Who Conquers the Summit? ... Africa Nations Cup Tournament Kicks off 21 January: The Absence of Egypt Ends a Unique Era but the Inheritor of the Crown Is Far from Certain, Writes Peter Law
Law, Peter, New African
After Egypt's total dominance of the Cup of Nations over the last three editions, the tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon offers connoisseurs of the continental game the opportunity to see a fresh page being turned in its 55-year-old history.
The absence of the reigning champions, as well as four-time winners Cameroon, two-time champions (and serial bronze medallists) Nigeria, South Africa and Algeria from the 2012 tournament, has given it an unknown complexion, which could set the stage for one of the most open competitions in recent times.
Just eight out of the sides that qualified for Angola 2010 have made it to this year's party. Tunisia, of all the teams in the tournament, is the most recent winner. And that was on home soil, eight long years ago.
Ghana, Senegal and Cote d'Lvoire, regarded as the tournament favourites, on paper, will be fancying their chances of becoming the first side, south of the Sahara, to win the Cup of Unity since Mali 2002, with their usual arch-rivals out of the way.
And the three teams making their debut on the Nations Cup stage - co-hosts Equatorial Guinea, Botswana and Niger, will be determined to prove that they are no cannon fodder for the favourites.
The draw in Malabo, at the end of October, was a lengthy, long-winded affair, with the co-hosts joining Ghana and Cote d'Lvoire as top-seeded teams.
But the taste of the pudding will certainly be in the eating, as the fans look forward to a vintage edition of the tournament, which could prove that the quality of football in the continent's supposed backwaters is fast improving and taking any country, no matter how "small", for granted, is at one's peril.
EQUATORIAL GUINEA, LIBYA, SENEGAL, ZAMBIA
Playing out of Bata on the mainland, this is a group without any past winners, thus giving Equatorial Guinea, managed by the former France coach Henri Michel, a small chance of satisfying the host team's fans and reaching the knockout stages.
Libya, Senegal and Zambia - all past losing finalists - should be expected to contest the group leadership, with the North Africans appearing under a new flag and bravely qualifying, for the first time since 2006, despite the absence of league competition, as a result of the horrors of the recent civil war that toppled former leader Muammar Gathafi.
Libya were, at the time of writing, unbeaten in their last ten internationals, the best run of any of the finalists and so, the hosts should not expect an easy game from the side managed by the experienced Brazilian coach, Marcos Paqueta.
Defensively sound, with their veteran goalkeeper Aboud managing five clean sheets in six qualifiers, they conceded just one goal. But their attack does not possess the same cutting edge.
Senegal's Lions of Teranga come to the tournament armed with potent goal scorers, managed by Amara Traore, a former international player. Young stars like Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse and Moussa Sow, besides the experienced Mamadou Niang, head up a potent force, good enough to instil fear in opposing defences, while USA-based keeper Bouna Condoul backs up a competent defensive unit that gives little away.
They qualified unbeaten, from a difficult group containing DR Congo and Cameroon and would be the outside bet to go all the way at this edition.
Zambia's Chipolopolo, which reached the quarter-finals at the last edition in Angola, hope to go a step further under French coach Herve Renard, who returned in late October for his second spell in charge.
Renard initially left Zambia to take up a job with Angola, which left many questioning his loyalty to a country that had given him his first major job.
The Southern Africans have the edge in past finals experience, finishing runners-up to Libya in their qualifying group. …