The Africa Cup of Nations is underway and the first round of group matches have been played. It’s been a predictably cagey start to proceedings, and ‘unders’ punters have been rubbing their hands with glee as just one game so far has seen more than two goals. Senegal, Ghana and Congo are the only three teams to gain three points, beating Tunisia, Uganda and Morocco respectively. Each of the other five tournament matches has ended all square, and the competition will surely hot up as we enter the second phase of the group stage.
Our pre-tournament tip for the title was Senegal, and the Lions of Teranga got off to a perfect start with the 2-0 success against Tunisia – Liverpool’s Sadio Mane on the scoresheet. Our next best selection is Algeria, but the Desert Warriors were held to a 2-2 draw by Zimbabwe in their opener. Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez spared Algerian blushes with an 82nd minute equaliser, and he will be vital to his country’s chances. Algeria are fancied to put things right when they take on Tunisia, in a match that will go a long way to deciding both team’s fate.
In the same group, Senegal can continue the winning thread against Zimbabwe – which is the third-lowest ranked side in the competition according to the World ELO Football Ratings. Looking ahead to the other group games, and Egypt stand out in group D action on Saturday as they face Uganda – a side which they’ve beaten in the last eight meetings.
Algeria v Tunisia
Leicester duo Mahrez and Slimani are the star men for the Desert Warriors, but it’s a very able squad which qualified for the World Cup in Brazil back in 2014. They were rated among the pre-tournament favourites to lift the trophy, and one poor result against Zimbabwe isn’t enough evidence to write them off just yet. In sixteen matches Algeria have been beaten only twice – a friendly loss to Guinea and a World Cup qualifying defeat in Nigeria. the Desert Warriors won a healthy 10 of the other 14, and are in need of three points here.
The world ELO rankings put Algeria at fourth in the list of African countries, with Tunisia back in 8th. The 2-0 loss at the hands of Senegal was also Tunisia’s third defeat in four matches. The Eagles lost friendlies against Egypt and Basque Country in the build-up to the tournament, and were 2-0 down inside 30 minutes against the Senegalese.
Managers of both sides will expect Senegal to get the better of Zimbabwe later in the day, so a lot rests on this match. Algeria have a single point, but face Senegal in a tough final group match. Three points here will give them a bit of breathing space going into the last game. Tunisia are bottom of the group with zero, but have arguably their ‘easiest’ game to come against Zimbabwe. A draw here might prove to be a good result if they go on to win that one, and a more conservative approach may come from the Eagles.
Algeria have the quality to go deep into this competition, but they have to start showing it from here on in. At a decent price, it’s worth backing them to get their tournament up and running.
Senegal v Zimbabwe
Regardless of other results, six points will guarantee a place in the next round and this is a perfect opportunity. Senegal are ranked 2nd among African countries in the ELO ratings, while Zimbabwe are 14th of 16 teams. A look at Senegal’s squad indicates why that is, with Mane (Liverpool), Kouyate (West Ham), Diouf (Stoke), Koulibaly (Napoli), and Keita (Lazio) among several European-based stars.
Senegal have now won nine of the last ten matches, the only defeat in a World Cup qualifier away in South Africa. Zimbabwe have proven hard to beat as much as anything else recently, securing five draws in their last nine. Much of the opposition has been sub-standard, but they did hold both Ivory Coast and Cameroon to draws prior to the tournament.
Nonetheless, Senegal are fancied to be too strong for a team which is participating in it’s first Africa Cup of Nations since 2006.
Egypt v Uganda
The Cranes finished second in 1978, but that was Uganda’s last appearance at AFCON until this year. Some of those missing years were due to the country’s withdrawal from the competition, but the majority of absences were down to simply not qualifying. A 1-0 loss to Ghana and Ayew’s penalty is a decent result in context, but it was Uganda’s fourth defeat in six matches. Furthermore, they’ve lost on each of the eight previous occasions they’ve come up against Egypt.
The Pharaohs were held to a 0-0 draw in their opener with Mali, so it is imperative to gain three points here ahead of the final group match against Ghana. Prior to that they’d beaten Tunisia (friendly), Ghana and Congo (World Cup qualifiers), and the Egyptians remain the third best side in Africa based on ELO ratings.
Algeria to beat Tunisia
Thursday 19th January, 16:00 GMT
Senegal to beat Zimbabwe
Thursday 19th January, 19:00 GMT
Egypt to beat Uganda
Saturday 21st January, 19:00 GMT