AFCON 2021 Preview: Can Mahrez And Benrahma Help Algeria Retain Their Crown?

Here's what you need to know ahead of AFCON 2021 which kicks off on Sunday
13:05, 08 Jan 2022

At least all the interminable debate about the timing of the African Cup of Nations should soon be a thing of the past for the major European leagues, including the English Premier League. From 2023 onwards, when the tournament will be hosted by the Ivory Coast, the event will move back to the summer months of June and July. 

Of course clubs and managers are going to miss some of their best and - let’s face it - highest-paid players at a busy and important time of the season. But some observers including Arsenal legend Ian Wright and Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira believe the tone employed about players heading to Africa has been “disrespectful” or worse. 

The simple fact is that what has become a must-see tournament for all true football fans starts on Sunday with this year’s hosts Cameroon taking on Burkina Faso in Group A in the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde. The top two from each of six groups go through to the knockout last 16, along with the four best third-placed teams. 

Even before it began there was more bad news for Arsenal and Gabon striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, recently dropped and stripped of the captaincy by his club for discipline issues, as he tested positive for Covid on arrival and headed straight off to isolation.

Arsenal and Gabon forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Arsenal and Gabon forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

But on the football side the hosts will certainly not be complaining about their draw in a tournament originally moved back from summer 2021 to January due to climate issues, and then forward to 2022 because of the Covid pandemic. 

The Indomitable Lions, even if not so much in recent times, should top a pool also including Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and Ethiopia. And if they do, there is a clear path to the semi-finals at least. Key players will include Fulham’s Andre-Frank Anguissa, on loan at Napoli, and Eric Maxim Choupo Moting of Bayern Munich. 

Burkina Faso, who pushed Algeria hard in World Cup qualifying, will strive to finish at least second and number Bertrand Traore of Aston Villa, and striker Abdoul Tapsoba of Standard Liege in their ranks. 

It would also be a major surprise if Senegal - seen as real contenders to go one better than 2019 when they lost in the final to Algeria - did not win a Group B also featuring Zimbabwe, Guinea and Malawi. Head coach Aliou Cisse, the former Birmingham and Portsmouth player, captained his country to the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals. And now he is at the helm with such luminaries as Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, Paris Saint-Germain’s Idrissa Gueye, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy at his disposal. Naby Keita captains Guinea side, who may battle with Zimbabwe for second place. 

Liverpool and Senegal star Sadio Mane
Liverpool and Senegal star Sadio Mane

Groups C, D and E all appear to have two big guns that will be very disappointed not to secure automatic qualification spots without having to sweat on being one of the better third-placed sides. In Group C that is Morocco and Ghana (who clash in the opener) – perhaps even more if Aubameyang is not available for Gabon – with Comoros set to make up the numbers both literally and metaphorically. The decision of Morocco coach Vahid Halihodzic to omit Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech was controversial but they still have Paris Saint-Germain's Achraf Hakimi, Wolves' Romain Saiss and Barcelona's Ez Abde plus QPR’s Ilias Chair. Ghana can boast Arsenal’s Thomas Partey, Crystal Palace forward Jordan Ayew and Leicester defender Daniel Amartey as they look to hunt down the trophy that has eluded them since 1982. There may be some advantage in finishing top in this pool. 

Egypt, with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny and Trezeguet of Aston Villa will have a much bigger incentive to finish top of Group D ahead of Nigeria, also a titanic first match in the group. The winner will get a third-placed team, while the runners-up could face Algeria or the Ivory Coast in the last 16. Sudan and Guinea-Bissau make up group. Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis is controversially missing from the Nigeria squad, and though they were in disarray after sacking manager Gernot Rohr there have good players in Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi from Leicester, Brentford’s Frank Onyeka Bee, and the Hornets’ William Troost Ekong. Egypt are managed by Carlos Queiroz. 

Leicester City and Nigeria forward Kelechi Iheanacho
Leicester City and Nigeria forward Kelechi Iheanacho

Algeria, the defending champions and likely to be in the mix once more, and Ivory Coast are in Group E along with Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone. As well as Manchester City ace Riyad Mahrez the north Africans have West Ham’s in-form Said Benrahma, Milan’s Ismael Bennacer, Sofiane Feghouli of Galatasary, Lyon’s Islam Slimani and Yacine Brahimi. Ivory Coast are not the Didier Drogba vintage but the squad still contains the likes of Manchester United defender Eric Bailly, Burnley’s Maxwell Cornet and AC Milan’s Franck Kessie, plus a forward line of Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, Arsenal’s Nicholas Pepe and ex West Ham forward Sebastian Haller. Equatorial Guinea may pip Sierra Leone (including Steven Caulker) for third. 

And Tunisia should benefit from their own kind draw and make it through from Group F, though the party could stop in the last 16 if they top the group, as one of Algeria or the Ivory Coast could await. They are up initially against Mali, Mauritania and Gambia – who have Salford City’s Ibou Touray in their squad. Tunisia have the vastly experienced Wahbi Khazri of Saint Etienne in their team, and also exciting Manchester United prospect Hannibal Mejbri as well as Omar Rekik of Arsenal and Mohamed Drager of Nottingham Forest. Mali are in the World Cup play-offs and topped their qualifying group, with Southampton’s Moussa Djenepo in their squad. Mauritania should beat Gambia and finish third. 

Prediction 

Cameroon, with a favourable draw and home support, should reach at least the semi-finals before they run into tougher opposition to keep interest in the country high. Senegal, Egypt and Nigeria also all look strong and could go deep. But I take Algeria to defend their title.

Algeria are 5/1 to win AFCON 2021 with Betfred*

*18+ | BeGambleAware

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