GROUP C: GABON, NIGER, MOROCCO, TUNISIA
Gabon, the co-hosts, who defied the pundits to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Football Tournament – their very first global tournament – will have an equally huge mountain to climb in a group where Morocco and Tunisia are present.
Ending November with a run of three straight defeats, to Equatorial Guinea, Brazil and Ghana, wins over Congo and Niger were their last before going into final camping preparations. But French coach Gernot Rohr can take consolation in the fact that the Black Panthers have proved difficult opposition for all three group rivals in the recent past. Striker Eric Moloungui, with French club Nice, leads for a country that will be hoping for a good start against Niger in their opening game in the capital Libreville.
Aware of the enormity of the task ahead, Rohr hopes for unceasing home support, in order to give his players “the high motivation to drive them through the group stage”.
After winning the last Championship of African Nations (CHAN), Tunisia would be keen to earn their first Nations Cup title away from home, which they won in 2004. Although they failed to top their qualifying group – that honour unexpectedly went to first-timers Botswana – the North Africans can point to managerial instability, allied to the political troubles earlier last year, as destabilising factors.
Former national captain Adel Sellimi, who managed the country to last year’s CHAN title, did a great job of restoring confidence in the team, after the shock of home and away losses to supposed minnows Botswana in group qualifying. With experienced striker Issam Jema’a spearheading their attack, they have the potential to do well. But their opening game against regional arch-rivals Morocco could be decisive.
Morocco, under Belgian coach Eric Gerets, arrive at the finals with justified confidence, after eliminating Algeria in the qualifiers and conceding just two goals overall. Talented individuals like strikers Mbark Boussoufa, Youssef El Arabi and midfielder Adel Taarabt, are capable of imposing themselves to great effect. But the recent injury to established keeper Lamyaghri of Wydad Casablanca could make things tough for the Atlas Lions. He was missed as they hosted a November mini-tournament, where they lost to Uganda and drew with Cameroon.
A berth in the tournament’s knock-out stagesis expected for them but where they finally end up is anyone’s guess.
Newcomers Niger debut at the finals in hope rather than expectation. After losing all their qualifying games away from home, without managing to score a single goal, the Menas hardly look like a side capable of springing any surprises, despite eliminating South Africa and 2010 holders Egypt in their qualifying group. Coach Herouna Doula has a squad drawn from disparate African leagues, with just a handful of Europe-based men. The element of surprise that they had during the qualifiers will be absent, as supposedly superior sides will certainly not be taking them for granted.