Afcon Group A preview – South Africa, Angola, Morocco, Cape Verde
Star of the group: Younès Belhanda, Morocco
Could the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations be the stage where Younès Belhanda truly announces himself as one of the world’s finest players? Already considered one of Europe’s hottest prospects, the midfielder will be relishing the chance to command the spotlight in the continental arena.
With creativity that belies his young years, a faultless technique, and the ability to make decisions and predict opportunities in a split second, Belhanda has taken the French league by storm since his debut in 2009.
A terrific season last year saw his club side Montpellier pip PSG to the Ligue 1 title, and since then he has been nominated for the African Player of the Year award and made his debut in the Champions League.
The Moroccan will now be hoping to add the Cup of Nations to his brimming list of accomplishments.
One to watch: Zé Luis
Despite this being their maiden international competition, and despite being ranked 63rd in the world, Cape Verde will enter the Afcon fearing no one. This courage is due in no small part to their triad of hotshot attackers.
Djaniny scored the crucial second in the home victory over Cameroon, and Ryan Mendes of Lille has impressed intermittently since making his international debut in 2010. However, it is Zé Luis, of Braga, who has the greatest potential to steal the show. Bafana should be particularly wary of the striker, who appeared for the Portuguese side in the Champions League this season.
Key matchup: South Africa v Cape Verde, 19 January, Johannesburg
The opening game of a tournament is crucial for any team, in any context, to set the tone and to lay down a marker for the contest to follow. When that game is a home tie to start an international tournament, then a smart start becomes a necessity.
Bafana Bafana cannot afford even an ounce of complacency against the supposed minnows of Cape Verde.
Absent friend: Cameroon
Group A’s absent friends have to be the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, who failed to qualify for January’s centre-piece. Many thought the wholesale absence of the major African nations from the Afcon last year was an anomaly, but Cameroon have shown over 2012 that their problems are much more than a mere blip.
After struggling past Guinea-Bissau in the first round of qualifiers, the Lions were embarrassed by the tiny island nation of Cape Verde – a 2-0 home win in Praia proving fatal for the four-time winners. It is now the minnows of the Atlantic who take the place of Eto’o, Song and Co. at Africa’s high table.
Despite their poor form over 2012, Gordon Igesund’s bullish optimism, a defiant resilience within the camp, and the buoyancy of home support could well see a young but beleaguered South Africa top the group.
Morocco may well miss the flair and creativity of Adel Taarabt, whilst it will take a gargantuan effort by Cape Verde to seal qualification for the next round.
Still, The Sharks will not be content to merely make up the numbers, and Angola, at least, could succumb to their bite.