LIBREVILLE, Gabon, Jan 9 – A new-look Ivory Coast will defend their Africa Cup of Nations title while the hosts’ lightning-quick striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leads the cast of superstar names as the 2017 tournament begins in Gabon on Saturday.
As Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang prepares to carry the hopes of the small central African nation on his shoulders at the biennial African football showpiece, the fleet-footed Riyad Mahrez will aim to top a magnificent 12 months by taking Algeria to the February 5 final and the continental title.
Mahrez heads for Gabon fresh from winning the Confederation of African Football player of the year prize for 2016, pipping last year’s winner Aubameyang.
“The next thing after this award is the Africa Cup of Nations. My team will try to do good things there,” the French-born star of Leicester City’s Premier League title triumph said after securing the CAF prize.
Algeria and a Senegal side — the top-ranked in Africa — led by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane are the major contenders to succeed the Ivory Coast, who beat Ghana on penalties in the final in Equatorial Guinea two years ago.
But they will face each other in a Group B that also contains Tunisia and outsiders Zimbabwe.
“Our group is difficult, with some top African sides. It is not going to be easy with the conditions in Africa but we have to be prepared and we have a great team,” Mahrez told beIN Sports recently.
The Elephants of the Ivory Coast have seen inspirational playmaker Yaya Toure retire since their 2015 win while forward Gervinho is injured and Michel Dussuyer has succeeded fellow Frenchman Herve Renard as coach.
“The objective is of course to defend the title that was proudly acquired in 2015,” said Dussuyer, one of 12 men from Europe or South America coaching in the 16-team tournament.
“It will not be easy. There are fine teams who aspire to win the trophy, but we have the weapons to go far.”
The Elephants will come up against their old coach Renard in Group C with his new side Morocco, and they are the favourites to reach the quarter-finals ahead of DR Congo and the Togo of Emmanuel Adebayor.
“I have made reaching the quarter-finals an objective that we absolutely must attain. If we get there then we will see what we can do,” said the perennially bronzed and white-shirted Renard, who also coached Zambia to glory the last time the Cup of Nations was staged in Gabon — jointly with Equatorial Guinea — in 2012.
– Political crisis –
Egypt are back for the first time since winning a record seventh Cup of Nations in Angola in 2010 and will pin their hopes on Roma winger Mohamed Salah.
They are one of six teams who qualified having missed out in 2015. Another, Uganda, will come up against Egypt in Group D, as will Mali and Ghana.
The only nation making its Cup of Nations debut is Guinea-Bissau, who have the honour of facing Aubameyang’s Gabon in the opening game at the Stade de l’Amitie in the capital Libreville on January 14.
Gabon, an oil-rich country of barely 1.8 million people, has been in some disarray ever since incumbent President Ali Bongo was declared the winner of a contested election in August.
Defeated opposition chief Jean Ping continues to dispute the result and post-election violence left at least three people dead and saw more than 800 arrested.
Opposition activists have called on citizens to boycott the tournament, which will see games staged in Port-Gentil, Franceville and Oyem as well as the capital.
Gabon, which in 2014 was awarded the hosting of the tournament due to the turmoil in Libya, is struggling with an economic crisis as well as a political one.
However, Bongo, who invited Lionel Messi to the country to lay the foundation stone of the stadium in Port-Gentil in 2015, is hoping the football can act as a distraction.
He has called for the Cup of Nations to be a time for “joy, coming together and shared happiness” and insisted that “political dialogue will open the day after the tournament” in an attempt to usher in a period of calm.