Afcon Group B preview – Ghana, Mali, Niger, Congo DR.
Star of the group: Dieumerci Mbokani
Despite being one of the lowest seeded teams in the African Cup of Nations draw, everyone wanted to avoid the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the key reasons for this is the ominous and imposing presence of Anderlecht striker Mbokani.
After failing to settle at a number of footballing outposts across Europe, including in the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg, Mbokani finally found his feet in Belgium.
Able to combine both speed and power, the frontman is on the radar of a number of major European clubs; an impressive international tournament with Congo could see a move to pastures new – the defences of Group B will not relish shackling the Kinshasa-born striker.
One to watch: Christian Atsu
Known as ‘Messi’ to fans in both Ghana and Portugal, it is abundantly clear that Christian Atsu is something special – whilst the diminutive winger hasn’t yet made the international splash that the Argentine did, and doesn’t yet share his reputation, he has the capacity to turn a game of football upside down in the same way as Barcelona’s revered magician.
The left-sided midfielder is relatively new to the international set-up, having made his debut against Lesotho in June of last year, but after a goal in that game, it looks likely that the Porto man could be a Black Stars feature for years to come.
Key matchup: Congo DR v Mali, 28 January, Durban
With Ghana perceived by most to be the group-winners elect, it may well fall down to Congo and Mali to take second spot and qualify alongside the Black Stars. Were the pair to both overcome Niger, qualification may come down to this final bout in Durban.
Will Mali’s experience see them through, or will the Leopards’ firepower be too much for Les Aigles?
Absent friend: Michael Essien & André Ayew
Despite having one of the most prodigiously talented squads in the competition, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Ghana’s two finest players won’t be present in South Africa. This is a shame both for the Black Stars and for the competition as a whole.
Despite calls from Ghanaian legend Nii Lamptey for him to take the captaincy, Essien ruled himself out of contention to focus on his club form and to repay back some of the faith that Real Madrid had shown in him.
The news was a bitter blow to Black Stars fans who were hoping that Essien, who at 29 ought to be in his footballing pomp, would finally make his long-awaited return to international competition.
With injury worries of his own, Marseille’s André Ayew has also missed out on the trip. The omission will represent a major disappointment for the player who was only fleetingly effective at the 2012 competition, and who will have had aspirations to have starred this time around.
Despite their absentees, the likes of Atsu, Asamoah and Agyemang-Badu should see Ghana top the group. Niger were outclassed in 2012 and look unlikely to threaten, whilst Congo and Mali are the favourites to scrap it out for second place.