanzania in the next round of fixtures put Morocco back on track. A 4-0 2012 qualifying win over Algeria signalled the strength of Eric Gerets’ side and proved decisive, putting Morocco on course for the main stage, but the inconsistent results both early in qualifying and in post-qualifying friendlies, particularly a home defeat to Uganda, underline the consistency Gerets is striving to find has yet to arrive. But the 2004 runners-up are amongst the favourites for the tournament after their stingy defence brought qualification to a comfortable conclusion.
Coach – Eric Gerets: The well-travelled 57-year-old has played or coached in eight different countries as diverse as his native Belgium, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In charge of Morocco since 2010, Gerets has tasted club success in most of the countries he has called home, winning league titles in Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
One to watch – Marouane Chamakh: Unable to force himself past Robin van Persie in the Arsenal starting XI, Chamakh has the chance to remind potential summer suitors of his quality. The tall striker has 17 Morocco goals to his name but has only found the net once for the Gunners this season.
Gabon qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations 2012 as co-hosts with Equatorial Guinea but stand as one of the emerging powers of African football. Coached by Gernot Rohr, the German veteran of more than 350 games for Bordeaux and three-time manager of the Ligue 1 side, the Panthers, despite a tough group, are expected by their supporters to comfortably progress through the group stage.
Getting past the quarter-finals would mark the high-water mark of Gabon’s participation in the Africa Cup of Nations. That point was reached in 1996 but in the seven tournaments since, Gabon have failed to qualify on five occasions and fallen at the first hurdle on the other two. Home support however is not the only reason for optimism around the Gabon camp. In Didier Ovona, Gabon boast a goalkeeper rated by many as one the best in Africa, while centre-back Bruno Manga has impressed at French outfit Lorient. The pair make a major contribution to Gabon’s sturdy back-line, on which any tournament success will be based.
Coach – Gernot Rohr: The 58-year-old spent most of his playing career in France, playing 352 times for Bordeaux as well as managing Les Girondins to 1996’s UEFA Cup final. Rohr replaced Alain Giresse as Gabon manager in 2010, having previously coached Nantes and Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel.
One to watch – Bruno Manga: The 23-year-old was brought to Lorient as a replacement for Arsenal-bound Laurent Koscielny, having failed to make the grade at Bordeaux, but impressed at Angers. Combative and capable of playing at right-back, Manga has been linked to Arsenal, Aston Villa and Fiorentina.
The winners of the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations qualified for 2012’s competition with a final-game victory over Togo, finishing runners-up of qualification Group K to Botswana. With seven Coaches since 2008 and a policy of naturalising Brazilian players, the Eagles of Carthage have failed to find consistency in recent years.
Having reached three consecutive World Cups between 1998 and 2006, not once making it out the group stage, Tunisia failed to reach the 2010 event by a single point, topping the group for much of the last stage of qualification but losing their final game, allowing Nigeria to pip them at the post. But the first African side to win a World Cup match – 3-1 over Mexico in 1978 – are expected to escape the group stage this time. Confidence has been buoyed by success in the African Nations Championship, the tournament for home-based players, in 2011, when a 3-0 victory over Angola delivered the trophy in Sudan.
Coach – Sami Trabelsi: Trabelsi replaced Ammar Souayah after Souayah quit following the Arab Spring uprising. A Tunisia player at World Cup 1998, Trabelsi was Souayah’s assistant, Coach of the country’s Olympic side and won 52 caps for the national team.
One to watch – Issam Jemaa: Auxerre’s former Lens forward Jemaa is far and away the highest scorer in the Tunisia squad with 26 goals – 20 more than his nearest challenger. Capped 57 times, Jemaa is also one of the most experienced players in the party.
Qualifying for their first Africa Cup of Nations despite losing 3-0 to Egypt in their final qualifying game, Niger finished ahead of continental heavyweights Egypt and South Africa, the latter on the head-to-head record after the pair and Sierra Leone were level on point – a 3-1 victory over the latter proving vital as South Africa could only twice draw with the same opposition.
Deriving their nickname Menas from a gazelle native to the country, Niger enter the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations as the utmost of underdogs. Losing three times in qualification left Niger with the lowest points tally of any side to reach the finals, including the two teams – Libya and Sudan – who qualified as the best runners-up. But Coach Harouna Doula Gabde has instilled a hard-pressing, high-intensity 4-4-2 formation which will cause problems for any side that underestimates Niger. With no history in the Africa Cup of Nations, Niger enter the competition with little expectation but a predominantly young squad, containing just one player over 30, will gain valuable experience from the tournament.
Coach – Harouna Doula Gabde: Gabde emphasises discipline in his side but is also regarded as a strong motivator, capable of getting the best out of his relatively unknown players. Unbeaten at home in qualifying, Gabde instilled a belief in his players that may sustain them through the finals.
One to watch – Ouwo Moussa Maazou: On loan at Zulte Waregem of Belgium from CSKA Moscow, Maazou cost the Russian side nearly around £5m in 2009. A succession of loan spells has seen the forward take in a return to Lokeren, from where Moscow swooped, as well as two spells with Monaco and a year at Bordeaux.