Mark Murphy is our man for the African Cup of Nations, which begins this month in Angola. This evening, Mark takes us through the runners and riders for the second most important footbll competition that will be played in Africa this year.

If this year’s African Cup of Nations in Angola has entered the psyche of English football fans at all, it is because of the cataclysmic effect on Chelsea’s Premier League title hopes of a month without Didier Drogba. Hull, Sunderland and Burnley, it seems, will be too good for Daniel Sturridge. The 2008 tournament ought to have been the breakthrough for its standing in Britain, with less talk of the damage done by holding the competition at an inconvenient time for the Premier League (how dare they?) and more talk about the… y’know… football.

The football promised to be of a high quality and it delivered in terms of drama (e.g. Cameroon’s quarter-final victory over Tunisia), goals (a plethora of long-range spectaculars) and terrific tales (Nottingham Forest reject Junior Agogo, host nation Ghana’s hero, for a couple of tap-ins off the crossbar from a yard-and-a-half). By the time Egypt, one of the most expansive teams, prevailed over Cameroon, one of the most cynical (innovative for an international tournament), those who had championed the ACN over Copa America as the second-most important continental nations’ cup felt vindicated.

The Copa America has in recent years been shorn of many European-based players, suffering alongside the seemingly perpetual World Cup qualifying campaigns, for which the Messis and Kakas do hop on a plane. And while this year’s ACN will suffer competitively alongside the continent’s first-ever World Cup in South Africa, fierce national pride dictates a strong turn-out from the best players, Didier Drogba being as good an example of that as you could muster.

African absences from the Premier League just aren’t as important as whether Cote D’Ivoire can be stopped in Angola, or what might happen if Algeria and Egypt have a reunion in the knock-out stages. Packed full of star names, led by arguably the world’s best striker, bedecked in the Orangest clothing outside Guantanamo Bay, Cote D’Ivoire (as the Ivory Coast like themselves to be known – who am I to disrespect those wishes?) were rampant favourites to win in 2008, but fell victim to complacency after a 5-0 quarter-final demolition of Guinea. The seeds were there for all to see as Drogba turned 360 degrees to take the acclaim of all parts of the stadium after his goal in that match. It didn’t matter that he would have looked ridiculous even if the stadium hadn’t been largely empty (still a bugbear of ACN’s). He knew that Cote D’Ivoire were going to win the tournament. Unfortunately, the Egyptians didn’t. They were defending champions and in similarly imperious form. Ergo, 4-1 to the Pharoahs in the semi-final.

Whether the team – again packed full of star names, again led by arguably the world’s best striker – will learn their lesson remains to be seen. Even possession of that great tradition of international football’s most entertaining sides, the dodgy keeper, didn’t dent their confidence in 2008. Boubacar Barry, the Ivorians’ version of Felix, Brazil’s much-maligned keeper in 1970, is back. Admittedly, the tournament hasn’t recently been blessed with great keepers – much like major international women’s tournaments (get typing, sisters). Cameroon’s keeper Carlos Kameni is widely-regarded as the best of the bunch in Angola, and that is widely-regarded as being damned with faint praise. Barry, though, is the Ivorians’ weak link and Drogba et al would do well to remember that they have one before posing by any corner flag after going three-up in the quarter-finals.

Their supporters certainly appear to have learnt their lesson, with the wild enthusiasm of recent years replaced with the Ivorian version of wait-and-see, “don’t scream until you see it happen.” Or, as one female fan put it: “At Ghana 2008, they broke my heart like my high school lover did. This time, I’ll be watching soap operas all through January. If (they) manage to win, we’ll dance with them then.” Cote D’Ivoire’s chances might be lessened by the tournaments proximity to the World Cup. With the World Cup and ACN qualifying tournaments being one and the same, all five World Cup qualifying nations will be in Angola (neither Angola nor South Africa progressed very far in the qualifiers, which is why South Africa aren’t in Angola and Angola won’t be in South Africa). And the feeling exists that the five will treat the ACN as a warm up for June.

This might give Egypt a better crack at a third ACN in-a-row than their curate’s egg of a qualifying campaign suggested. A reunion between World Cup qualifying buddies Egypt and Algeria at the business end of the tournament would certainly focus world minds… and, quite possibly, the security forces. It’s sad that the Egypt/Algeria dramas in November will be remembered for the political rabble-rousing and resultant violence that enveloped it. You couldn’t have got higher drama than Egypt’s last minute goal to set up the play-off, or the momentary morphing of Algerian centre-back Antar Yahia into Marco Van Basten to send Algeria to South Africa. Egypt’s form continues to be bitty. And some big players will be missing – both metaphorically and physically in Mido’s case, as he has succumbed to the match fitness problems with which Middlesbrough fans became well-acquainted. ‘Midfield-maestro’ Mohamed Aboutrika and striker Amr Zaki are also absent. The latter’s loss to the squad is indeterminate, as Wigan fans can readily testify. But he was a star of the 2008 tournament, so it is a loss to at least some extent.

However bad Nigeria get (and under Berti Vogts in 2008 they were bad), they’ll always carry a potential threat. Yakubu Aiyegbeni has struggled woefully for match fitness at Everton but might just come to the boil at the right time, alongside Newcastle’s favourite son Obafemi Martins, who passed a very late fitness test to be at the finals.
And while Kanu may be nearing pension age – some of his performances for Ajax were on black & white television – he might flourish simply by not being in Portsmouth, unless he’s worried that he might not have a club to which to go back.

Cameroon will be ‘vibrant’ (not ‘violent’, possibly) and Samuel Eto’o will surely add significantly to his all-time tournament record 16 goals if he gets more support from either a strike partner or his midfield – i.e. any support whatsoever –  than he did in 2008. The problem might be that for all his qualities, Alex Song is not an attacking midfielder. And Andre Bikey is only one in the sense he so vividly displayed in 2008’s semi-final against Ghana, when he ‘attacked’ a medical assistant attending to…his colleague Rigobert Song And…Cameroon were winning. Out of such material are YouTube classics made. Mind you, Bikey has shown a hitherto-hidden, and more appropriate, deftness of touch in Burnley’s midfield, which is not a phrase I expected to type two years ago.

A number of the squads are missing at least one player for ‘disciplinary reasons’ – the football equivalent of ‘musical differences.’ An inordinate number of players failed to turn up for various friendlies throughout the year, in sharp contrast to the number of players who stayed too long at such games and returned late to their clubs. Ghana provided two-for-the-price-of-one when Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari went missing before an October friendly. Essien apologised to his coach and is in Angola. Muntari didn’t apologise and is left with time to finish counting the money Portsmouth overpaid him. The ‘Black Stars’ injury-list (captain Stephen Appiah seems almost contractually obliged to be on it) has seen them mine their under-20 side for a quarter of their ACN squad. But, as the under-20s were hugely impressive world champions last year, that could potentially be a blessing in disguise.

If defender John Paintsil’s injury is a blessing, someone in Ghana is a master of disguise. The Ghanaian FA had a spat with Fulham manager Roy Hodgson when they asked for Paintsil to be allowed to join the squad the day before Fulham played Chelsea. Hodgson, indeed, showed a surprising lack of tact and sympathy for an urbane man with international management experience, accusing African nations of “disrespect” for making such requests. Despite being reminded by a huffy Ghanaian FA that he didn’t make the rules, Hodgson fielded Paintsil at Chelsea. And, of course he got injured – something already filed in the ‘inevitable somehow’ column. Fulham are not thought to be planning a Ghanaian pre-season tour for a bit.

The tournament’s rank outsiders would appear to be Mozambique and, worryingly, host nation Angola, which doesn’t say much for the footballing prowess of the old Portuguese empire. Mozambique might not win any goalscoring awards – their away record in the qualifiers only just outstripped Jason Scotland’s for Wigan. But with a veteran captain (Manuel Bucuane) nicknamed Tico-Tico, they deserve at least a round of applause.It is hard to see the tournament winners coming from beyond the above (up to Mozambique and Angola). And I’m not just saying that because I’m nearly up to my word limit. Unless Gabon’s luck improves on their qualifier against Togo, they’ll struggle. As a result of stereotypical Togolese disorganisation, they fielded an ineligible player, which meant that Gabon’s goal difference got the boost of the award of a 3-0 victory. At least, it would have been a boost…had they not won 3-0, anyway. And while Togo themselves qualified, such is their propensity for chaos and in-fighting – Emmanuel Adebayor is the ‘level-headed’ one – that they’ll be worth watching for anything but the football. It is Cote D’Ivoire’s time, though. If Spain can shake off perennial under-achievement, so can they, so long as they remember to keep their goal celebrations understated… and that Boubacar Barry is behind them.