Teams: Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Mauritania
Two-time champions Algeria arrive in the Ivory Coast with renewed vigor, looking to put behind them the disaster of their title defence in Cameroon. The Desert Foxes will not have good memories of the Lions. They first crashed out in embarrassing fashion at the AFCON, failing to beat Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, before then somehow bottling a 120th-minute advantage against the Lions at home en route to Qatar 2022. Things have changed since. Djamel Belmadi’s men sailed through qualifying for Ivory Coast with ease, and have continued to add weapons, across the board.
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Rayan Ait-Nouri, Amine Gouiri and Houssem Aouar now wear Algerian White rather than French Blue. Baghdad Boundejah and Islam Slimani are ageless. Riyad Mahrez can still nutmeg and feint, Ramy Bensebaini and Aissa Mandi are still defensive stalwarts. The talk from Algiers to Annaba isn’t about going far; it is clearly about reclaiming their crown. There may have been a 29-year gap between their two titles, there is an intention to ensure the wait isn’t as long for a third. All things being equal, the Foxes should clear the cart in Group D, and only begin to ponder where fate takes them in the knockout round, because it is the currency with which they will be judged, especially with the talent on display.
Les Etalons have continued to enhance their AFCON reputation, and it is clear that Burkina Faso are the dark horse’s dark horse. In Cameroon, they somehow went from losing the opening match, to nearly snatching the Bronze medal from Cameroon. It is indeed a journey. A silver medal in 2013, was supposed to usher in a new age, it instead left mixed feelings. A group stage elimination followed in 2015, before another fairytale run ended in a 3rd place finish in 2017, and a failure to even qualify in 2019.
Burkina have the talent. Edmond Tapsoba is a colossus for Leverkusen, while Bertrand Traore is who he is for the national team. All eyes will be on Luton’s Issa Kabore though, and it is clear that a team whose strategy heavily relies on how quickly the ball goes wide to get into the box need to get more creative so they don’t get stifled. Journeyman coach, Hubert Velud has a lot to live up to. The no-nonsense Kamou Mallo has set a high standard already, and intriguingly for Velud, the last Frenchman who tutored the Stallions to an AFCON finished 4th. His name? Phillipe Troussier. No pressure eh?
When Amir Abdou led Comoros to a first-ever Nations Cup in Cameroon, it was with next to zero expectations. Instead, his well-marshaled troops stunned Ghana 3-2, progressed from their group, and proceeded to take Cameroon all the way, despite playing the majority of the game with a man disadvantage.
It is surely what Mauritania need after their shambolic first two AFCON trips. Les Mourabtounes have looked out of their depth in both AFCON appearances, unable to elevate their levels up to what is required. Abdou has received praises from players and administrators alike for what he has done since arriving in Nouachkott, but his biggest task is to ensure that Mauritania can emulate his Comorosi outfit, whether they can, is another prospect entirely, one Angola will have a say in.
The Palancas Negras are back on the AFCON scene after a while out. Angola have a funny relationship with football. They have attended a World Cup, upsetting Nigeria along the way, hosted an AFCON, but somewhat somehow find themselves in a league of minnows. Manager Pedro Soares Goncalves has been charged with changing the narrative, and while qualification for Ivory Coast came at the boot of Helder Costa, he won’t be there because he has no club affiliations.
It is perhaps the strongest message the national team has projected in a while. The era of Gilberto, Fabrice Akwa, Figueredo, Kali and Ricardo Jose are now far in the rear mirror. It is time to write new stories, and accountability and a higher standard can only help, especially given the size of the task ahead. The battle is likely to be with Mauritania at best a third-placed spot, whatever life throws at them against Algeria and Burkina Faso, they better make lemonade out of those lemons.
Algeria – Mandrea; Atal, Mandi, Bensebaini, Ait-Nouri; Bennacer, Bentaleb, Aouar; Gouiri, Mahrez, Bounedjah
Burkina Faso – Koffi; I. Kabore, E. Tapsoba, Yago, Guiebre ; Blati Toure, Ouedraogo I; G. Sangare, M. Konate; B. Traore, D. Ouattara,
Angola – Neblu; Gaspar, Fortuna, Buatu; Fredy, Augusto, To Carniero, Show, Keliano; Gelson, Luvumbo
Mauritania – Niasse; Abeid, El Abd Nouh, Keita, Houbeib; Tanjy, Fofana, Moushine, Anne; Mahmoud, A. Kamara
Stars to Watch
Riyad Mahrez (Algeria and Al-Ahli)
Mahrez is straddling the lines of greatness in Algerian football. There are questions as to whether the Sarcelles-born star, is actually worthy of being in conversations that include Lakhder Belloumi and Rabah Madjer, players considered all-time Foxes greats. Fresh off a move to Saudi after completing every possible task in the English Premier League, He remains the wing wizard, the metronome who can change the game and elevate the status of his teammates.
There have always been special Mahrez moments in the successes of all his teams. Remember the classy performance against Manchester City en route to Leicester’s title win in 2016? Perhaps the goal that sacked José Mourinho in his second Chelsea coming? Who would forget his FA Cup semifinal hat trick only last season? Or his torching contributions to City’s league win in 2020/21?
He may carry the name of an illustrious capital city, yet, he may be the more entertaining of both. If it is indeed Riyad’s season, it is quite difficult to see beyond the Foxes going all the way, especially with the plethora of supporting cast he has, and oh yes, it will be filled with knockouts.
Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso and Bayer Leverkusen)
The obvious name for many would-be Bertrand Traore, the biggest name in the squad and perhaps the most fascinating Burkinabe footballer of these modern times. However, as former manager, Kamou Mallo, and the current one, Hubert Velud has seen, Edmond Tapsoba is the circuit board on which Burkina survive.
A quintessential defender trending towards world-class conversations, since breaking through at Leverkusen, he has gone from strength to strength and has become the immovable piece in a partnership that has left Piero Hincapie, Odilion Koussonou and Jonathan Tah battling for one spot and now sometimes two.
A calm and assuring presence at the back, Tapsoba’s football is well and truly beyond his years. He is an attacker’s nightmare in one-on-one situations and has the range and defensive leadership that many teams seem to lack. Take nothing away from his threat in the other box too, and it is beginning to sound like something we have seen from greats in times past.
Gelson Dala (Angola and Al-Akrah)
Angola will be missing their star player Mbala Nzola after the Fiorentina forward rejected the call-up, and as such, there will be huge pressure on Gelson Dala to take up the mantle of the Palancas Negras of Angola. Nzola is the most illustrious Angolan right now, and while he has carried the team at various times, It will take the team plenty of effort to replace his output.
However, with concerns as to whether Zito Luvumbo can stay consistent due to his young age, Al Wakrah’s Dala seems good to answer the call. He already has 5 goals in the Qatar Stars League this season and hit double digits in his first two campaigns in the Middle East. His time in Europe was not as ecstatic given the promise he showed while back home at Primeiro do Agosto.
He did tear up Portugal’s second division with Sporting B, but he barely translated it to the top tier bouncing around before heading to Qatar. They will need his goals, and his creativity if there is any chance of advancement, and also his guidance. He is Angolan through and through, having represented both the home-based team at the CHAN, and now the Main Team at the Main Event.
Aboubakar Kamara (Al-Jazira and Mauritania)
In a team of French second-division players and a band of players plying their trade in the Middle East, Aboubakar Kamara stands out. The former Fulham forward (yes the English club) will carry the hopes of a nation, looking to lead them to a first knockout appearance at the AFCON. Born in Gonnes, France, Kamara was a sensation at the youth level, rising through the ranks at Monaco before heading to Belgium and then returning home to Amiens.
It was at Amiens where he became a cult hero, leading them to multiple promotions and earning a move across the channel. He would earn another promotion with Fulham and within 3 years, he was back playing top-flight football, in the biggest league in the world, and not just as the kid who copied the assignment but who actively partook.
The experience would come to shape him, with a training ground bust-up with Aleksander Mitrovic signaling the end of his time there. 6 clubs in 5 years would subsequently follow, before landing in the UAE with Al Jazira, where he is now chomping at the bit. His 7 international goals have come in 14 appearances, and it seems almost certain it is only a matter of time before he breaks Bessam’s record of 13. Les Mourabtounes may just have found a savior.
By: Tosin Holmes / @Cosimo_diMedici
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / BSR Agency / Getty Images