KAMPALA-Tunisia’s Carthage Eagles are the ultimate definition of consistency at the Africa Cup of Nations; they always qualify and they always get knocked out at the quarter-finals. Okay, they did win it in 2004 as hosts, and have failed to get out of their group a few times over the last dozen or so appearances they have made, but no team in Africa can match Tunisia’s record of 13 consecutive appearances at Afcon.
In the last eight championships since they won the competition, the Tunisians have made the last eight on six occasions, without being able to go any further.
With the tournament hosted in familiar conditions this time round, 2019 may be just what the Carthage Eagles need to try and truly cement their place in the class of Africa’s big boys—and they have the robustness to do it, as they showed in topping a group which also had Egypt. Faced with the doable tests of Mali, Angola and Mauritania in their group, it is hard to see how they would fail to progress to the next round. However, when the real challenges come, say against a Cameroon, Senegal or Egypt, Tunisia will be found out.
After two third place finishes in 2012 and 2013, Mali has not been able to go beyond the group stages at the last two tournaments, and that can no longer be considered a blip. It feels like a century since Mali could call on names like Seydou Keita (formerly of Sevilla and Barcelona) or Frederic Kanoute (formerly of Tottenham and Sevilla). Back then, goals were not as hard to come by as they are now, and lately, even qualification is achieved with less authority than in times past—the Eagles only managed two points out a double header with Burundi in their qualifying group and the lack of creativity since Keita’s departure is yet to be cured.
Nevertheless, the Malians have lost. Add their tournament experience to the mix and the Eagles in that instant become second favourites to emerge from Group E along with Tunisia. Mali should have the resources to achieve the bare minimum expected; which is to get out of the group. A run to the quarter-finals or beyond is possible after that, but only based on their curious Afcon record of either getting eliminated at the group stage or going all the way to the last four of the tournament each time they have competed.
Moussa Marega (FC Porto)
Coach: Mohamed Magassouba
Afcon appearances: 10
What will work in their favour: Vast tournament experience, a disciplined approach and a kind draw.
What could work against them: The Malians do not score enough because they do not create enough.
Angola’s Palancas Negras conned fans into believing they were up to something big for a few years at the end of the previous decade—similar to the manner in which their striker Manucho conned Sir Alex Ferguson into giving him a chance at Manchester United. Yet, by 2010 the Angolans were out of steam and a team which had promised so much was closing a chapter with a disappointing quarter-final exit at the Afcon the country hosted. Two more Afcon appearances followed in 2012 and 2013, but to confirm that they were nothing more than also-rans, the Palancas Negras did not make it past the group stage on either occasion and failed to qualify altogether in the tournaments following that. A new generation whose brightest star is the Rio Aves attacker Gelson, 22, provides hope for that happening and it starts with Afcon 2019, where a kind draw means they will be competing with Mali and Mauritania for one or even two slots to progress from the group.
Gelson (Rio Ave)
Coach: Srdjan Vasiljevic
Nickname: Palancas Negras
Afcon appearances: 7
What will work in their favour: The Palancas Negras have little pressure to perform and have decent options in attack.
What could work against them: FAs a team that is rebuilding, the lack of experience is likely to show.
Mauritania should simply have our curiosity because they are a footballing unknown joining the Africa Cup of Nations party for the first time. Yet the Lions of Chinguetti demand our attention because to get here they needed to deny Burkina Faso—the same Burkina Faso which has finished second and third in two out of the last three Afcon finals. If that doesn’t impress you, maybe the fact that Mauritania sealed their qualification with a game to spare will. Or the fact that they lost only two out of six games during qualifying while convincingly beating both Angola and Burkina Faso.
Nonetheless, it is the Mauritanians’ most recognisable strength which could present as a hurdle in Egypt; they qualified for the tournament on the back of an impeccable home record, winning three out of three while losing two of three games they played away. A solid if not spectacular team, the Lions of Chinguetti most recognisable European-based player is Aly Abeid, the Levante defender on loan at Alcorcon in the Spanish Segunda Division.
Star man: Cheikh Moulaye Ahmed “Bessam” (FC Nouadhibou)
Coach: Corentin Martins
Nickname: Lions of Chinguetti
Afcon appearances: Debutants
What will work in their favour: Organised, hardworking, disciplined. That combination might be enough for them not to be embarrassed.What could work against them: The lack of experience and dearth of quality will hurt, but even worse is the fact that Mauritania do not like it away from home.
What will work in their favour:
The Tunisians have stability; will be playing in the Maghreb and will have their best player Youssef Msakni back after he missed the World Cup.
What could work against them: For all their robustness, they are short on the extra bit of quality and do not have the pedigree either to contend seriously for the title.
Star man: Youssef Msakni (Al Duhail)
Coach: Alain Giresse
Nickname: Carthage Eagles
Afcon appearances: 18
June 24 Tunisia v Angola
June 24 Mauritania v Mali
June 28 Tunisia v Mali
June 29 Mauritania v Angola
July 02 Mauritania v Tunisia
July 02 Angola v Mali