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Group Previews




GROUP A

This tournament is an opportunity for South Africa to exorcise several ghosts, not least the embarrassing manner in which they contrived to deny themselves qualification for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Bafana Bafana have the players, the resources and the home support. But they also have a tendency to frustrate their fans by failing to live up to expectations. They will hope that new coach Gordon Igesund’s tenure has fostered self-belief and tactical maturity.

Bafana could not have asked for a better fixture to kick off their campaign on home turf. Victory against minnows Cape Verde in the tournament opener should set the tone, get the partisan home support behind the team and set the hosts on their way. However, they can’t afford to underestimate the tournament debutants. Any team that beats four-time AFCON champions Cameroon to qualify for the finals must be taken seriously.

Angola and Morocco are expected to provide much sterner tests for the 1996 champions than the Blue Sharks. In fact, dismissing Cape Verde’s claims, it should be a three-way fight for the two knock-out berths.

Palanca Negras may not have achieved much at an AFCON tournament, with a quarter-final appearance their best showing to date. However, they will fancy their chances in a group of underachievers.

Morocco, champions in 1976, regulars at AFCON championships, are very unpredictable. Their fortunes hinge on which Morocco team shows up in South Africa. If they can get their act together, they could make the battle for quarter-final places very interesting.

GROUP B

This group looks deceptively straight forward. It is nothing but.

If we install four-time champions Ghana as outright favourites to finish top, billing their talent and the strides they have made in the last few years warrant, then the squabble for second place could be a very interesting one.

Many pundits will tip Ghana and Mali to progress to the knock-out phase, but the ‘favourites’ will do well not to underestimate the Democratic Republic of Congo. The manner of the Leopards’ qualification – 7-0 aggregate over Seychelles in the first round followed by a 5-2 aggregate over Equatorial Guinea – means their claims cannot be flippantly dismissed.

In Claude Le Roy the Leopards will have the most experienced coach at the tournament, wily tactician and astute student of the African game. The Frenchman will be taking charge of a national team at an AFCON tournament for the seventh time.

Can the DRC add to their 1968 and 1974 titles? That is highly unlikely, but they sure could just be the team to write the Cinderella Story of the tournament.

Ghana go to South Africa as one of the pre-tournament favourites. The Black Stars have the benefit of consistency of selection and could repeat the rewards of a young team that is starting to mature. After losing in the semi-finals to eventual champions Zambia in 2012, Ghana will hope to go all the way and few will bet against them.

Mali are not a team to be trifled with. The Eagles have been there and thereabouts in previous tournaments - losing finalists in 1972 and most recently claiming bronze after beating Ghana in the third and fourth play-off in 2012.

This will be Niger’s second successive appearance at an AFCON tournament after making their debut in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The best Menas can hope for is to improve on their previous showing after losing all three of their group matches in 2012.

GROUP C

Forget the often trotted out “there are no minnows” refrain. Defending champions Zambia and former champions Nigeria pick themselves as favourites to progress from Group C, with a toss of the coin to decide the outright winner of the group.

Should either Burkina Faso or Ethiopia record unlikely victories over the much fancied abovementioned pair, the feats would firmly fall into the upset category.

Zambia emerged from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea as the unlikeliest of champions. Very few gave them a prayer against the much-vaunted Ivory Coast going into the final. Chipolopolo will therefore be determined to prove that the triumph, inspired by and dedicated to the memories of the squad that perished in a plane crash in 1993, was no fluke.

Coach Herve Renard's has put together a solid squad that combines collective work ethic and individual brilliance, the latter subservient to the former. With a number of their players earning their corn in the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL), Zambia are well placed to exploit familiar conditions to their advantage and do well at this tournament.

Given the talent at their disposal, Nigeria should have won more than the two AFCON titles they have to their name. Frustratingly for their supporters, the Super Eagles have gone into tournaments with their hopes already shattered, thanks to pre-tournament preparations bedevilled by internal squabbles, either over player payments, player egos, team selection or a general knack for pressing the self-destruct button.

On their day Nigeria have the beating of any team on the continent. If coach Stephen Keshi can get his players focused and manage to instil a unity of purpose in his squad, the Super Eagles could be one of the tournament’s dark horses. How well they do in the group stages will give an indication of their determination to right the wrongs of the past and shed their hara-kiri tendencies. Still, they should have enough to get out of the group, if only on reputation alone.

Publicly both Burkina Faso and Ethiopia will reject the suggestion that they are at the tournament to make up the numbers. Realistically, for all their determination they simply do not have the quality to back their defiant tunes.

But if there is to be an upset in the group, it is likely to be caused by Burkina Faso than Ethiopia. The Burkinabe have a reasonable AFCON pedigree and both Nigeria and Zambia will treat them warily and with respect. On the other hand, Ethiopia, who are former champions by the way, have the ‘whipping boys’ tag firmly nailed on.

GROUP D

Group D boasts some of the strongest teams at the 2013 edition of the competition. On paper, Ivory Coast are a shoo-in to progress to the knock-out stages, with Algeria the slight favourites to win the squabble for the other qualifying berth.

African football’s perennial underachievers, Ivory Coast, will be desperate to make amends for their defeat to Zambia in the 2012 AFCON finals which was ultimately decided on penalties.

This could also be Didier Drogba's last chance to claim the trophy. The former Chelsea striker will be 36 years old when the next tournament kicks off in 2015, and as the captain of Les Elephants, he will undoubtedly be doubly determined to lead his country to victory in South Africa.

AFCON 2012's losing finalists have an astonishing amount of quality at their disposal, with almost all of their players plying their trade in one of Europe's top leagues. They have a good blend of experienced, established campaigners and promising young stars.

Sitting at number 15 on the latest FIFA rankings, Cote d'Ivoire are the highest-placed African team at the tournament while Algeria are not too far behind, sitting in 19th - sandwiched between France and Belgium.

Algeria did not qualify for the 2012 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, but they will be encouraged by the fact that they got the better of Ivory Coast in 2010.

The Fennec Foxes defied the odds to progress to the quarter-finals, pipping Mali to a second-place finish in Group A to set up a quarter-final clash with Drogba's men. They went on to record a 3-2 victory after extra time in Cabinda, with their reward a semi-final clash with eventual winners Eqypt in Benguela.

While Tunisia and Togo are not as high up on the questionable FIFA rankings as Ivory Coast and Algeria, they do have notable pedigree in the African showpiece.

Tunisia, nicknamed the Eagles of Carthage, will be looking to improve on their performance in the 2012 edition where they lost to Ghana in the quarter-finals.

The North African outfit won the tournament for the first and only time in 2006 as host nation, defeating Morocco 2-1 in the final. However, they have struggled to replicate that feat in subsequent years.

Tunisia made it to the quarter-finals stage in the three of the four tournaments that followed, but finished bottom of their group in 2010.

Togo must surely be considered the weakest team in the group due to their lack of meaningful pedigree in the competition. The recent news that top scorer Emmanuel Adebayor has retired – again - from international football is also a major blow to their aspirations.

The Sparrow Hawks have never progressed from the group stages, while they withdrew from the competition in 2010 after an armed attack on their team bus left three people dead and nine others injured.

Head coach Didier Six has a relatively young squad at his disposal, with only three of his players over the age of 30. However, the lack of high-profile stars could work in Togo’s favour. There is no doubt that the youngsters called upon to do duty for their country will relish the opportunity to make a name for themselves in South Africa.

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