Johannesburg – Morocco head to Cameroon without out-of-favour Chelsea midfielder Hakim Ziyech and hoping to end a 46-year wait for a second Africa Cup of Nations title.
The north Africa kingdom boasts one of the strongest leagues in the continent and its stars are dotted across Europe, but the national team consistently underachieves in the flagship tournament.
Ziyech, leading scorer in qualifying with three goals, has been axed as Bosnia and Herzegovina-born coach Vahid Halilhodzic considers him a “disruptive influence”.
Here, AFP Sport puts the spotlight on the four Group C contenders with the winners and runners-up assured of last-16 places while the best four third-placed teams from six groups also qualify.
Halilhodzic has taken Morocco to the final qualifying round of 2022 World Cup qualifying, but could miss out on the play-offs in March if they fail to reach at least the semi-finals at the Cup of Nations.
He succeeded Frenchman Herve Renard in 2019 after Morocco suffered a shock last-16 loss to Benin in the last Cup of Nations and national football federation chief Fouzi Lekjaa set a tough target.
“The new coach has been tasked with reaching the semi-finals of the next Africa Cup of Nations. Failure to achieve that target will automatically result in the termination of the contract,” said Lekjaa.
Halilhodzic will hope forwards Ayoub el Kaabi and Ryan Mmaee repeat the scoring form shown in World Cup qualifying late last year when they netted nine times between them.
Ghana are another country that have not lifted the Cup of Nations trophy for a long time with the last of four triumphs coming in Libya 40 years ago.
Teenager Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew starred in that tournament and two of his sons, forwards Andre and Jordan, have been included by Serb coach Milovan Rajevac in a provisional squad.
The impressive form of Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey will encourage supporters of the Black Stars and Leicester defender Daniel Amartey is another Premier League star to be called up.
Ghana are a combative rather than spectacular outfit that is likely to finish runners-up to Morocco at worst and could prove awkward knockout opponents.
Gabon have fared poorly in recent Cup of Nations, failing to reach the knockout stage in 2017 when they were hosts and not even qualifying for the last edition.
There is little to suggest they will take Cameroon by storm with a third-place finish behind Morocco and Ghana and the possibility of squeezing into the second round probably the best they can hope for.
The Panthers’ hopes hinge largely on Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has been stripped of the club captaincy and dropped after reportedly returning late from a visit to his ill mother.
Will Aubameyang, the son of a former Gabon international, be preoccupied with his future amid rumours that he could be transfer-listed, or use the Cup of Nations to demonstrate his predatory goalmouth instincts?
Just reaching Cameroon is a remarkable achievement for the team representing a group of islands off the southeast coast of Africa with a population of less than one million.
Although hard to beat at home for some years, the Coelacanths (rare fish) were not expected to finish among the top two and qualify from a group including seven-time champions Egypt, Kenya and Togo.
But it was improved away form – winning in Togo and drawing in Kenya – that allowed them to come second behind Egypt.
Amir Abdou has been the coach since 2014 and a squad including players from the lower French leagues will view their opening match against Gabon as the best chance for a win and third place.
AFP predicts: 1. Morocco, 2. Ghana, 3. Gabon, 4. Comoros
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