Ghana and Mali are favourites to reach the quarterfinals in Group B of the 2013 Africa Nations Cup, but Niger and Congo DR could come up with surprises, writes OLUFEMI ATOYEBI
The atmosphere in Group B of the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa can be described as quiet with Ghana and Mali likely to win here. But the serenity could be disrupted by Congo DR, who return after reaching the quarterfinals in Egypt 2006, and Niger, who are desperately trying to create a footballing identity after qualifying for their second appearance at the competition.
The Black Stars of Ghana have a healthy record in the Nations Cup, but one that belongs to the infancy of the competition. Although they still made themselves relevant beyond the tournamentâ€™s formative period, winning the cup in 1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982 is not an evidence of todayâ€™s strength.
The Black Stars actually tried to be on the map of the modern day Nations Cup, with the Abedi Pele-propelled set of 1992 reaching the final and another second place finish in 2010, but itâ€™s not enough to win an automatic seat beside Egypt, who added three consecutive titles between 2006 and 2010 to the ones they won in the past.
Ghana are in need of a title after coming close in the last three editions. There is no doubt about the recent quality of the Black Stars as a team and the possibility of leading the group, but the team needs to genuinely depart from relying on an individual to win matches for them as it happened in the World Cup 2010 in South Africa and in the last three editions of the Nations Cup.
Striker Asamoah Gyan was a villain in the 2008 edition when Ghana hosted, but in the last two editions, he shouldered the responsibility of the whole team and delivered perfectly except when it mattered most. In 2010, he propelled the team to the final, scoring the winner against Angola and Nigeria in the quarterfinal and the semifinal, but lost the magic wand to nail Egypt in the final as Ghana lost 1-0.
He is in the provisional squad named by coach Kwesi Appiah this week for the competition. But more players have emerged as pillars of the team with Juventus midfielder Kwado Asamoah being tipped as one of the stars to light up the tournament.
The head-to-head record against other group teams tips in Ghanaâ€™s favour but an interesting encounter is on the way against Mali on Jan. 24. Ghana beat Mali 2-0 in the group stage last term but the Jan. 24 match will offer the Black Stars an opportunity to avenge the 2-0 defeat in the third place match of the 2012 edition.
In the seven appearances they have recorded in the Nations Cup, Mali have always done well except in the 2008 and 2010 editions when then did not go beyond the group stage. But they finished third last year and will be looking beyond that position in South Africa.
Now coached by Patrice Cartero, Mali will hit South Africa with Fulhamâ€™s Mahamadou Diarra who has regained the captainâ€™s armband.
He missed Maliâ€™s run to third place in the 2012 AFCON as he was without a club and rusty, but returned to captain the side to a 3-0 qualifying win over Botswana in September. His recall by the new coach has drawn criticism with some saying the 31-year-old return is a sign that Mali lack quality young players.
Seydou Keita was the star of the side in the past editions but the player, who has appeared in five editions and moved from Barcelona to Dalian Aerbin FC in the Chinese league is preparing for another appearance.
The coach seems to be backing the emergence of youngsters with experienced players, knowing that playing in the final will be the only result Malians will appreciate.
Congo DR ruled Africa in 1968 and 1974 but faded out of reckoning until 1998 when they came fifth.
Playing in a group that has Ghana and Mali is not a blessing to a team that last featured in 2006. But a chance to be among the best has been offered and Congo DR could surprise the favourites.
Stars to watch
Seydou Keita, Mali
Seydou Keita will be Maliâ€™s key figure in midfield when they participate in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
The 32-year-old who will be 33 by the time the tournament kicks off has over 70 caps for â€˜The Eaglesâ€™ under his belt and will be making a sixth trip to an AFCON tournament, having been part of national team squads at the 2002, 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2012 events.
Keita now plays his club football in the burgeoning Chinese Super League for Dalian Aerbin, but he had a stellar career in Europe, game, with a four-year spell at Spanish giants Barcelona bringing him winners medals from three La Liga triumphs and two UEFA Champions Leagues. He has also played for Marseille, Lorient, Lens and Sevilla.
If Mali are to repeat or even better their third place finish from the last AFCON when they tackle SA 2013, then they will need Keita to be at his best.
Kwado Asamoah, Ghana
After being named among the top 50 players by Bleacher this week, Juventus midfielder Kwado Asamoah can approach the Nations Cup from a positive position.
In June 2008 Asamoah was signed by Serie A club Udinese. He eventually established himself for both club and country. After some good performances at the 2010 World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations, he became a target of top clubs in Europe.
Asamoah and Udinese teammate Mauricio Isla both joined Juventus in July 2012 on co-ownership agreements, with Juventus paying â‚¬9m for 50% of Asamoahâ€™s contract. He made his debut on August 11 against Napoli in the Supercoppa Italiana and scored.
Speed, skill and daring shots are some of his features and if he plays at his best in South Africa, Ghana can rely on him to lift them and complement the effort of others.