A few months ago, I was concerned about Cameroon’s chances heading into the Nations Cup, as there were doubts that this group could handle the expectation that will come with being hosts.
Some reservations still remain, but their victory over the Ivory Coast in their final World Cup group-stage qualifier might be the triumph this team needs to get over the threshold under the unconvincing Toni Conceicao.
The Indomitable Lions should top the group, with Burkina Faso in second place.
Cape Verde have enough to dispatch Ethiopia in their opener, and could frustrate either of the big dogs to sneak into the next round.
It’s tricky to look beyond Senegal as group winners; they’re a settled bunch, have quality throughout the side, and were imperious through 2021.
Behind them Guinea will fancy their chances of progressing as runners-up, while the Cosafa derby between Zimbabwe and Malawi represents a golden opportunity for either of these two to sneak into the Last 16.
Unfortunately, considering Zim’s extensive injury list, I fear both may tumble at the first hurdle.
Arguably the most compelling group, with two title contenders in Morocco and Ghana, as well as one of the finest strikers of his generation in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Gabon.
Vahid Halilhodzic’s Atlas Lions, even without Hakim Ziyech, are further along in their progression than the Black Stars, and should top the group ahead of a Ghana side who are—nonetheless—resurgent under Milovan Rajevac.
The Panthers are chronically disorganised, but Auba—with a point to prove—can help them overcome debutants the Comoros and progress.
Algeria are approaching 40 matches unbeaten as they look to extend their world record, and it would be a major shock if they didn’t progress as group winners.
Ivory Coast do have the quality to trouble the Fennecs, and end their undefeated streak, but they’ll still be reeling after their World Cup elimination by Cameroon and may take some time to warm up.
Behind the top two, Equatorial Guinea enjoyed a fine 2021—reaching the Nations Cup at the expense of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while troubling Tunisia in World Cup qualifying.
Expect them to finish ahead of Sierra Leone, but will it be enough to progress?
All bets are off for Nigeria after they dispatched Gernot Rohr and appointed interim head coach Augustine Eguavoen on the eve of the tournament.
A swathe of high-profile and influential absentees also throws the make-up of the Eagles’ starting XI into question, and Egypt could well capitalise and nab top spot ahead of the West African giants.
Behind the top two, the meeting between Sudan and Guinea-Bissau on January 11 appears critical for both sides; we’re tipping the latter to finish in third place.
Tunisia have shown vulnerabilities of late, and it’s hard to pick a group winner between them and Mali.
We’re plumping for the former, whose nous and ability to hurt teams in different ways should serve them well.
The Gambia, ravaged by 16 coronavirus cases within the squad as the tournament approaches, are in danger of having years of good work undone by the spread of the virus, and Mauritania will fancy their chances of capitalising and sneaking into third place.
Don’t be surprised if both of the ‘minnows’ fall at the first hurdle.