AFCON 2023: Osimhen, Salah & Kudus take centre stage as Nigeria, Egypt and Ghana seek to exorcise past ghosts

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FOOTBALL AFCON 2023: Osimhen, Salah & Kudus take centre stage as Nigeria, Egypt and Ghana seek to exorcise past ghosts

Joel Omotto 11:33 - 14.01.2024

Nigeria, Egypt and Ghana will all be in action on Sunday and they will be eyeing a perfect start as they search for the title that has eluded them for a long time

Three-time Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) winners Nigeria headline a strong Group A with host nation Ivory Coast and their first opponents Equatorial Guinea, whose best finish in an AFCON was fourth when they hosted the tournament in 2015.

Nigeria vs Equatorial Guinea (5pm)

Despite having to contend with a strong home nation in their group and less than impressive lead-in form, the Super Eagles are widely tipped to advance from the group for a 15th consecutive time (excluding AFCONs in which they did not participate).

Their coach Jose Peseiro is looking to end the nation’s decade-long title drought but won’t be taking any opposition for granted, particularly as Equatorial Guinea went further than Nigeria in the previous edition, despite the Nigerians sweeping their group.

Perhaps Peseiro is feeling the humility of having dropped World Cup qualification points to both Zimbabwe (1-1) and Lesotho (1-1) as overwhelming favourites last November, while also losing 2-0 to Guinea in their final pre-tournament friendly.

Equatorial Guinea are making just their fourth appearance at the 34th staging of the AFCON, but have made the quarter-finals or better in all three prior. They can perhaps feel aggrieved at having been drawn alongside both Nigeria and Ivory Coast, but former Equatoguinean player and current head coach Juan Michá appears to have his side in strong condition.

Players to watch: There’ll be great expectations of CAF Footballer of the Year Victor Osimhen, who was a key cog of Napoli’s Serie A success last season and scored a hat-trick in his last non-friendly appearance for Nigeria. Equatoguinean forward Emilio Nsue scored in each of their November 2023 World Cup qualification games and comes into this tournament with goals in his last three club matches.

Egypt vs Mozambique (8pm)

The most successful side in the history of the AFCON begin their quest to deliver yet more silverware as seven-time champions Egypt face outsiders Mozambique in Group B action.

Last winning the tournament back in 2010, the Pharaohs’ will be eyeing up seamless progression from the group before trying to take an eighth tournament crown to surprise the bookmakers, who before the competition only had Rui Vitória’s side as the fifth favourites to succeed in the Ivory Coast.

After losing just once across their last 14 internationals (won 12, drawn one) - a run which included a 2-1 friendly victory over European heavyweights Belgium - it’s difficult to see why Egypt are so unfavoured, especially as they’re captained by current Premier League Golden Boot leader Mo Salah.

They’ve also won each of their last six competitive outings, five of which have come alongside a clean sheet which should see them enter this competition in high spirits.

It’s likely that Mozambique will find the going tough here as a result, especially as they’re ranked 78 places worse than their opponents in this AFCON opener by FIFA. Their 111th spot in the worldwide rankings does represent their best such return since 2020 at least, a rise that was helped by their improving form throughout 2023.

Players to watch: With 56 goals to his name, Salah sits in second spot on Egypt’s all-time scoring list, a tally helped by the fact that he scored six goals across nine internationals in 2023. As for Mozambique, they’ll be hoping that 40-year-old record cap holder Domingues Pelembé can aid them here as he’s provided two assists across his last five internationals.

Ghana vs Cape Verde (11pm)

Two years on from the ignominy of a humiliating group stage exit, Ghana step back onto the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) stage with a point to prove.

The Black Stars have won just one of their last seven matches at the tournament proper (drawn four, lost two), leaving boss Chris Hughton with the job of re-establishing them as a force on this continent after they reached at least the semi-finals of six straight AFCONs between 2008 and 2017.

Pre-tournament form has been far from perfect though, with Ghana scoring just one goal across a five-match sequence that’s yielded only a single victory (one draw, three losses).

With one of the pre-tournament favourites in Egypt also sat alongside them in Group B, they can hardly afford an early slip-up in this campaign as they go in search of a first AFCON success since all the way back in 1982.

Relative minnows Cape Verde stand in their way on matchday one, with Bubista’s side competing in back-to-back AFCONs for just the second time in their history. The Blue Sharks have acquainted themselves well with the big stage, however, progressing from the group stage on two of their previous three appearances.

Players to watch: All-time leading Ghana appearance maker André Ayew could become just the third player to appear in eight editions of AFCON if he’s selected here, while a goal would make him the only player to net in seven different tournaments.

-Additional information from Flashscore.