EXCLUSIVE: Who will win Africa Cup of Nations 2021? What can Sierra Leone do? A Preview by Nadim Bart-Williams

After what feels like a lifetime of waiting, we can finally say we are all set to go in Cameroon. AFCON 2021 is set to begin on Sunday 9th January 2021. Africa’s showpiece football tournament kicks off with the host nation Cameroon taking on Burkina Faso. Later in the evening, Ethiopia goes up against Cape Verde. 

As previously mentioned, it has been a long wait for this tournament to begin. It was initially supposed to be held in June and July 2021. However, due to concerns around the climatic conditions, it was brought forward to January 2021. Then, due to this wretched global pandemic, it was delayed until January 2022.

Now, with all twenty-four teams all set, here is a little preview of the football we will see over the next month.

Where is the Tournament?

The matches will be played at six venues across five cities in Cameroon. The opening match and the final will be played at the newly built 60,000 seater Olembe Stadium in Yaounde.

What are the groups?

Group A includes the host Cameroon and Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, and Ethiopia. Group B involves Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Malawi. In Group C, you will find Morocco, Ghana, Gabon, and Comoros. Group D is the home of Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, and Guinea-Bissau. Group E includes the defending champions Algeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Equatorial Guinea. Lastly, Group F will involve Tunisia, Mali, Gambia, and Mauritania. 

Who qualifies?

The top two teams from each group will qualify for the round of sixteen. They will be joined by the best four third-placed teams.

Star Players

This tournament features some of the top players in the world. Egypt, for one, boasts the man that many believe is currently the best player in the world — Mo Salah. Along with him is Mohamed Elneny, from Arsenal, Mohamed El-Shennaway of Al Ahly, and Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ Hassan of Aston Villa. 

Another star in this tournament is Salah’s strike partner, Sadio Mane. He is part of a star-studded Senegalese team led by one of the top centrebacks in the world in Kalidou Koulibaly. Behind him in goal is Edouard Mendy, the man many believe to be the top keeper in Europe this past seasonAccording to reports, Ismaila Sarr will fly to Cameroon to be a part of the squad.

Then there is Algeria, the reigning champions. Their team boasts Premier League duo Riyad Mahrez and Saïd Benrahma. Their squad also includes Adam Ounas and Ismael Bennacer that play in Seria A and Youcef Atal, who plays in France. 

Ivory Coast also has its collection of star talent. They will be able to utilise the services of in-demand midfielder Frank Kessie, along with star striker Sebastien Haller. Wilfried Zaha is also involved, along with Nicholas Pepe, Eric Bailly, and Maxwel Cornet. 

Whilst Nigeria will be missing the talent of Emmanuel Dennis and Victor Oshimen, they do have Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, Wilfred Ndidi, Samuel Chukwueze, Joseph Ayodele-Aribo, and many others.

Ghana has been able to call on the services of Thomas ParteyAndre and Jordan Ayew, and Kamaldeen Suleymana. Unfortunately, Mohammed Kudus will miss the tournament as he recovers from injury.

Morocco may be without Hakim Ziyech, but they have arguably the best right-back in the world in Achrah Hakimi. They also have strike partners Munir El-Haddadi and Youssef En-Nesyri.

Other stars include Naby Keita for Guinea, Yves Bissouma for Mali, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Gabon. The host Cameroon will also have star goalkeeper Andre Onana available, along with Frank Zambo Anguissa.

However, this is just to name a few. This tournament will be filled with some of the most talented footballers the continent has to offer, and they will all be looking to make a name for themselves.

Who will win?

The favourites must be the reigning champions Algeria. They largely bring the same team that won the last tournament, and they are currently unbeaten in 33 games. If they do win it again, they will be making history as the last five champions have not done so, and in fact, all failed to get past the round of sixteen.

Grouped with Algeria is Ivory Coast. They last won the tournament in 2015. They will be looking to add a third trophy to their cabinet. Led by captain Serge Aurier, the Elephants have one of the most balanced squads in the tournament.

Senegal will also have high hopes of winning this tournament. If they do, it will be the first time in their history. With the talent at their disposal, they will believe they can.

Morocco will also look to continue their fine World Cup qualification performances at this tournament. Even without Ziyech, they have enough talent to hurt teams.

Egypt will be looking to put in a better performance than they did in 2019 when they suffered a shock loss to South Africa in the round of 16. With Mo Salah spearheading the side, they will hope to go further this year. 

Egypt is grouped with Nigeria. They have the talent to believe they can win the tournament; however, they have had some issues off the field. They recently fired Head Coach Gernat Rohr. The timing of this just did not feel right. However, Interim boss Augustine Eguavoen has talent at his disposal, the number one ingredient for success.

It is also not easy to discount the comfort of playing at home. Whilst Cameroon may not be as talented as they once were, they have some very good players who will be determined to do well at home. Similarly, Ghana and Tunisia are teams that will be hopeful of springing a surprise. 

What can Sierra Leone do?

Sierra Leone is in a tough group with both Algeria, Ivory Coast, and Equatorial Guinea. Algeria and Ivory Coast are the two favourites, so it might be the case that the Leone Stars are playing for third place. 

That may not be bad, as there is the possibility of qualifying for the next round as one of the four third-placed teams. Therefore, Sierra Leone must beat Equitorial Guinea on the 20th of January. 

It is also important to remember that stranger things have happened in these tournaments. One upset victory and Sierra Leone could be qualifying in the top two of their group. Let us wish them well.

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