Can this be a West African AFCON?
Background image: gr33ndata, CC BY-ND 2.0
The African Cup of Nations is nearly upon us. Countries from West Africa have risen to the fore in the competition in the last decade or so. Although defending champions Cameroon had something to say about that last time out, one wonders if the trophy won't head back West for the second competition running.
African football is distinct. Power, pace and directness define it. Nations traditionally play with the emphasis on turning defence quickly into attack. Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and even Jurgen Klopp would thrive here. Pep Guardiola? Probably not.
The North African nations used to dominate the competition. The likes of Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco ruled. Then the balance of power shifted South. The last four instalments were won by countries from sub-Saharan Africa.
Football in West Africa has been on the rise for a while. Two of the five nations to represent the continent at the World Cup in Russia were from the subcontinent. Both fumbled but so did CAF as a whole. It was a disappointing World Cup in general for Africa, but an AFCON a year after offers a chance for redemption.
Cameroon stunned Egypt in the final last year to win the continent's biggest prize. At the start, nobody gave them half a chance. The Indomitable Lions were seen as a bunch of vastly inexperienced youngsters led by a man who was new to the African game. But they went all the way regardless. Few would argue they didn't deserve it.
Can they repeat? Or can a neighbouring country pick up the standard for the region?
Why the current crop of Senegalese players haven't won anything significant is a mystery. They're hugely talented. They resemble the so-called golden generation English and Ivorian superstars who achieved nothing of note with their national side.
Senegal breezed through the group stage in Gabon, only to lose to Cameroon in the quarterfinal. It was a similar story in 2015, performing well in the preliminary rounds only to come up short when it mattered most.
The Senegalese squad contain a number of familiar faces. Sadio Mane will lead the line. While he has more AFCONS in his future, knock wood, the Liverpool star might not have a better opportunity than this one. He's in the form of his like with a Champions League winners medal and a one-third share in the Premier League Golden Boot.
Drawn in Group C alongside Algeria Kenya and Tanzania, the first round should be a formality.
Manager Aliou Cisse stated his intention to bring in a couple of new faces but kept the core of the team who played in Russia last year. Senegal has never won the Nations' Cup. The closest they have come is finishing runners-up in 2002. Is this the year they break through?
The last time Nigeria played at the AFCON they came away winners. That was in 2013. Somehow, they failed to book their place at the finals in the next two editions. Gernot Rohr's work to bring Nigeria back among Africa's best is laudable, especially with the manner with which they fell off after their triumph in 2013.
Rohr has changed the perception within the Nigeria national team. Too often in the past, coaches called up players just for familiarity's sake. Now, nobody is guaranteed a place. Rohr selects on merit. That is evident in the provisional 26-man squad for the tournament. Only three players who featured in 2013 were called up.
Nigeria were handed a dream draw. They will face Madagascar, Burundi and Guinea, a group you expect them to win easily. Whether they can go all the way is another thing. But judging by the manner in which they qualified, the Super Eagles can fly as high as they like.
Like Cote d'Ivoire, The Black Stars are underachievers. A football-crazy nation, the last few years have been hard. Heartbreak in the final in 2015 following the one in Angola. The Ghanaians will be playing in their ninth consecutive AFCON. A sure bet to make it to the tournament, replicating that form in the competition proper has been a problem.
James Kwesi Appiah will lead the Black Stars in Egypt. It's his first AFCON since his reappointment in 2017. There was talk Ghana should move on from the big names in their squad like Asamoah Gyan and the Ayew brothers to blood hungrier youngsters. Appiah turned a deaf ear the advice. The provisional 29-man squad announced late last month contains largely the same players from the last AFCON.
Ghana won't be many people's favourite but the wealth of experience this group possess should not be underestimated. This could be their year. Seriously, it really could.
Ivory Coast go to Egypt with a point to prove after the manner with which they defended their crown in Gabon. Like Germany in the World Cup, the Elephants couldn't even make it past the group phase.
The golden generation is gone, but those who don the famous orange shirt in Egypt aren't pushovers. All eyes will be on Wilfred Zaha spearheading the attack after an exceptional season with Crystal Palace in the English Premier League. Then there is goal machine Nicolas Pepe, who netted 22 times in Ligue 1.
The Elephants began the qualifiers with defeat toGuinea but still booked a place in the finals after comfortable victories over Rwanda and the Central African Republic. Some might say they were lucky to be drawn with minnows. Luck tends to even out, however, and the group draw was no friend to them.
Group D also contains Morocco, South Africa and Namibia. Namibia will probably end as whipping boys but the Brave Warriors qualified despite the odds. They won't be going to the AFCON just to make up the numbers. It's an opportunity for several players to come in and make a name for themselves. The stage is set. The world is watching.