Algeria were superb at the World Cup, going as close as anybody to beating Germany, and although they have changed coach, Christian Gourcuff replacing Vahid Halilhodzic and adopting a more possession-based approach, the momentum was maintained with five successive victories.
They have an excellent goalkeeper in Raïs M’Bolhi, a solid central midfield in Nabil Bentaleb and Medhi Lacen and, in Yacine Brahimi, the BBC African Player of the Year. There are only two real doubts: firstly that Egypt are the only North African side to have won the tournament outside North Africa; and that when Mali pressed high against them in the final qualifier they looked uneasy.
Ivory Coast are past their peak and, with Didier Drogba retired, this is not really the golden generation any more. They still have an exceptional squad, though, with Yaya Touré, Wilfried Bony, Seydou Doumbia and Gervinho and, in Hervé Renard, a coach who has won the competition before. The Ivorians did, though, twice let in four in qualifying, suggesting defensive issues.
Behind them, it’s very open: Cameroon have improved dramatically since the World Cup; Senegal had the best defensive record in qualifying; and South Africa are unbeaten under Shakes Mashaba.
Burkina Faso lost in the final last time and may be even better now. Paul Put has them well organised defensively, while Jonathan Pitroipa was the top scorer in qualifying and Charles Kaboré is an elegant midfielder who could be playing for a higher-profile club than Kuban Krasnodar– and they could reach the semi-final without facing anybody stronger than Gabon.
The cycle of Ghanaian football is well established: they have a decent World Cup then a number of stars drift away from the international side and they end up underwhelming at the next African Cup.
Although the Black Stars have reached the semi-finals of the last two tournaments, defeats to Zambia and Burkina Faso have been the sort of shocks you half-anticipate. They will miss the spark of the injured Kwadwo Asamoah but there are signs that the back three instituted by Avram Grant is beginning to work.
It is hard to claim that the best African sides now are better than those of 20 or 30 years ago, but even if the pyramid has not got any higher its base is broader. There are unlikely to be any real hammerings but the weakest side in the tournament is probably Equatorial Guinea, only there because their government has the oil revenues to stage a tournament at short notice.
Ghana need a big tournament from Asamoah Gyan, formerly of Sunderland, who continues to average over a goal a game for Al-Ain in Abu Dhabi.
Yaya Touré and Gervinho look key to Ivory Coast’s chances while, in the absence of Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama, Algeria’s M’Bohli may be the best goalkeeper on show. Mali’s chances rest squarely on the shoulders of Seydou Keita, while if Guinea make it through it will probably mean Ismaël Bangoura has hit a patch of goalscoring form.
Cameroon’s improvement since the World Cup has come by dumping the big-name stars and selecting players who will adhere to coach Volker Finke’s demands for a high-tempo, hard-pressing approach. The most exciting prospect in their young side may be the 21-year-old Lyon forward Clinton Njié, who scored twice in a 4-1 demolition of Ivory Coast in qualifying.Reuse content