AFCON matchday preview: Tunisia and Ivory Coast eye statement starts, Gambia debut

Both countries have designs on going deep into the tournament and will be eager to make positive starts to ensure they are not playing catch-up.

While Tunisia and Ivory Coast have racked up 44 AFCON qualifications between then, Gambia will be making their bow.

Tunisia v Mali (13:00 GMT/6:30 PM IST)

Africa’s second-highest ranked nation, Tunisia, are appearing in a 15th successive AFCON this year, setting a new record.

But they have only been beyond the last eight once (in 2019) since winning the tournament as hosts in 2004. The Carthage Eagles are, some might say, frequent under-achievers at this level.

Yet they head into the tournament in reasonably good shape having reached the final of last month’s Arab Cup, only losing to AFCON champions Algeria after extra-time.

Mondher Kebaier will be expecting first opponents Mali to represent their toughest challenge in Group F, with the Eagles having never lost their AFCON opener (W6 D5).

One to watch: Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)

Manchester United midfielder Hannibal started all six of Tunisia’s games as they reached the final of the Arab Cup. He may not feature quite as prominently in a full-strength squad, but he possesses the kind of off-the-cuff abilities that could help unlock stubborn defences. Expect him to draw a lot of fouls, such is his natural talent.

Mauritania v Gambia (16:00 GMT/9:30 PM IST)

Gambia, along with the Comoros, are one of two nations debuting at the AFCON this year and will be eager to produce a positive showing.

In theory, they begin with arguably the most winnable of their three Group F games, with Mauritania coach Didier Gomes Da Rosa likening the match to a “semi-final”.

His counterpart Tom Saintfiet has a better-travelled squad, however, his selection made up mostly of Europe-based players – Sampdoria, Gent, Spezia, Real Valladolid and even Roma are among the clubs represented.

The west-African nation may be the lowest-ranked team in the competition (150th), but they reached Cameroon as the only side to come through both the preliminary and group stages of qualifying, shocking Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola to top the table.

One to watch: Musa Barrow (Gambia)

Barrow is one of six Gambia players to ply his trade in Italy, though the 23-year-old is the most polished. The left winger also has an end product, with his 24 non-penalty Serie A goal involvements since the start of last season a highly respectable effort that is bettered by only 15 players.

Equatorial Guinea v Ivory Coast (19:00 GMT) (12:30 AM IST, January 13)

Ivory Coast might have gone all the way back in 2019 were it not for their somewhat surprising penalties elimination by Algeria in the last eight.

They are among the favourites once again and will have a shot at revenge when they meet Algeria in Group E, a clash that will likely determine who finishes top.

But first they tussle with an Equatorial Guinea side competing for the first time as a non-host nation, having been knocked out by Ivory Coast in the last eight 10 years ago and then reaching the semis in 2015.

Juan Micha’s side will do well to see off the Elephants here, though, with Ivory Coast suffering just two defeats in their previous 20 AFCON group games.

One to watch: Sebastien Haller (Ivory Coast)

Ajax striker Haller is having an incredible season at club level, boasting a goals haul of 22 across between the Eredivisie and Champions League already.

In fact, his 10 strikes in Europe made him the quickest player to reach double figures for career goals in the Champions League (six games), and he matched Cristiano Ronaldo’s record of scoring in every single game in a single group stage.

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