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The Africa Cup of Nations is right around the corner. The 31st edition of the tournament is being hosted by Gabon, which will mark its second time hosting in an emergency situation. However, this is the first time the nation has hosted on its own. One of the things that needs to be said is about the qualification process for this tournament. In order to qualify, there were 14 groups of four teams. 14 of the teams that qualified won their group. Only two teams that came in second qualified, which means that there are no slouches here in this tournament. Only the best teams made it here, so you can expect a tournament full of great teams and even some unexpected results to take place!
Defending Champion (2015): Ivory Coast
Defending Best Player of the Tournament: Christian Atsu
Most Africa Nations Cup Victories: Egypt (7 time winners)
Most Famous Side to Not Qualify: Nigeria (3 times winners, including in 2013)
Host Cities: Four cities will host. They include Stade de l'Amitie, Stade de Franceville, Stade d'Oym, and Stade de Port-Gentil.
Winner of the Last Gabonese Cup of Nations: Zambia
Ivory Coast: 7/2
Ghana, Cameroon, Egypt: 9/1
Togo, Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau: 100/1
DR Congo, Burkina Faso: 25/1
There are many great sides involved, but a few are favored than others for this big event.
The Ivorians are the defending champions of this tournament, and have been installed favorites here. The last team to win back to back trophies was Egypt as they won it three times in a row in 2006, 2008, and 2010. The Ivory Coast are back after qualifying without a loss in the only three team group. They've gotten a little older since the last competition took place, but they still have the experience and talent to make a deep run in this tournament.
The bookmakers' second favorites are a side that have improved drastically over the last two years. Years ago, you'd have never thought of this nation as a threat on the international scale, but they have built a great squad on talented players. Senegal were almost flawless in qualifying through their four team group. They won all six matches, and they only conceded twice in all of that time. Many people would assume they were led by one or two, but in reality, they split the goal scoring duties amongst themselves very evenly, which shows they have a deep and dangerous team.
Gabon, as the host nation, did not have to play in the qualifiers. They did, however, play friendlies throughout the qualifying phase against other African sides in a bid to stay match sharp. Gabon have been labeled as the “Brazilians” due to their yellow and blue colors, and they, like Senegal, have snuck into being considered a big international side on the backs of some really great footballers. This side are going to bring a lot of style to the party in Gabon, and they will no doubt be a contender to win it all.
There aren't many middle-of-the-road contenders in this year's version of the Africa Cup of Nations. Many sides are either in the category of favorites, or they are classified as rank outsiders. So, here are a couple of dark horses to look at that could bring you good value should you bet on them.
Morocco qualified with only one blemish on their group stage record- a draw against Libya on the final match day after they had already clinched qualification. Morocco have had a so-called golden generation come and go lately. Many thought that the generation including Maroune Chamakh would lead them to glory, but things just never quite panned out. But now, they are a very underrated side. Like we've said before, each team at this final's are essentially champions of their group, so you should not overlook them. With capable names in defence like Medhi Benatia of Juventus and Bayern fame and Nabil Dirar of Monaco, they can potentially grind out teams. They have a nice mix of experienced players and young up and comers in midfield with the 33 year old Mbark Bousoufa and 23 year Sofiane Boufal (Southampton).
The second and final dark horse we'll take a look at is Tunisia. Tunisia have been chosen because of their tight-knit nature. A total of 13 of their players ply their trade in the Tunisian league. This is an advantage a lot of times in tournaments like this because they players know one another. They are supplemented by players that play at fairly large clubs in Europe, and those guys can play key roles in a side that can make a deep run. Aymen Abdennour, of Valencia fame, is a quality defender that can lead from the back. In midfield, Sunderland's Wahbi Khazri can make a real impact when given the chance- something David Moyes has not given this man. Tunisia are longer shots than Tunisia, but in an open tournament they have a chance to pull off the unthinkable.
Here are some of the notable names that we've chosen to include on the odds.
The Borussia Dortmund man is an absolute menace in front of goal, and the bookmakers are assuming that he's going to be doing the same thing in this tournament as well. It's an 'easy' bet, but it's not always the greatest of value here.
the AS Roma man has been great since he left Chelsea on loan some time back. His speed and technical ability is rivaled by few from the wings. At 10/1, these are pretty good odds for such a great player.
the Crystal Palace man is also a player that can score goals on his day, and he's at great odds for someone willing to take a chance here. Last time, it only took three goals to tie for the golden boot victory, so it is not out of the realm of possibility that three or four could win it.
The Africa Cup of Nations perhaps has the most attention being paid to it in its history this year. With the Premier League becoming more and more popular, it is being talked about as a hindrance for quite a number of sides as they've lost players for around a month due to the competition. But in addition to that, there are just so many talented African superstars playing today all over Europe that have made people start to pay attention. Here are some of the stars on show.
the Leicester City man that ended up winning African Footballer of the Year as well as the Premier League last year is someone to keep an eye as he plays from the wing for the Algerians. If he can play well, his side always have a chance to pull off some magic.
Liverpool's ace winger, the first they've had in a very long time, will lead Senegal's charge at this Africa Cup of Nations. He's likely to be double marked throughout, so he'll need to be great at providing for his teammates.
The Ayews have the ability to take over any game of football with their quick interchanges and finishing. Andre, particularly, will be looking forward to suiting up for a Ghana side that are miles ahead of his current club side West Ham.
the star of many peoples' FIFA and Football Manager video games is one of the favorites to land the Golden Boot for his Cameroon side. Aboubakar is strong and a great finisher, and he'll be hoping to have plenty of supply throughout the tournament.
It's only a couple of days away now, and excitement is definitely starting to build for Africa's showpiece tournament. The world will be watching and waiting, and we can't wait to get festivities started in Gabon!