The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations starts on Friday (today) with a record 24 teams slugging it out for the most coveted trophy in African football.
Seven-time champions and hosts Egypt are billed to set the ball rolling with a tricky fixture against Zimbabwe at the Cairo International Stadium.
The Pharaohs will be hoping to go one step further than they did at the 2017 edition of the competition in Gabon, where a late Vincent Aboubacar’s goal denied them a record 8th trophy.
Reacting to their opening game of the competition, Egypt’s head coach, Javier Aguirre, said their opening match is extremely crucial.
He said, “We have reached a very good form since we started preparing, and we have no problems either physically or technically. It’s a very important game as it’s the opening and we know the responsibility for us, yet we feel no pressure.
“We respect Zimbabwe and know them well. We will do our best come Friday (today). We are just thinking of the Zimbabwe game now and will take one game at a time.”
However, captain of the Pharaohs, Ahmed Elmohamady, said the team were in top shape to win another title.
“We are ready for the first game and our morale is very high. We play at home and promise our supporters that we will emerge champions. Our treble between 2006 and 2010 gave us great confidence and we were unlucky not to win two years ago. Being at home will push us more.”
In their pre-match press conference head coach of Zimbabwe’s national team, Sunday Chidzambwa, insists that his players are prepared for the task ahead.
“We prepared well and we believe we will do well. We are playing in a very difficult group and we also had the same in the qualifiers.
“Facing Egypt is not going to be easy because they play at home and they won the title seven times. But we are one of the best 24 teams in Africa and we will do our best.”
In Group B three-time African champions Super Eagles will be staging a return to the big stage after missing out on the 2015 and 2017 editions.
The Eagles last won the AFCON in 2013 in South Africa, beating Burkina Faso 1-0 in the final to lift the trophy.
On paper, the Eagles have one of the easiest groups as they are billed to face Burundi, Guinea and Madagascar. Most pundits see the Eagles as one of the favourites to lift the trophy despite coach Gernot Rohr calling for caution.
West African football powerhouse Senegal are one of the six countries to have got to the AFCON final without winning it, a trend this talented set of Teranga Lions stars will be hoping to change in Egypt.
Led by in-form Liverpool forward, Sadio Mane, and other stars, the Lions, one of the favourites to win the AFCON, will face Tanzania in their opening game of the competition.
Also hoping to make their presence felt at the tournament will be Algeria. Past winners of the tournament, Algeria have Manchester City’s forward Riyad Mahrez.
The Desert Foxes will be hoping to give Senegal a run for their money in Group C.
Morocco, Ivory Coast, South Africa, and Namibia make up Group D, which is regarded as the group of death.
Ivory Coast won the 2015 edition of the competition and will be hoping to go all the way once again.
The star-studded Ivorian team will face 1996 champions South Africa in their opening game of the campaign and a favourable result will help them hold their own as one of the favourites to win the 2018 edition of the competition.
Tunisia, Mali and Angola are the favourites to make it out of this group. Although these teams might not be considered as favourites to win the competition, they will certainly pose some problems for the other heavyweights.
Defending champions Cameroon are one of the favourites in this group alongside Ghana.
The five-time African champions will have a lot to do to claim a back-to-back AFCON win in Egypt.