- The Africa Cup of Nations begins on 13 January as Ivory Coast play Guinea-Bissau
- Defending champions Senegal will be hoping to retain their crown
- The likes of Morocco and Egypt are also among the favourites
- Players including Mo Salah and Victor Osimhen are hoping to lead their countries to glory
It’s hard to believe that it’s time for the Africa Cup of Nations again, two years after the last tournament. Senegal won their first title last time out, with forward Sadio Mané voted best player and Édouard Mendy voted best goalkeeper.
Senegal are among the favourites again, but who else could take the title? Who could spring a surprise, or fail to reach expectations, and who are the players to watch at this year’s AFCON? Let’s take a look.
Who are the favourites?
As stated above, it would be no surprise to see Senegal build on their inaugural triumph two years ago. Manager Aliou Cissé is a Senegal legend, a former captain who’s been manager since 2015, and the crux of the team who won in 2022 remain there. Captain Kalidou Koulibaly may have struggled at Chelsea last season, but he’s got 75 caps for his national team and was a great servant for Napoli.
Midfielder Idrissa Gueye is the team’s most-capped player, with over 100 appearances, while Mané is still a fantastic player on his day. Add in a talented supporting cast comprising stars from Europe’s top divisions, and it’s easy to see why Senegal could win the tournament again.
Then there’s Egypt, who have won AFCON a record seven times. Featuring Mané’s former Liverpool teammate Mo Salah, still one of the best players in the world at 31, any team with him in would threaten. Mohamed Elneny, who’s been at Arsenal since 2016, offers plenty of experience. They might not be able to match some of the other contenders in terms of true star quality, but manager Rui Vitória has an impressive CV, including back-to-back league titles with Benfica in Portugal.
Hosts Ivory Coast, who’ve won the competition twice but not since 2015, are another nation who could be in serious contention. Not only do they have home advantage, but they also boast the likes of young Brighton & Hove Albion winger Simon Adingra, Borussia Dortmund forward Sebastien Haller, and Al-Ahli midfielder Franck Kessie.
It’s impossible to discuss the AFCON contenders without talking about Morocco, either. The World Cup semi-finalists still have many of the players from their squad in Qatar around the camp, including goalkeeper Bono, PSG right-back Achraf Hakimi and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, currently on loan at Manchester United. Winger Hakim Ziyech, who also starred at the World Cup, is set to feature too.
Finally, Nigeria could also be in line for AFCON success. Striker Victor Osimhen is one of the best players in the.world, while his supporting cast includes Samuel Chukwueze, Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi, and Frank Onyeka. The three-time winners could win again for the first time in over a decade.
Who could surprise?
Cameroon have won AFCON an impressive five times, but probably aren’t among the immediate frontrunners this year. Goalkeeper André Onana could rediscover his best form after having a mixed time at Man United, while captain Vincent Aboubakar and midfielder André-Frank Zambo Anguissa have been mainstays for years.
What about Mali? Tottenham Hotspur’s Yves Bissouma is the obvious star of the midfield, while RB Leipzig’s Amadou Haidara has been linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Captain Hamari Traoré, who’s starred for Rennes and Real Sociedad over the last few years, is another solid player. And, while they’ve never won, they did see a couple of third-place finishes in the early 2010s.
And then there’s The Gambia. Granted, they’re unlikely to win, but they could spring a surprise or two. While traditionally contintental minnows, they have some decent players. Assan Ceesay, who plays for Damac in Saudi Arabia, is one of the team’s main talents, while Musa Barrow also plays in the country for Al Taawoun, and is one of The Gambia’s biggest hopes.
Who are the players to watch?
Some of the planet’s biggest stars will be on show at AFCON this year, like Salah, Osimhen and Hakimi. However, there are some slightly more under-the-radar players who could make a big impact and perhaps catch the eye of some major clubs.
Burkinabè winger Dango Ouattara is no stranger to Premier League viewers, having impressed at Bournemouth over the past year, but the 21-year-old could really rise his profile with an impressive showing in the Ivory Coast over the next few weeks. He’s averaged almost a goal every other game for Burkina Faso since making his debut in 2021, and he’ll be hoping to further showcase his talents.
Fellow winger Silas, who plays for DR Congo and VfB Stuttgart, currently hot on Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich’s tails in the Bundesliga title race, is another exciting player. A few years older at 25, he’s nonetheless one who could make a serious impression at AFCON despite being fairly new to international football. The Kinshasa-born forward only made his debut for DR Congo in March 2023.
Ivory Coast centre-back Ousmane Diomande is another player to keep an eye on, and a good tournament from the Sporting Lisbon man could go a long way to seeing Les Éléphants do well. He’s still young, having only turned 20 last month, but has already cemented himself as an important player for Sporting.
Finally, young Moroccan Bilal El Khannouss is certainly an exciting young talent. Sure, Morocco probably don’t want to reinvent the wheel after their World Cup success just over a year ago, but they could do worse than to give the Genk midfielder some game time. He’s made a few appearances for the senior side already, and won the U-23 AFCON last year too, while he’s been a fixture in Genk’s side since making his pro debut in 2022.
It’s near impossible to predict who’ll win AFCON this year. Remember Zambia’s surprise win in 2012, Comoros shocking Ghana two years ago, and Burkina Faso’s run to the final in 2013? But no matter the result, there’s sure to be some great football in store, from both household names and some new surprises.
Click here for our Discounted Account Offer. Access updated previews and analysis on up to 5 tournaments for 30 days.
When a top-level football club is scouting new pla...