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Africa Cup of Nations Preview

Having come so brutally close to picking the overall winner of the last Africa Cup of Nations (Ghana - backed at 11.00, traded ridiculously short during the Final penalty shoot-out, then threw it away), the task for this 2017 version seems even harder.
Both the Cup of Nations qualifiers and the African World Cup Qualifiers show us that this competition is wide open.
It's possible to make a case for at least 12 of the teams taking part as outright winners, and that makes it tough to have a strong opinion. It means that we must make the most of those opinions that we DO have and plot a way through the tournament, relying a little more on price and value than any definitive judgement.
Ivory Coast defend their crown, but they have been so disappointing in the Cup of Nations over the years that it's really hard to justify their favouritism, particularly with so many threats lurking in the draw. Yaya Toure has retired from international football, and while they have the brilliant Franck Kessie in the heart of their midfield, and a reborn Wilfried Zaha to create in forward areas, there are enough question marks to leave them to one side as potential winners at 5.30. That looks too short in a very competitive field.
That, and the fact that a big priced winner is eminently possible, are my two strongest opinions. With such a competitive tournament, I've done what I often do, and worked out how I feel the Groups will end up, had a stab at predicting the knockout stages, and seen where that leaves us in terms of the overall market.
I have the hosts Gabon winning Group A (they're too short at 10.00 in the outright market, but they DO have Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang) and Cameroon just scraping through in second place. Group A is the weakest of the Groups, though, and I don't see either side being good enough to make the final.
In Group B, Senegal and Algeria look very strong: Senegal have serious power in the shape of Sadio Mane, Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate and they look to have a strong squad behind those Premier League names.
Algeria have Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani from Leicester City, and big names in the shape of Yacine Brahimi and Faouzi Ghoulam. Despite being a North African team in sub-Saharan Africa, they still look a massive threat. Tunisia and Zimbabwe will be competitive, but for me they're both just under the required level of quality.
Despite my doubts about Ivory Coast as outright winners, I still have them down as the likeliest winner of Group C, and think that they may be followed through by DR Congo. DRC have a real team ethic to make up for their lack of big names (with due respect to Chancel Mbemba and Youssuf Mulumbu) and they're good enough to see off the challenge of a weakened Morocco and a past-it Togo.
With Morocco trading at odds-on to qualify, DR Congo at something approaching 2.40 to make it through, this may well be the best of the Group-based bets.
Group D contains a Ghana side filled with familiar faces (Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan) as well as a sprinkling of classy young players. They and Egypt (Mo Salah and Mohammed Elneny lead the way) are the two most likely qualifiers, although Mali must be respected: they have one or two youngsters who haven't trained on as I would have liked, though, and so I'll reluctantly swerve them.
My quarter-finals will see Gabon playing Algeria, Egypt facing DR Congo, Senegal against Cameroon, and Ivory Coast taking on Ghana in a repeat of the final from last time.
These are knife-edge games and this is where it gets tough: I'll take Algeria, DR Congo, Senegal and Ghana as my semi-finalists, and then we come down to price.
DR Congo are available at around 32.00, and as the likeliest shock winner then they are a must bet. It might seem unlikely, but then nobody saw Zambia coming in 2012, and I always like to have a big price on my side in events as competitive as this.
Of the others, I think that Ghana could break Ivorian hearts and then find someone too good, which leaves us with Senegal and Algeria. Both are a good bet, but Senegal could be the story: runners-up in 2002, never victorious in the Cup of Nations, solid defensively with Kalidou Koulibaly anchoring them. Powerful in midfield, with Mo Diame backing up Gueye and Kouyate. And then a potent forward line, with Moussa Sow and the brilliant Balde Keita Diao to supplement Sadio Mane.

Finding the winner could be a nightmare, but they're my two against the field (with respect to Algeria). Keep stakes low for now though, sit and watch and look for the team that's finding their rhythm. Expect surprises, avoid favourites, and most importantly of all, enjoy. It's still a great tournament this, and it'll take a great team to win it this year.

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