Africa Cup of Nations 2017 - preview
The 31st edition takes place in Gabon from 14th January to 5th February.
It is certainly a far cry from the first tournament in Sudan when only three countries took part.
This time 52 countries initially entered the qualifying process with only Somalia and Eritrea unable to participate.
Eventually sixteen teams made it through and they include seven-times victors Egypt, the holders the Ivory Coast plus six other past winners.
Guinea-Bissau are the only debutants while the winners in 2012 and 2013, Zambia and regional heavyweight, Nigeria, failed to make the trip.
In what is nearly always a tightly fought event, without an outstanding team, it might finally be the turn of Senegal to lift the trophy in Libreville.
Here are the constituent groups and an assessment of the teams.
Gabon, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau
Hosts Gabon will be looking to surpass their 2012 quarter final achievement when they staged the event jointly with Equatorial Guinea.
All local eyes will be on their much coveted Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and much will depend on if he can produce enough magic to carry the ‘Panthers’ through to new heights.
With home advantage, a favourable draw, and a game against minnows Guinea-Bissau to start Jose Antonio Camachos’ team do seem well set to progress out of Group A.
Paulo Duarte’s Burkina Faso, beaten finalists in 2013, include past ‘Player of the Tournament’ Jonathan Pitroipa plus the likes of Bakary Kone, Charles Kabore, Aristide Bance and Bertrand Traore in their squad.
The ‘Stallions’, despite being the highest ranked team in this group, are generally considered third favourites to qualify though with plenty of experience to call on they might surprise a few.
Coached by Belgian Hugo Broos Cameroon will be without a number of key players, including Liverpool’s Joel Matip, who for various reasons have withdrawn from the squad.
Even so the Indomitable Lions are reckoned to be favourites to qualify.
But without the star names of the past and with differences of opinion evident in the setup it would be optimistic to expect too much from the 4-times winners.
2019, when they host the tournament, looks a more realistic target.
With a significant contingent based in Portugal newcomers Guinea-Bissau will be trying to gain inspiration from the success of that country at Euro 2016.
However their cause will not be helped by the absence of top striker Cicero and with a squad of limited experience the chances are they might do well just to record a point.
Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal and Zimbabwe
Top ranked Senegal are quite a few pundits favourites to eventually lift their first Cup Of Nations trophy.
They will have some tough opposition in Group B but with Liverpool star Sadio Mane up front and an array of other talent the Lions of Teranga (coached by ex-international Aliou Cisse) could be on course to finally deliver.
They play all their group matches in Franceville, to the far east of the country, beginning with a tester against Tunisia.
Tunisia themselves have been consistent qualifiers at AFCON but with only one ultimate success and that was when they hosted the event in 2004.
Coached by the experienced Pole Henryk Kasperczak they have a reasonably solid look but without too many star names which tends to suggest they’re destined for third place in this group.
The story looks different for Algeria who can call on a formidable range of big names not least Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani, Faouzi Ghoulam and Nabil Bentaleb.
Led by Belgian coach George Leekens the highly ranked team, who play Zimbabwe in their opening game, should progress to at least the semi-finals.
Against a backdrop of poor preparation and limited resources Zimbabwe are the rank outsiders in the group.
With a squad based around mostly local or South African based players the Warriors will do well to notch one draw when facing these strong opponents.
However they do have one player that could stand out and that is Mamelodi Sundowns star Khama Billiat.
Ivory Coast, DR Congo, Morocco and Togo.
The holders, Ivory Coast, are strongly favoured to top this group and indeed probably go on to collect another title.
Even though big names like Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers are no longer featuring they can still field a powerful array of talent, not least in attack where ex-England cap Wilfried Zaha has been added to squad.
Coached by Frenchman Michel Dussuyer the Elephants fans will be disappointed if they don’t make the final.
It’s over forty year since Morocco won their sole AFCON trophy and they’re not expected to win this one though they are expected to qualify from group C.
They have many players active in Europe but, apart from Mehdi Benatia, they’re mostly at medium-level clubs.
Which probably means it will be a tough task for Herve Renard (winning coach in 2012 and 2015) to repeat past triumphs.
Vying with Morocco for second place will be DR Congo.
Their squad will include players from ex-Champions League winners and regional force, TP Mazembe, plus European based stars such as Dieumerci Mbokani and Cedric Bakambu.
The Leopards will be looking for a fast start as they play Morocco in their first match in Oyem on January 16th.
Togo, who squeezed in as second best runners-up in the qualifiers, are the fourth member of this group.
Ex-Premier League star Emmanuel Adebayor is their undoubted star name though exactly how he will perform given that he has had no club since the summer is anyone’s guess.
They do however have vast AFCON experience on their side in the shape of French coach Claude Le Roy, participating in his eighth such finals.
Most commentators expect Togo, who face the Ivory Coast in their opening encounter, not to figure in the shake up.
Ghana, Mali, Egypt and Uganda
Group D could be the nearest to a group of death.
It is headed by seven times winners Egypt who are led by legendary goalkeeper, 43 year-old Essam Al Hadary.
The Pharaohs, managed by Hector Cuper (Argentina) missed out on the last three tournaments and go into this one with a still struggling domestic league.
However with their track record and players from formidable clubs Al-Ahly and Zamalek to pick from they probably shouldn’t be discounted.
Much might depend on the form of AS Roma striker Mohamed Salah.
Joint favourites to win this group are Ghana who travel to Gabon with a very familiar set of players (Mensah, Rahman, Wakaso, Atsu, Agyemang-Badu, Ayew and Gyan & co)
How all those caps will perform, under ex-Chelsea coach Avram Grant, in a tricky group is hard to predict.
Though Ghana, finalists in 2015, are due some success having not won since 1982.
With a spread of players around Europe Mali seem to have a decent shot at qualifying from this group.
Unlucky to go out on the toss of a coin in 2015 they have been consistent performers at recent AFCON’s.
Additionally they have reinstalled ex-French star Alain Giresse, who took them to the semis in 2012, as coach.
Monaco’s Adama Traore could be one of the stars of their team.
Lastly Uganda, featuring in their first such tournament since 1978.
With players active in many African and a few European countries the Cranes can certainly call up a range of experiences.
As can Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevic.
But just how they will perform on the biggest national stage in Africa is difficult to assess, the first clues will come when they meet Ghana in Port-Gentil on January 17th.