LIBREVILLE, Gabon, Jan 13 – New-look Ivory Coast are preparing to defend the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off in Gabon on Saturday, buoyed by encouraging results and impressive form from new recruit Wilfried Zaha.
The Crystal Palace flier hopes to make an impact in a competition that boasts Europe-based stars like Riyad Mahrez of Algeria, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon and Sadio Mane of Senegal.
Zaha is a timely addition as many former stars like the Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya have retired and star winger Gervinho is injured.
Abidjan-born Zaha has been lured to the African champions by the possibilities of Cup of Nations and World Cup glory after two friendly appearances for adopted country England.
He set up the crucial goal in a 2-1 warm-up win over Sweden last Sunday and scored in a 3-0 thumping of fellow Cup of Nations qualifiers Uganda three days later.
Ahead of the training camp in the United Arab Emirates, France-born coach Michel Dussuyer admitted he was concerned about a scarcity of goals.
Ivory Coast are in a challenging Group C and kick off their campaign on Monday against Emmanuel Adebayor-captained Togo, followed by showdowns with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Morocco.
“The objective is, of course, to defend the title that was proudly acquired in 2015,” said Dussuyer, one of 12 European or South American coaches 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.”
Morocco are coached by Frenchman Herve Renard, who guided the Ivorians two years ago to their second Cup of Nations title.
“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.
He also coached Zambia to glory the last time the Africa Cup was staged in Gabon — jointly with Equatorial Guinea — in 2012.
Lightning-quick striker Aubameyang carries the hopes of Gabon, who are expected to make the quarter-finals from a Group A that includes four-time champions but severely depleted Cameroon, Burkina Faso and shock qualifiers Guinea-Bissau.
As the Borussia Dortmund striker prepares to carry the hopes of the small central African nation on his shoulders, fleet-footed Mahrez will aim to top a magnificent 12 months by taking Algeria to the February 5 final and their continental title since 1990.
– Major contenders –
Mahrez heads for Gabon fresh from winning the African 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 France-born star of Leicester City’s sensational Premier League title triumph said after securing the CAF prize.
Algeria and a Senegal side — the top-ranked in Africa — led by Liverpool forward 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.
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.
Gabon, an oil-rich country of barely 1.8 million people, has been in some disarray 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 two years ago, 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.