Cup of Nations 2013: SFG writers’ plus guests’ predictions

As you would know, if you’ve been following our coverage of the Africa Cup of Nations 2013, it’s nearly time for Africa. Again. And it’s time for us to predict on some of the outcomes over the coming weeks, including the most important of them all: who will win it? This is the chance for you to laugh at us in a couple of weeks (and beyond), when it’s all over, and know whose judgement to trust in future, perhaps. SFG's Cup of Nations team are joined by three guests; Steve Gabb, who runs Spirit of Mirko and African Soccer Review; Tom Legg, an east African football enthusiast who runs Eastern Promise; and Paul Sarahs, a world football commentator, journalist and broadcaster. To the business at hand:

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Who will win the 2013 Cup of Nations and why?

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Tom Legg: Ghana –  A well balanced squad, despite the absence of key players in Andre Ayew and Samuel Inkoom. The combination of Kwadwo Asamoah and Wakaso Mubarak down the left should offer give them attacking variation, whilst Annan and Agyemang-Badu will offer much needed bite and quality in central midfield. In the absence of Andre Ayew much of the side creative spark will be placed on young Porto forward Christian Astu. A string of impressive performances in qualify have suggest Atsu is more than capable of fill that role.

Steve Gabb: It’s very difficult to look past Ivory Coast. It’ll be very hard for most defences at the tournament to cope with a strikeforce consisting of Gervinho, Koné, Kalou, Yaya Touré, Gradel and Didier Drogba. Despite their obvious qualities you get the impression that they’re playing with the weight of an entire country’s expectations on their shoulders. This side really should have won a continental title by now, and for many of these players it’s their last chance. The pressure will be greater than ever, but this time I think they will deliver.

Paul Sarahs: As it was last year and as it seems to perpetually be, it’s very hard to look beyond Ivory Coast. So strong in every area of the pitch and with a feeling of ‘last chance saloon’ for one or two of the older players in the squad to win something with Les Elephants.  The didn’t concede a goal last year and only lost on penalties in the final, I expect them to go one better this year despite some questions about the defence and whether it’s as impermeable as it was 12 months ago.

Maher Mezahi: Algeria, because of their defensive discipline. Les Fennecs have only conceded 1 goal in their last 4 games. There’s also the case of Vahid Halilhodzic. He’ll demand the very best of his men and I think it’s time they deliver. They could be boring, but they’ll be effective.

Salim Said: Ivory Coast. They’re the most complete team at this Cup of Nations by a continental distance in terms of experience, strength in depth, know-how (to get to the final at least), etc.

James Bennett: I’m not afraid to make brave predictions – I went for Stoke to be relegated from the Premier League this year and didn’t expect Spain to do particularly well in Euro 2012. Those predictions also suggest I’m not very good at brave predictions. Nonetheless, I’m going to go for South Africa. The hosts usually do well, and in the World Cup they seemed to be lifted by their role and overachieved. I think they might do the same this time, and at this level of competition, that may be enough to at least take them deep into the competition.

Sam Crocker: Can’t look past Ivory Coast sadly. Feel they’ll be more at home in South Africa, with the world cup stadiums suiting the array of superb players they have. They can’t possibly disappoint again, can they?  If not, can see South Africa coming through at home. Or my surprise package perhaps (As you can probably tell, I don’t really know)

Alex Queiros: Ivory Coast. Surely, after so many years of disappointment, the golden generation can win the tournament. I can’t see a surprise winner like last year, but then again, I wouldn’t be amazed if the Ivorians didn’t manage to win.

Sagar Patel: Ivory Coast. The ‘Golden Generation’ never seems to make it past the final hurdle but maybe this is actually their year (no, seriously). They enter the tournament in strong form, just like last year, and there are goals to be had from all across this team.

James Eugene: Ivory Coast, unless Gervinho takes penalties again.

Amro Alkado: Ghana; Ivory Coast routinely choke, and there is no bona fide North African danger this time unfortunately.

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Who will underachieve?

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Tom: South Africa – bereft of key players, such as centre back Morgan Gould and creative linchpin Steven Pienaar, the hosts have been struggling to find the right attacking combinations to help lead them to their first AFCON title since 1996. Some worrying lethargic performances in buildup games suggest the team aren’t entirely comfortable with their tweaked system of play under Gordon Igesund. Drawn alongside Angola, Morocco and Cape Verde in Group A, an early exit at the group stages would not surprise me.

Steve: Despite being hosts I think South Africa could struggle. Their opening match could well set the tone for the whole tournament and I’m not sure that Cape Verde will be the pushovers that everyone expects them to be. I also can’t see Zambia repeating their successes of last year, however I think it would be unfair to call it underachieving as they did so well last time out to win the cup.

Paul: Tough question.  All the signs point to Nigeria with their at-times comedic build up to the tournament but writing them off with the quality they possess seems premature.  If it clicks they can go all the way but will face reigning champions Zambia and a side in Burkina Faso that can surprise anyone on their day.  If they can progress beyond the group there’s potential to go far in the cup, but they need to start quickly against Les Etalons in a game that may decide their fate.

Mali another who could struggle. Uninspiring, a lack of creativity and another of AFCON’s potential surprise packages in their group, Congo DR, may see them fail early on. Their weaknesses are clear but their strengths are often enough to see workmanlike sides do well in the African Cup of Nations.  Games against Congo DR and Mali key to whether they’ll fall at the first hurdle or progress.

Maher: Zambia. They have support who demand the absolute best from their Copper Bullets. Anything but an extended run in this Cup of Nations will be seen as a failure and teams will be vying to knock them off of their continental pedestal.

Salim: Morocco. The pressure on them is enormous after 37 years without success. The decision not to include Kharja was awful, and with little experience in their ranks they may just drown in an ocean of self-doubt.

James B: Usually one of the big African teams collapses through self-doubt and internal wranglings. Togo seem to be heading that way with Emmanuel Adebayor going, then not going, then going again. All is not well there. But other than that, I’m going to go for Ghana, because of the huge expectation and they’re missing one or two the big name players that have been around in the last couple of tournaments, particularly Andre Ayew. I’d also add Morocco, who may end up being less than the sum of their parts again even without a couple of big names. And Gervinho, obviously.

Sam: Nigeria. Recent instability and an exciting Burkina Faso team means I can see them finishing 3rd in the group.

Alex: Nigeria. Most of the squad has never been in an Afcon and they may be a bit overwhelmed. They should pass the group stage, but won’t go further than that.

Sagar: South Africa. They haven’t fared well in past tournaments and face some potentially tricky opponents in Group A. While they did lift the trophy last time they hosted in 1996, I don’t see them making the sort of impact you would expect from a home country.

James E: I have a feeling that South Africa will underachieve.

Amro: South Africa – yet again.

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The surprise package?

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Tom: Burkina Faso – Tight call between them and DR Congo, but with Les Etalons drawn alongside a Zambia side still hungover from their 2012 triumph and East Africa’s only representative, Ethiopia, the opportunity is there for Burkina Faso to get out of the group and into the knockout stages.

Steve: I think there are a couple in Group A. If Cape Verde Islands can build some sort of cohesion from a disparate group of players then I think they could do well. They certainly have more quality than the Equatorial Guinea side that made the quarter finals last year. A win in the opening game of the competition against Bafana Bafana could blow the group wide open. Similarly I think Angola have been getting some good results recently (they haven’t lost in their last six and defensively seem sound). I’m sure most will be predicting that South Africa and Morocco will get out of Group A, I’m not so sure it’ll be that easy.

Paul: Again, there are two sides with the potential to really surprise.  Burkina Faso have such a creative group with the likes of Jonathan Pitroipa, Alain Traore and Abdou Razack Traore, and a genuine goal threat in Moumouni Dagano.  Kabore looks a different player with the national team. The group has great experience but a reputation for choking when it counts. If they are able to overcome that deserved reputation and click as a group, they could go all the way. Then again, I said that last year!

The other team who are more than capable are Congo DR. In Dieumerci Mbokani they have a natural goalscorer in top form for Anderlecht in the Belgian Pro League and with Tresor Mputu will make up one of the most feared strike partnerships in South Africa. Lomana LuaLua, rejuvenated in Turkey this year, will provide an excellent foil for the pairing of Mputu and Mbokani.  Love watching Congo DR play and if they get it right, they’re a real danger.

Maher: I can see South Africa doing well this tournament. Morocco have a terrible record in SA and Belhanda might be injured. Cape Verde and Angola should be beatable with all due respect to the Lusophone nations. Assuming SA finish first, they’ll play one of DR Congo or Mali. Either of which they can overcome with the home support. It’s also tough to discount the host nation factor. So this could be the first time we see South Africa in the semi-finals since 2000!

Salim: DR Congo. They have the coach, the creativity, the midfield machine, the goals to go very far and, most importantly, the inner cohesion due to that core of TP Mazembe alma mater. But I’d say they don’t have the defence to win the whole thing.

James B: Well, I’ve already gone for South Africa to win it, which itself would be a major surprise. Moving away from that, for the surprise packages for British football fans, you’d have to look at the teams that have players that are unfamiliar to the British media – DR Congo, Niger, Ethiopia, Cape Verde, and in particular Burkina Faso, who only just scraped through in that dramatic play-off but showed a lot of character to do so. That sort of thing is crucial in tournaments. I think they might edge Zambia and qualify from that group, and then who knows.

Sam: The hipster choice – DR Congo. Don’t think they’ll win it, but with Mbokani in incredible form, I can certainly see them surpassing expectations.

Alex: The predictable answer, of course, is DR Congo. They can and most likely will surprise. But, to be a bit different, I’m going to say Angola. Mostly home-based players adapting into a South American playing system. Who knows, it could work out for them.

Sagar: Cape Verde. The fear of the unknown may work in their favour and Group A is pretty close to call as it is.

James E: Tough one, but I’ll go for Cape Verde.

Amro: There have been so many upsets of late that it is difficult to pick. DR Congo have a core of TP Mazembe players who are a solid team for those who follow African Champions League so I will go with them.

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Top goalscorer?

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Tom: Asamoah Gyan – The Black Stars fall guy in recent tournaments has been in top form for Al Ain this season, scoring 21 goals in 14 games. Fitness, as always, is a concern but with the young legs of Atsu, Wakaso and Adomah doing all the running off him, space could be left for Gyan to do what he does best, score goals!

Steve: It’ll take a brave man to bet against anyone other than Didier Drogba. 59 goals in 90 internationals tells its own story. For a slightly more left field choice if Dieumerci Mbokani of DR Congo can get anywhere near his club form (12 in his last 11 Anderlecht games) then he’ll be one to watch.

Paul: It feels a bit of a cop out to choose Didier Drogba but with Ivory Coast such strong favourites it would be foolish not to. Mbokani will run him close – and will have to – if Congo DR progress beyond the group stage.

Maher: Didier Drogba. He’ll lead CIV to the finals and lose to Algeria. More heartbreak for Didier in Africa, but I have no sympathy.

Salim: I’ll be boring and go for Didier Drogba. It’s his last chance for a Cup of Nations, he’ll be in insatiable form. I fancy him to score a free-kick or two as well.

James B: In recent big tournaments, the battles for top scorer have been very close with goals dispersed around the teams – take Thomas Muller winning the 2010 World Cup Golden Boot, for instance. It’s more important that the team goes far, so I’m going safe with Didier Drogba, because Cote d’Ivoire are a good bet to go far in the competition and he’s probably still the best striker in the competition.

Sam: Mbokani for sure – assuming my dark horse prediction comes off.

Alex: No isolated winner, I think. We can expect Manucho, Drogba, Katongo and Adebayor amongst the top, but none will score more than 4 or 5, really.

Sagar: Dider Drogba. I see him making it to the final so will go with him as a safe bet.

James E: I’ll go with a tie-break between Drogba and Chris Katongo.

Amro: Issam Jemaa has been in red hot form for Tunisia in the warm up games.If they manage to get through the group my bet is on him.

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Player to watch?

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Tom: Christian Atsu – The twenty year old forward burst onto the scene for the Black Stars after a virtuoso performance against Malawi, in Accra, during qualifying. Quick footed, powerful and direct, Atsu can operate anywhere across a front three and will likely fill the creative void left by Andre Ayew.

Steve: I’m quite familiar with players such as Drogba, Toure, Gyan and Adebayor. I’ve seen them play on many occasions. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the African based players such as Harrison Afful and Clottey of Espérance as well as the TP Mazembe crew (Mputu, Sunzu, Kalaba, Kanda) to see how they get on at a major finals. It will also be interesting to see how much impact Msakni can have now he’s playing in the Middle East. Of all the players I’m definitely most interested in how Tresor Mputu will perform. He’s been an absolute joy to watch via YouTube and grainy internet feeds over the past couple of years, it’ll be great to see him on a clear picture – finally!

Paul: Christian Atsu of Porto and Ghana, a superstar in the making! Issues with fitness and injury, but if he’s at his peak, Alain Traore of FC Lorient and Burkina Faso.

Maher: I like Ghana’s Christian Atsu. He can be very fun to watch when used correctly. Look for him to amuse himself in vacancies behind the midfield and on the left flank.

Salim: Tresor Mputu. Thank me later.

James B: I am by no means an African football expert so if you’re looking for someone to tell you who the next big star to emerge at this tournament will be, I’m not the person to ask. My area of expertise is the English Football League, and there aren’t too many players selected from there. One of those is South Africa’s Kagisho Dikgacoi, who has regularly featured at the heart of a Crystal Palace team that has been this season’s surprise package of the Championship. I’d also add the awesome Youssef Mulumbu, another in-form English-based midfielder.

Sam: Alain Traore. Could be important if Burkina Faso do well.

Alex: I want to see what Trésor Mputu does. Christian Atsu, Ryan Mendes, Emmanuel Mayka and Alain Traoré are also on my radar.

Sagar: Emmanuel Adebayor. The controversial Togolese will indeed be at the finals; it’ll be interesting to see what he does both on and off the field.

James E: Victor Moses. You may accuse me of “Premier League” bias, but I really think that he will be a bright spark in this tournament

Amro: Christopher Katongo, I don’t know if we have mentioned this guy before? Watch closely.

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What are you most looking forward to?

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Tom: Apart from being in front of the TV at 1600 GMT on January 19th 2013, this tournament could well be one of the most open AFCON’s we’ve witnessed in recent years. Which says a lot considering the thrills and spills we witness in 2012. Nigeria and Ghana have revitalised ageing and under performing squads whilst Cape Verde, Burkina Faso and DR Congo will hopefully provide us with similar ‘giant’ killing stories witnessed in EQG and Gabon.

Steve: I’m fascinated to see how Claude Le Roy fuses together a group of excellent African based players from TP Mazembe such as Mputu, Kanda, Kidiaba with players who play for good European clubs like Mbokani and Mulumbu. Add players like Gabby Zakuani of Peterborough United and you’ve got a bizarre set of ingredients. Whether Le Roy can bake a fantastic pudding from that mix I’ve no idea, but it’ll certainly be interesting. Sides like this are what international football is all about.

Paul: Everything! I’ve been excited for the tournament since the dramatic end to the last one.  Cape Verde’s debut, Ethiopia returning after so long away, the will-they-won’t-they saga of Ivory Coast, whether Nigeria can overcome their build up and deliver. It’s all set to be a brilliant tournament!

Maher: Watching the Walyas of Ethiopia. Had a riot with their qualification matches and I’ll be in front of my television for each of their matches. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for a few upsets.

Salim: The goal celebrations – honestly, it’s one of the major reasons I love the Cup of Nations – the drama, the shocks, good football, vuvuzelas, surprise packages and, the best bit,  the joy of watching a tournament as a neutral and seeing other people suffer!

James B: One of the main reasons I enjoy watching the tournament, aside from as a voyage of discovery, is to see the best players in a different environment. Some adapt well, some don’t. So I’m looking forward to seeing the big names. I’m looking forward to seeing how Drogba does after a few months in China. I’m looking forward to seeing if Adebayor can inspire Togo despite the disputes. I hope Victor Moses gets a good chance to show what he’s capable of. And I want to see if Stoppila Sunzu lives up to the growing hype.

Sam: Zambia’s response to defending their crown. Won’t have the element of surprise this year.

Alex: Like in all Afcons, exciting, no-nonsense football, packed stadiums with vuvuzelas honking like mad and scenes to remember for decades to come.

Sagar: Good crowds, hopefully. Last year’s edition failed to leave a legacy in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea due to inflated ticket prices.

James E: Cape Verde progressing through to the knockout stages, an underdog in the semi-finals and many many spectacular goals like last year.

Amro: The inevitable genuine surprises that you only truly get in Africa and Asia. The “established” teams always feel vulnerable.

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