The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations group stage draw offers a real chance of a strong Arab contingent, both in quality and quantity.
The qualification draw for the tournament, which will be held in the Ivory Coast, took place on Tuesday — just weeks after Senegal defeated Egypt on penalties to lift the trophy in Cameroon.
As qualification formats go, it is simple. Any team that finishes in the top two of the 12 groups of four will make it.
That should be the case for some of the powerhouses. Egypt, who subsequently missed out on the World Cup to the same opposition after another penalty shootout, will be relieved at not being drawn in the same group as the Lions of Teranga. Instead, the Pharaohs have been placed in Group D along with Guinea, Malawi and Ethiopia.
With the games kicking off in March, the opposition should give new coach Ehab Galal a fairly straightforward start to his national team career, as well as a smooth journey to the tournament, and a chance to make a record 26th appearance and lift the trophy for a record eighth time.
There will be plenty of interest in a meeting between Egyptian talisman Mohamed Salah and his Liverpool teammate Naby Keita of Guinea, the team likely to be the closest challengers.
Algeria will also welcome what looks to be a straightforward group that contains Niger, Tanzania and Uganda. The Desert Foxes have had a worse year than Egypt, arriving at the AFCON in January as defending champions, and finishing bottom of their group with a single point and a single goal to their name. Then came a heartbreaking last-minute loss against Cameroon in the World Cup playoffs. Group F should not present too many challenges at all.
Morocco’s Group K looks a little more challenging, but with the team preparing for the World Cup, some competitive tests may not go amiss.
The Atlas Lions were grouped with the top-ranked Pot Two team, South Africa. Bafana Bafana missed out last time around and are desperate to return to the continental stage. Those two teams are surely too strong for the other two, Zimbabwe and Liberia. It is more likely, in fact, that there will be only one other team. Zimbabwe will probably not be allowed to participate as the federation is, along with Kenya in Group C, currently suspended from the international game by FIFA and it is unlikely that the bans will be lifted in time. That leaves Liberia, ranked 22nd out of the 24 teams, with the seemingly impossible task of stopping the big two.
There will be more interest than usual in the fortunes of Comoros, who they have been placed in Group H along with Ivory Coast. As host nation, the Elephants have their place guaranteed, which means that only one of the islanders, Zambia and Lesotho, will join them.
Comoros enjoyed their first AFCON appearance in January, surviving the group stage and losing 2-1 to hosts Cameroon in the second round. Zambia, champions in 2012, will be far from easy, but if the Coelacanths can show some of the same spirit then a second successive appearance is certainly possible.
Groups I and J both feature two Arab teams. The first sees two relative minnows from the region, Mauritania and Sudan, trying to return to the tournament. To do so they will have to get past the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as Gabon. It is a tough task, but far from impossible. Congo did not even make it last time around, while Gabon were eliminated by Burkina Faso in the second round.
It is to be hoped that Mauritania learnt from their second appearance as they failed to do themselves justice in Cameroon with no goals or points, though the group was tough. Sudan finished third, but it was always going to be difficult for them to finish above either Nigeria or Egypt.
And then there is the second Arab team from Africa to be thinking about Qatar before worrying too much about AFCON. Tunisia were a little fortunate to get to the AFCON quarterfinals in January, and even luckier in the World Cup playoffs to be drawn with Mali.
The Carthage Eagles are hard to beat, however, and should qualify along with Equatorial Guinea, who reached the last eight in Cameroon only to lose to the eventual champions Senegal.
It will be interesting to see what Libya can do in the same group. The Mediterranean Knights were handed a difficult group in qualification for the World Cup but, ranked 117 in the world, they are only 18 places below Equatorial Guinea. But they have players performing at a good level overseas and a new coach in Frenchman Corentin Martins, who would love nothing more than to lead the team to a fourth AFCON appearance.