Action starts this week in the Group Phase of the 2021 Total Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) with 48 matches to be played on Match Day 1 and Matchday 2 between November 13 and 19.
Last month, the group stage was completed by the quartet of Chad, Gambia, South Sudan and Sao Tome e Principe after victories in the preliminaries.
This stage offers a mouth-watering prospect for the big guns the chance to assert their influence after not too impressive scorecard at the last Afcon in Egypt.
It’s going to be an exciting series starting from Group A where upstarts Chad will hope to continue with their fairy-tale run when they visit the Brave Warriors of Namibia in Windhoek. The Brave Warriors were one of the only three teams along with Burundi and Tanzania that failed to win or draw any of their three matches at the Afcon in Egypt and it would be interesting to see how well they have cured themselves of that malady.
Yet it would be royale West African battle in the other Group A fixture between Mali and Guinea in Bamako since both sides failed to last the distance in Egypt where they were shown the exit in the Round of 16. It will surely going to be a new beginning for Guinea under new French coach Didier Six, who replaced Paul Put while Les Aigles of Mali continue their chase for glory under Mohamed Magassouba who supervised their last Afcon campaign in Egypt.
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Equally, there should be fireworks in Group B based on the pedigree of the two combatants when Burkina Faso entertains Uganda in Ouagadougou on Thursday. It would indeed be a fresh beginning for Cranes of Uganda after their Round of 16 ouster in Egypt following the appointment of Northern Irishman Johnny McKinstry as a replacement for French tactician Sebastien Desabre.
Another prestige game is certainly the Group C clash in Cape Coast between the Black Stars of Ghana and Bafana Bafana of South Africa even as both teams shake off recent lethargy performances.
This encounter would be 13th between the two countries but Thursday’s encounter in Cape Coast will be the first competitive match for South Africa’s new handler Molefi Ntseki who last month started his coaching tenure with Bafana Bafana on a winning note with a hard-fought 2-1 defeat of Mali 2-1 in the Nelson Mandela Challenge title in Port Elizabeth.
But how well Bafana Bafana would fare under the deluge of Ghanaian supporters in Cape Coast yet remains to be seen as the Ghana Football Association (GFA) under a new helmsman (Kurt Okraku) hinted about the launch of a ‘passion-igniting campaign’ tagged '#Bring Back The Love' to coincide with Black Stars’ Afcon opener.
In Group D, Angola will face off against Gambia but with more attention likely to be focussed on the other tie between DR Congo and Gabon at Stade de Martyrs in Kinshasa on Thursday.
The visitors are now coach by Frenchman Patrice Neveu, a former coach of the Congolese, who took over from former Gabonese forward Daniel Cousin after Les Pantheres failed to qualify for the last Afcon in Egypt.
But all the four teams in Group E bar the Central African Republic are back in the hunt again after their contrasting performance in Egypt with the worst being North African flagbearers Morocco who were eliminated in the Round of 16 by Benin.
Morocco has since parted ways with the charismatic French coach Herve Renard and are now under a new vista with Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic whose varied experiences with Ivory Coast, Japan and Algeria should come in handy for the beleaguered Atlas Lions.
Under the 67-year-old Halihodzic, the Atlas Lions remains unbeaten after two international friendly matches at home against Burkina Faso (1-1) and Niger (1-0) and they will take on Mauritania in front of their fans on Friday in his first competitive game.
Elsewhere, Burundi that made their Afcon debut in Egypt will be away to the Central African Republic at the Barthelemy Boganda Stadium in the other Group E match.
In the meantime, former champions and 2021 host Cameroon will begin a new lease of life under Portuguese coach Toni Conceicao after the Indomitable Lions parted ways with Dutch legend Clarence Seedorf following their Round of 16 exit in Egypt. The 57-year-old Conceicao has promised to rejig the Lions and he would surely be under intense scrutiny starting from Wednesday’s home game against the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde in Yaounde.
Similarly, it would be a new beginning for the Pharaohs of Egypt after Mohammed Salah and company crashed under the weight of expectations before a bemused home crowd as the hosts of the 2019 Afcon were bundled out in the Round of 16 by South Africa.
The poor performance by the Pharaohs on home soil led to the sacking of Mexican coach Javier Aguirre and he has since being replaced by Al Ahly’s legendary player and coach Hossam El Badry; who opens his Pharaoh’s account in a competitive match against Kenya on Thursday in Alexandria.
Of course, it would be the battle of the gladiators in Group H when African champions Algeria host 2012 champions Zambia in a match that should have the trappings of a cup final based on their past pedigrees. Both teams have clashed 14 times in the past with Les Fennecs claiming seven wins and three draws but the Chipolopolo would be buoyed by the positive outcome during their last visit to the Stade Mohamed Hamlaoui when they went home with a 1-0 win in the last qualifying match for Russia 2018.
Away in Group I, there would also be plenty to play for when 2019 Afcon runner-up Senegal hosts Congo in Thies and Guinea Bissau entertains Eswatini at the Estadio 24 de September in Bissau. Ditto titanic battle is expected in Group J in the all-North African derby between Tunisia and Libya at the Stade Olympique in Rades for obvious reasons.
Also, former African champions, Elephants of Ivory Coast will on Friday entertain Niger in their Group K match as they continue rebuilding process under coach Ibrahim Kamara that stirred them to a quarterfinal finish in Egypt.
Meanwhile, the Cinderella team of Egypt 2019, Madagascar that surpassed expectations by beating the likes of Nigeria and DR Congo en route to their quarterfinal finish will be at home to Ethiopia in the other Group K match.
Last but not the least important are the two ties in Group L as Nigeria host neighbours Benin Republic at their Uyo International Stadium on Wednesday while Sierra Leone seek for the three home points at National Stadium in Sierra Leone.