Johannesburg – Experienced forwards Vincent Aboubakar, Karl Toko Ekambi and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting should ensure hosts Cameroon finish first in Group A at the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off next Sunday.
Saudi Arabia-based Aboubakar scored the late winner when the Indomitable Lions came from behind to defeat Egypt in the 2017 final and win the flagship African competition a fifth time.
Ekambi plays for Lyon and Choupo-Moting for Bayern Munich and they are part of a 27-man squad composed of stars based in Europe and the United States, with no local making the cut.
Here, AFP Sport puts the spotlight on the four Group A hopefuls with the winners and runners-up assured of last-16 places while the best four third-placed teams from six groups also qualify.
In the early editions of the Cup of Nations, hosts performed successfully, winning three of the first four. But times have changed.
Only two of the last 12 tournaments were won by the host nation with Tunisia triumphant in 2004 and Egypt two years later.
Cameroon are staging the Cup of Nations a second time after finishing third behind Congo Brazzaville and Mali in 1972 when only eight countries competed.
“They can win it,” says Cameroon legend Samuel Eto’o of the Aboubakar-captained class of 2022, whose immediate goal will be to top Group A and meet one of the third-placed qualifiers in the second round.
The Stallions enter the Cup of Nations in a confident mood after twice drawing with 2019 Cup of Nations winners Algeria in recent World Cup qualifying.
Blida, 45 kilometres (28 miles) southwest of Algiers, is known as the “slaughterhouse” and Djibouti and Niger will attest to that moniker having conceded eight and six goals there in World Cup thrashings.
While the Burkinabe failed to secure the win in Blida that would have taken them to final round, a depleted side clawed back twice to draw 2-2 with captain Issoufou Dayo converting a late penalty.
Major boosts are the returns from injury of Aston Villa forward Bertrand Traore and Abdoul Fessal Tapsoba, a Standard Liege attacker who starred in the World Cup campaign.
A win and draw against Cameroon in 2021 Cup of Nations qualifying and a draw away to Nigeria in 2022 World Cup qualifying suggest that the Blue Sharks will not be pushovers.
They represent a Portuguese-speaking nation off the west coast of Africa with a population of less than 600,000, whose football team is on the rise again.
Cape Verde reached the quarter-finals in their 2013 Cup of Nations debut and goal difference prevented them repeating the feat two years later.
They missed the last two editions, but have bounced back under coach Pedro ‘Bubista’ Brito and captain and forward Ryan Mendes, who was involved in the previous two finals appearances.
Only two of the 25 players chosen by coach Wubetu Abate play abroad – midfielder Shemeles Bekele with El Gouna in Egypt and forward Mujib Kassim with JS Kabylie in Algeria.
Ethiopia, one of four founder members of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 1956, featured in the first seven Cup of Nations up to 1970, but this will be only the fourth appearance since.
Abate has developed a team captained by veteran forward Getaneh Kebede that favours one-touch football and single-goal losses away to Ghana and South Africa in World Cup qualifying offered encouragement.
The second lowest ranked team in the tournament were the first to arrive in Cameroon and will probably be among the first to depart.
AFP predicts: 1. Cameroon, 2. Burkina Faso, 3. Cape Verde, 4. Ethiopia
Picture: Getty Images