Teams: Cameroon, Gambia, Guinea, Senegal
The Lion is the king of the jungle, so they say. It is however imperative to know that when different Lions mark their territories, it is almost certainly a hostile take-over, especially when both are Kings at varying points of their lives. Senegal’s Teranga Lions are defending champions, while Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions were champions as recently as 2017. Both flags are adorned with Green, Red and Yellow, and both have produced classic fixtures in the past. Cameroon have won both on penalties.
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The 2017 Quarterfinals, where Senegal did all the playing, and Sadio Mane missed a penalty, it provided the launchpad for the victory of Hugo Broos’s men after a tepid group stage. The 2002 final was even-keeled, with Cameroon not conceding a single goal in the entire competition, and winning on penalties too. Many won’t take offense at another draw, especially with two of the main actors in 2002 in the dugout now.
Cameroon have done everything possible to copy the Senegalese template in recent times. Rigobert Song got promoted from the U23 role after Antonio Conceicao led the team to a bronze medal at a home AFCON; Aliou Cisse earned a similar promotion seven years ago, after Senegal failed to advance from their AFCON group. Both have French assistants, are no-nonsense and carry dreads, perhaps a tad distinctly, but that is where the comparisons end.
Song is more charismatic than Cisse and more eccentric. Cameroon’s chances will depend heavily on Vincent Aboubakar, Franck Zambo Anguissa and Andre Onana, while Senegal’s will rely on the old guard of Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye and Edouard Mendy. The pressure of having never won an AFCON is no longer there, after the triumph in Cameroon, so yes, the undertones leave for interesting viewing.
Kaba Diawara’s Syli Nationale of Guinea have never played more than four games at the AFCON more than once. It is a fascinating metric for a team that arrives at every tournament as dark horses. Punching above the invisible glass ceiling that hangs over them will take some work. They have finished second once, but that was way back in 1976. Since then, they have crumbled like a pack of cards after the group stage.
The nadir was at the 2021 edition where they fell to The Gambia. Serhou Guirassy is one of the most in-form strikers in Europe, Amadou Diawara is who we think he is, and Facinet Cante is the fresh youngster everyone has high hopes about. Naby Keita may spend more time in the treatment room than on the pitch, but his quality is still there. It will be hard to look beyond a team who have only failed to emerge from the groups once since 1976, anytime they qualify for the final tournament.
The Gambia shook the entire continent in Cameroon, making it all the way to the Quarterfinals, shocking group rivals Guinea. The Scorpions qualified for Ivory Coast in dramatic fashion, netting late goals to send Congo home. They have been nominated for National Team of the Year in back-to-back years, and it is no thanks to the work of Belgian Coach, Tom Saintfiet. This may well be his swansong with the team, but it would be unwise to underestimate a team that is built on defensive steel and dangerous players on the break.
Ebrima Colley, Abile Jallow, Moussa Barrow & Assan Ceesay are dangerous attackers, while Saidy Janko and Omer Colley are a handful defensively. Saintfiet has a 46% win rate as Gambia coach, from 39 games, it is more than Nigeria’s Jose Peseiro and Cameroon’s Rigobert Song. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, underrate the Scorpions at your own peril.
Cameroon – Onana; Castelleto, Wooh, Moukoudi, Tolo; Kemen, Ntcham, Zambo; Njie, Aboubakar, Toko.
Senegal – Mendy; Sabaly, Koulibaly, Niakhate, Jakobs; P-M Sarr, Gana, Camara; Ndiaye, Mane, I. Sarr
Guinea – I. Kone; Diakhaby, Jeanvier, I. Sylla, A. Conte; A. Camara, Diawara, Keita; Guirassy, Kamano, Guilavogui
Gambia – Jobe; Janko, Sanneh, O. Colley, Mendy; Sundberg; Jallow, Adams, Y. Minteh, E. Colley; Barrow
Stars to Watch
Vincent Aboubakar (Cameroon and Besiktas)
Goals, Goals and more goals. Perhaps the only thing that matches his goal output is his perspiration. Since breaking into the national team as a prodigious talent in 2010, to scoring the goal that clinched the nation’s last AFCON crown, to winning the Golden Boot on home soil, He has seen it all. The General, The Captain, Aboubakar’s career is quite as fascinating as the man himself. He has painted Europe, Asia and Africa with goals, yet he is not one you find in the conversations of the greats, perhaps it is the trophy cabinet, but Aboubakar ticks the boxes of a great striker, or so it seems.
His AFCON winner in 2017 was a volley of high standards, and it is but a few of what he has in his locker. He is rapid, strong, and can adapt his skillset to varying systems, be it a rapid counterattacking unit or against a deep block requiring hold-up play. Cameroon will only go as far as St Vincent carries them.
Sadio Mane (Senegal and Al-Nassr)
The argument for Sadio Mane as Senegal’s greatest-ever player is as strong as ever. With two penalties that will never be forgotten in the highest pressured moments, Mane has grown from the youngster who missed a penalty in the quarterfinal against Cameroon in 2017. Since then, he has won virtually every trophy there is to win as a footballer and is now in Saudi Arabia. Things have been slow to pick up in the land of the dunes, but Sadio is still Sadio.
He is a speedster, and he can score when you need him to. He has been Senegal’s beacon for more than half a decade, and it is no surprise they will look to him again when their title defence begins in Ivory Coast. He already has 8 goals for Al Nasr this season, and in 2023, scored 6 goals for the Lions of Teranga, there are no questions as to who the leader of that Pride is.
Serhou Guirassy (Guinea and Stuttgart)
A Guinean centre forward, with a bald head, terrorizing defences… does that ring a bell? Only it isn’t Titi Camara, but Serhou Guirassy, who has scored 17 Bundesliga Goals in 14 league matches. It is an explosion of goals that is unexplainable. Before this season, Guirassy had only bagged double-digit goals twice in his 10-year career; once with Stade Rennais in the 2020/21 season, where he scored 10 goals, and last season with Stuttgart where he bagged 12.
The 27-year-old has outdone himself and has seemed inevitable at times. He has two hattricks and two braces, and while Bayern have somehow proved elusive, Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Freiburg and Leipzig have all fell by his sword. He is rangy, powerful both in the air and on the ground, and has a powerful shot. If service arrives as expected, he could be the reason Guinea play an elusive fifth game at the AFCON. After all, Mamadou Aly Keita’s 4 goals was the fuel they needed to finish runners-up in 1976.
Musa Barrow (Gambia and Al Taawoun)
Picking a standout player for Gambia was tough, and it was simply because the Scorpions are a well-drilled unit, and could sting from anywhere. However, Musa Barrow is the biggest export from the West African nation for now. After 8 years of painting the Italian league with goals, Barrow has headed to the Middle East and now plays for Al Taawoun in Saudi Arabia. Taawoun don’t get the attention of the PIF’s big 4, but like Barrow and Gambia, are gatecrashers at their party.
He has 4 goals this season already and looks certain to eclipse his tally of 9 goals in a season in Europe. Barrow can score, create, make inside and outside runs, and can get a quick read on his opponent to understand how to handle the rest of the battle. It is him, whom Yakouba Minteh, Abile Jallow and Assan Ceesay will hope is chomping at the bit.
By: Tosin Holmes / @Cosimo_diMedici
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Charly Triballeau / AFP