Algeria are rightly the favourites
Unlike the other contenders at this tournament, Algeria will be playing without the shackles of doom after achieving glory in 2019. The champions have looked irresistible since lifting the trophy in Cairo, playing like a side with pressure off their shoulders. Their lengthy 34-match unbeaten match streak has had the performances to go with it, flicking from beauty to beast when needed be, and their 3-0 defenestration of Ghana earlier this week is a reminder of their credentials as AFCON 2021 winners.
Their triumph in the FIFA Arab Cup last month has only served to fizz a squad already in buoyant mood, and that in their own way they can now claim to have the Uruguayan-like spirit of garra charrua..
Winning AFCON is hard, retaining it is harder. But with Djamel Belmadi at the helm they have every right to come into this tournament with the assurance that they will defend their honour. As we have often learned at AFCON though, expectation can be the mother of destruction.
Senegal are not far behind Algeria
The Lions of Teranga are not easy on the eye but they are a team on the same wavelength after years of stability. Though there is a niggling assessment that they haven’t evolved tactically under their former captain Aliou Cisse, they are a team that have consistently featured among the cream of Africa under his tenure, and they come with handsome tournament experience.
Some would go as far as considering them to have, man-for-man, better players than Algeria. The FIFA rankings back that up, with Senegal being the top ranked African side for 36 months. Unfortunately, those rankings don’t come in tandem with the ecstasy of lifting gold.
Indeed, anything than at least an appearance in the final will be a failure for a country that has often fallen at the last hurdle. With the spine of their team still intact and performing well, plus the emergence of Edouard Mendy between the sticks, they have a good chance of reaching the final again as a bare minimum. They will want to do something that no Senegal team has managed to do: win it.
Cameroon will be fancied as hosts – but proceed with caution
Cameroon’s impressive home record and tournament track record will make them fancied in the eyes of many. There will be an expectation and an obligation for them to win, though they aren’t at the very top of Africa’s food chain.
As Egypt showed at the last AFCON though, if you’re not good enough you’re just not good enough. You cannot force victory. Sheer homefield advantage cannot mask your shortcomings once you’re playing against the good teams.
As ever, solidity will take you a long way
As Zambia showed in 2012 and Cameroon showed in 2017, being tactically astute can take you a long way even when you lack the glitter and gold, preparation and household names.
No team, in recent memory, has lifted the trophy while leaving the back door open; while some have left the door open earlier in the tournament (Ivory Coast 2015) they usually have learned that in order to win security is paramount. Having this resilience and minimising errors at the back, added with the prerequisite dash of luck, can take you all the way.
A bloated AFCON is a slow burner
With nearly half of the continent qualifying for the continent, an appearance at the tournament is, for most teams, not something hard-earned. Just as the cream will rise to the top, there may be sewage at the bottom. And it can, and does, get ugly when badly prepared, tactically bankrupt teams meet the best teams filled with players plying their trade at the very top level in Europe.
…But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy it
The likes of Kenya and my beloved Tanzania looked way off the pace at the last AFCON when they met Algeria and Senegal, the terrible twins of their group. That said, the appearances were something special for their nations.
These tournaments are not just about what happens on the pitch but what happens off it – their fans having the chance to embark on a journey they haven’t done in their lifetime or long time; recollections of where they watched certain matches and memorable moments; and the sheer pride of seeing your country play against world class players in a tournament setting. These things matter.
The meetings between the big hitters and the smaller teams can show the gulf between the haves and have-nots. In an ideal world it should be an opportunity for the football administrators of the have-nots to learn and strategise how they can close the gap in the long term. That’s probably too much to ask for.
At the very least you would hope that the players who take part are all the better for the experience, even when they’re on the end of some beating they will never forget.
There are teams still trying to find their identity
The sackings by Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe in the last few weeks and months means there are teams that come into the tournament disrupted and still trying to find their identity, with not much mileage in terms of competitive action.
Little is known about what some of those teams will throw up tactically, especially Nigeria and Sudan. The former have Augustine Eguavoen as their interim coach after parting ways with Gernot Rohr. Weirdly, Rohr’s successor Jose Peseiro will be watching on as an observer before taking his position officially after the tournament.
Sudan, meanwhile, used a poor showing at the FIFA Arab Cup to get rid of some of the experienced heads that got them to AFCON in the first place and, in Hubert Velud, a coach that had set them up perfectly until it all unravelled in Qatar.
You sense some of these sides may have set themselves up to fail.