Whether it was a sign of maturity or resignation, it was good to hear so little moaning from Premier League clubs about losing African international players to Africa’s Cup of Nations, especially given the decision to move the biennial tournament away from World Cup finals’ years by holding tournaments in 2012 and 2013. But Premier League clubs have accepted their temporary depletion of playing resource with relatively good grace, with the minor kerfuffle over Tottenham’s Emanuel Adebayor down to the player’s selection uncertainties – the Togolese striker being dropped for criticism of the team’s management before being re-instated at the behest of their football federation chief.

Of course, Arsenal v Chelsea without Gervinho and Jon Obi-Mikel isn’t such cause for alarm given the players’ poor seasons. But even Manchester City have just kept calm and carried on without Yaya Toure… oh… and brother Kolo; while Chelsea have done similar over Victor Moses. So the loss of EPL stars to the tournament hasn’t been much of an issue at all – he says, having written 170 words about it. The truncated inter-tournament period meant that the qualification competition was a home-and-away legs knockout affair. And even then it had to begin halfway through the 2012 finals, with Sao Tome and Principe overcoming Lesotho   January thanks to a third-minute penalty in the first leg. But after that humdinging start, the competition produced an interesting finals line-up.

Group A

Fresh from hosting the 2010 World Cup, South Africa were chock-full of ready-made venues for the 2013 finals when Libya had to withdraw due to their little local difficulties. So ready are South Africa, off the pitch at least, that there are no games at the Cape Town stadium built for 2010, which is almost as surprising an absence from the tournament as Cameroon’s. The Indomitable Lions were rendered all-too-domitable by finals debutants Cape Verde, who open proceedings against the hosts. The Blue Sharks beat Cameroon 2-0 in their home leg and grabbed the “all-important away goal” early in the Yaounde return, winning the tie a little more comfortably than the 3-2 aggregate scoreline suggests.

They have followed the selection policy of last year’s co-hosts Equatorial Guinea, in making, ahem, ‘full use’ of their expatriate community, not entirely unreasonable given that the Islands are home to only 500,000 people. But they won’t be the rank outsiders their size indicates, having only missed out on 2012 qualification on goal difference. That said, Angola and Morocco will expect to advance from the group as the hosts have had no competitive football or form of any kind coming into the tournament, and no Steven Pienaar – an international football retiree. Morocco overcame their 2-0 final qualifying round first-leg deficit in some style, thumping Mozambique 4-0. And their young squad contains a number of the players who intermittently impressed at last summer’s Olympics.

Angola, meanwhile, made a meal – and a five-course one at that – of disposing of Zimbabwe. Three-nil down after 35 minutes of the first leg, they pulled a goal back in Harare before Real Valladolid striker and Angolan football legend Manucho bagged a brace in the first seven minutes of the second leg and the Palancas Negras held on. They have disappointed in recent tournaments and could do so again.

Group B

Ghana have been Cup of Nations under-achievers for, ooh, ages… and they are even second-best in that category behind this year’s – and every bloody year’s – tournament favourites Cote D’Ivoire (see below). Asamoah Gyan’s missed penalty in last year’s semi-final may have been much lower-key than his World Cup finals spot-kick failure (Luis Suarez and all that). But Gyan took the subsequent criticism just as personally, retiring from international football, before re-emerging as captain this year. The Black Stars are somewhat injury-hit. But even without Marseille’s Andre Ayew, they have the talent to be potential winners. They qualified in low-key comfort, beating Malawi home and away.

DR Congo’s preparation was thrown into disarray this week, with manager Claude Le Roy, almost more of a Cup of Nations regular than the actual trophy, having reportedly resigned over another Cup of Nations regular, bonus payments – the non-payment thereof. The reports have been dismissed. For now. They sealed qualification with a 4-0 first leg home win over Equatorial Guinea, thereby surviving the scare of going 2-0 down in the return. And Anderlecht striker Dieumerci (trans: thank you God) Mbokani was the qualifying tournament’s top scorer with four goals.

Mali’s political situation is making worldwide ‘real news’ headlines. But whether Les Aigles will be inspired or divided by the troubles is an issue for more knowledgeable folk than I. Last year’s third-placed team still have ex-Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita’s experience. And they knocked seven past Botswana over their two-legged qualifier, including two goals from happy Hammer Modibo Maiga.

Niger lost all three games in their debut finals appearance 12 months ago. And the draw has combined with the Menas’ dismal record on their travels to make a repeat quite possible. It was no surprise that Niger lost their away qualifier in Guinea. And they needed two goals in the final 15 minutes to overcome their 1-0 deficit. A finals point would be progress, as would coach Gernot Rohr still being coach in ten days’ time, after Harouna Doula was sacked mid-tournament last year.

Group C

Group C is where the heart is, containing this year’s surprise qualifiers and last year’s equally surprising holders. Ethiopia overcame some stereotypical infrastructure problems to fashion a successful qualification campaign. Domestic federational in-fighting led to a FIFA competition ban which was lifted three years ago. And one of the Antelopes’ Chelsea-length list of recent managers, former Gillingham striker Iffy Onoura’s recently-published account of his Ethiopia days was entitled There are cows on the pitch, they think it’s all over…it is now because, just before one training session there were…cows on the pitch. Away goal victories over Benin and Sudan, the latter after losing the first leg 5-3 have brought them to South Africa with the neutrals’ and romantics’ best wishes… if no real chance.

The Antelopes face Zambia in their opening fixture. The Chipolopolo were popular 2012 winners among the self-same neutrals and romantics after their final triumph in Gabon, their tournament inspired by the memory of 18 Zambian players killed in a plane crash on the way home from a World Cup qualifier in Gabon in 1993. Their squad is more experienced and title-winning coach Herve Renard believes they are a better side than twelve months ago, even if results in the tournament build-up suggest different.

Nigeria are not short of familiar and experienced names as they strive to make up for last year’s rare absence from the finals. Alongside the above-mentioned Chelsea duo are Celtic centre-back Efe Ambrose and Villareal striker Ikechukwu Uche – all four of whom were on the scoresheet in the Super Eagles’ 6-1 evisceration of Liberia in qualifying. Uche also netted in the first leg, a 2-2 draw, and in their unconvincing win over Rwanda in the previous round. They are captained by centre-back Joseph Yobo, in about his 94th finals and managed by Stephen Keshi, who captained the last Nigerian side to win the Cup, in 1994.

It is tempting to suggest that Burkina Faso are making up the numbers in this group, given the Stallions’ dismal finals’ record since hosting the 1998 tournament and their three losses 12 months ago. The temptation is – just – resisted by Ethiopia’s lack of experience and memories of some quality Burkinabe players such as midfielder Jonathan Pitroipa and Alain Traore from last year. The latter scored a wonder goal against Angola in that tournament and grabbed the 96th-minute (ulp!) winner in the Stallions qualifying success over the Central African Republic.

Group D

And so to Cote D’Ivoire. Favourites… experience… Didier Drogba… under-achieverszzzzzzzzzzzz. If you don’t know the metaphorical score about the Elephants by now, I’m surprised that you’ve got this far in this article. Drogba is still Drogba. Gervinho may be rubbish for Arsenal but he scored in Cote D’Ivoire’s qualifying success over Senegal – as did other familiar names Salomon Kalou and Max Gradel. And the second leg against Senegal was (in)famously abandoned after a crowd riot which began at least partly because Senegal were 6-2 down on aggregate and being outclassed. This year, surely – episode 94.

Algeria bring a mixture of youth and unfamiliarity to this tournament with few survivors from the side which dumped Cote D’Ivoire out of the 2010 tournament in the quarter-finals, before they themselves imploded in front of bitter rivals Egypt in the semis. Not even nutjob goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi, which is possibly a shame. The Desert Foxes qualified via home and away victories over Gambia and home and neutral venue wins against Libya, although neither tie, for various reasons, gave a clear indication of the true quality of the Desert… er… Cubs (sorry). North African neighbours and rivals Tunisia might be a safer bet for the quarter-finals, although only if they improve on their disappointing showing 12 months ago. There was little sign of that in their laboured 0-0 home draw with Sierra Leone which gained them qualification on away goals, although they did at least show some character in twice coming from behind in the 2-2 first leg draw in Freetown.

And last, but certainly not least, Togo. No analysis of Les Eperviers’ Cup of Nations prospects can, or should, avoid mention of the gun attack on their team bus as it travelled to the 2010 tournament in Angola. That the Confederation of African football decided to ban Togo from the next two Cups of Nations for withdrawing from Angola in the wake of the gun attack remains breathtakingly insensitive and unsympathetic. The rescinding of that ban, and qualification squeaks against Kenya (on away goals) and Gabon (3-2 on aggregate), sees them welcome finalists. And the resolution of the spat with Adebayor proved vital, as the Spurs man scored in both legs of the latter tie.

The tournament’s quality has consistently slipped since the classic 2008 “edition”  in Ghana. Opinion was divided over last year’s finals between those who found the football exotic and those who thought it dreadful. In truth, the actual football was both. And the tournament will be more fondly remembered for its back stories – Zambia’s triumph, of course, but also the dramatic progress to the knock-out stages of both unfancied co-hosts, neither of whom qualified this year. It is a little surprising, therefore, that ITV4 are providing more extensive coverage than ever – showing live action from every round except, oddly, the final, decisive round of group matches. Where there’s holes to be plugged, though, British Eurosport is there again to plug them… well, not actually ‘there’ but you catch my drift. And I’m sure they will bring their wide-ranging and ever-increasing experience of covering supposedly ‘unfashionable’ football tournaments to bear.

I can’t wait… as per.

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