By Sam Crocker
Once again ready to play hosts for the second time in the last four tournaments, the home advantage will be something that Les Pantheres will no doubt be looking to capitalise upon.
Reaching the quarter-finals when they co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea in 2012, Gabon have the chance to use the baying crowds and stadia familiarity to their own benefit, hopefully going one better this time.
To call this a ‘golden generation’ would be generous, but the Central African nation certainly do have a group of talented players who know each other well. Taking advantage of CAF’s rejigging of the qualification process, they were placed in a group with Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Sudan despite being hosts, with the matches Gabon played in regarded as friendlies and not counting towards qualification for the other teams.
Providing a structure with which to organise themselves and ensure regular ‘competitive’ games, they produced some solid performances, and would have finished level on points with Ivory Coast were they in the group as normal.
Their team has seen little change since 2015. The rough diamonds they previously possessed have now gained some experience or played regularly with one another. It is their managerial situation that has proved to be somewhat chaotic however. After Jorge Costa’s contract ran out in June, he was then promptly rehired for a further six months, before leaving again in November.
Spanish coach Jose Antonio Camacho has been appointed since, and will likely be his unfamiliarity with the squad that impedes them on their AFCON journey this time around.
Arranging themselves in a solid 4-3-3 formation, Gabon can be one of the slickest attacks in Africa if they get going, using the baskets full of pace they have on the wings to fuel their fluid offence.
Featuring three of Didier Ndong, Levy Madinda, Mario Lemina or Andre Biyogo Poko they have a dynamic midfield that can cover a range of duties, and they are also able to field the electric front-three of Guelor Kanga, Malick Evouna and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. With Lloyd Palun and Yohann Obiang not afraid to do some attacking themselves, they could be an impressive side to watch go forward, spurred on by the electric atmosphere.
Dynamism – Unlike many sides they will come up against, they possess players who can provide threat from various angles, able to use the multi-talented nature of their players to be an effective force at both ends of the pitch. Their midfield can bring some creativity as well as an effective shield, providing a central point with which to release the electric front-three they have at their disposal. Equally, should they need to sit, they can sit – benefitting from a physicality that makes them adept at bustling their opponents and nudging them away from their goal.
Managerial instability – Changing your manager two months before the start of the tournament you are hosting is not ideal preparation. Jorge Costa had managed to bring together a solid group of players, getting them to play in a way that could provide a genuine threat to any other team. The new man Camacho is highly experienced, but how quickly his new set of players will take to him remains to be seen, with a history of complicated relationships with previous managers. Whilst a last-minute change may have worked for Equatorial Guinea, a settled manager to add to a settled team would have probably been a better solution.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Who else? A very credible case to be the best player in Africa, the Borussia Dortmund striker continues to pass his already exceedingly high standards. The captain and leader, he is someone who’s outrageous ability can definitely handle what is expected of him.
Mario Lemina – Declaring for Gabon back in June after refusing the call up to the last AFCON, Lemina has slotted straight into this team, possessing the ideal skillset to make him a likely starter. Now with some game time under his belt for Juventus, he is an unknown quantity in the field of African football, and could be exactly that spark Gabon need.
Jose Antonio Camacho – Described as having “the soothing presence of a rhino in a playground” by Sid Lowe with a penchant for quitting in a huff. After two famously short stints with Real Madrid, how he will get on with the difficult Gabonese FA and the players remains to be seen. What also remains to be seen is hydration in the equatorial heat, given his infamously sweaty armpits.
By The Numbers (courtesy of We Global Football)
- Gabon did not have a productive 2016. Les Panthères took just 9 points from 9 matches and have not defeated a Top 100 opponent since March of 2015.
- Despite the recent lack of form, Gabon is a vastly different side at home. Since the start of 2012, Gabon has suffered just one home defeat in 20 matches.
- Couple the strong home advantage with the weakest group in the tournament, and you have a side which should get out of the group stage.
- Gabon is projected to finish 2nd in Group A with an average point projection of 4.46 points.
- This is enough for a 58.2% chance to advance out of Group A, but upon reaching the knockout stages, things become more challenging.
- Overall, Gabon has a 1 in 26 chance, or 3.84%, of being crowned African champions. This is 10th highest among the 16 team field.
Semi-finals – The hosts always perform well at AFCON. With a settled team and a manager who could get the best out of them, this could be Gabon’s best tournament finish yet.