DUBAI: The record-breaking contingent of seven Arab nations competing at the 2021 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon in January learned their fate on Tuesday night, with reigning champions Algeria leading as pre-tournament favorites.
The upcoming edition, postponed from the summer of 2021 due to the pandemic, will see its most successful nation, Egypt, joined by title-holders Algeria, 2004 winners Tunisia, 1976 champions Morocco, 1970 winners Sudan as well as Mauritania and debutants Comoros to make up the largest-ever presence for Arab League member countries in the competition, with only Libya, Djibouti and Somalia missing out on the 24-team tournament.
The previous record was five Arab countries in the 2019 edition in Egypt, with Sudan and Comoros missing out of the current participants.
With Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco all seeded in the first pot, the remaining teams were fortunate to avoid drawing against hosts Cameroon, who will be facing a straightforward group alongside 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso and minnows Ethiopia and Cape Verde.
Debutants Comoros will have their work cut out for them as they find themselves drawn in the metaphorical “group of death” against four-time champions Ghana and continental powerhouse Morocco, while Gabon, led by Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, round up Group C.
After three narrow 1-0 draws in the group stage, Morocco suffered an embarrassing round of 16 defeat at the hands of Benin last time out, which cost coach Herve Renard his job. The new man at the helm, Vahid Halilhodzic, brought along bags of experience in African football, having previously coached Côte d’Ivoire and Algeria and won the 1997 CAF Champions League with Raja Casablanca. With a squad featuring new PSG man Achraf Hakimi, Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech and Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri among other talents, they will be expected to progress from the group and go deep into the knock-out stage after the disappointment of two years earlier.
Having been drawn together in the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup taking place in Qatar in December, Nile neighbors Egypt and Sudan find themselves set to face-off again a month later with the duo joined by Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau in group D.
Egypt — record champions with seven African Cup of Nations titles to their name — crashed out of the round of 16 on home soil in their most recent appearance, but history will be a good omen for both Egypt and Sudan. The two sides have met on five occasions in the competition; on the three times that Egypt won the match, they went on to be crowned champions in 1957, 1959 and 2008. The same was true for Sudan in 1970. When they drew in 1963, it was Sudan who went all the way to the final but lost 3-0 to Ghana.
While the last Egyptian triumph in the competition dates back to 2010 and the golden generation of coach Hassan Shehata, the iconic Mohammed Salah will be hopeful of cementing his status as the nation’s greatest of all time by leading them to African glory. For Sudan, a return to the summit of the continent might be a distant prospect, but under coach Hubert Velud progress has been vivid and the possibility of calling up diaspora players such as MK Dons’ Mo Eisa, Nashville SC’s Hany Mukhtar and Perth Glory’s Osama Malik could prove the difference.
The Algerian title defence sees them line up against a Wilfried Zaha-inspired Côte d’Ivoire side as well as Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, against whom they will get their campaign underway. Coach Djamel Belmadi’s side built on their continental triumph two years ago and went from strength to strength, breaking an all-time African record of going 27 matches unbeaten between November 2018 and June 2021.
The already star-studded title-winning side of 2019, led by Manchester City talisman Riyad Mahrez and featuring the likes of AC Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer and Borussia Monchengladbach left-back Ramy Bensebaini, was further bolstered with the emergence of talents such as West Ham winger Said Benrahma and the development of OGC Nice full-back Youcef Atal. The Fennecs will be bullish on the prospect of adding a third title after 1990 and 2019.
Group F produced a near identical draw to Group D from two years ago, with Tunisia, Mauritania and Mali all drawn together again, while it was Gambia who missed out on 2019 rounding off the group instead of Angola who missed out on the current edition.
Back then, Tunisia stuttered to qualify in second place after failing to win a single game, drawing all three of their matches but eventually joining group leaders Mali in the round of 16. The Eagles of Carthage went all the way to the semi-final in Egypt 2019, but their unconvincing displays meant French coach Alan Giresse had to make way for Mondher Kebaier who steadied the ship, leading them to Cameroon 2021 with an unbeaten qualification campaign in which they won five and drew only one game. A lot will ride on the fitness and form of key men Wahbi Khazri, Seifeddine Jaziri and Ferjani Sassi.
On their continental debut, Mauritania earned the plaudits in a similar group in 2019, coming within a point of qualification after holding the vastly more experienced Tunisia and Angola to goalless draws. The Atlantic nation built their footballing identity around resilient defending and have demonstrated that further in the 2021 qualifiers with four clean sheets in their six games, including a pair of goalless draws against Morocco. Where they will have to improve is in the final third, with only five goals scored en route to Cameroon 2021. A slight improvement on their results from the previous edition could be enough to guide them to a historic knock-out stage qualification.
With 12 out of the previous 32 editions being won by Arab nations, the 2021 edition offers the opportunity for the region to improve on its record of one title in the past five competitions, but can any of the seven teams take that chance?