The 27th edition of the biggest tournament in Africa kicks off in Angola on Friday with worldwide interest eager to follow some of the biggest stars in world football. Long gone are the days when players would be discovered at such a tournament, the globalisation of the most popular sport on the globe means most football fans are familiar with the likes of Didier Drogba, Samuel Etoâ€™o and Michael Essien but it marks an incredible year for the continent just six months before South Africa host the World Cup.
The clear favourites for the competition are the Ivory Coast (12/5 to win the tournament, 10/11 to reach the final). For many, 2010 could see Drogba, the Toure brothers, Didier Zokora and co. establish themselves as not only champions of Africa but also the team to break the stranglehold on the European and South American domination of the World Cup. Such has been Drogbaâ€™s form (7/2 to be top goalscorer) for Chelsea this campaign that it is difficult to see who can stop the Flying Elephants especially as he will be supported up front by Gervinho, currently the top goal scorer in Franceâ€™s Ligue 1.
Despite their undoubted strength in midfield and attack, the Ivory Coastâ€™s defence could be vulnerable and they lack a decent keeper to match their gifted players elsewhere in the side. There is also a nagging doubt that despite their quality, this group of players have yet to win anything and despite being clear favourites in 2008 were dumped out of the competition by Egypt in the semi-final.
The Flying Elephants have also been handed a tough looking group with Ghana (6/1 to win the tournament, 2/1 to reach the final) and Emmanuel Adebayorâ€™s (11/1 to be top goalscorer) Togo (79/1 to win the tournament). Undoubtedly the group match between Ivory Coast and the Black Stars on January 15 looks like the must-see game of the opening stages. Michael Essien will be the driving force for Ghana in this competition but question marks surround a side shorn of Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah, and after failing to win the tournament on home soil, a semi-final berth in Angola looks their furthest position.
Egypt (9/1 to win the tournament, 7/2 to reach the final), winners of the last two tournaments are also weaker than they have been for some time after failing to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa in a dramatic play-off defeat to Algeria in Sudan. Shorn of playmaker and talisman Mohamed Abu Treika, much will depend on Mohamed Zidan, a player not fazed by almost having the same name as the former Real Madrid Galactico. Despite an injection of youth in the Pharaohs squad (watch out for Hazem Emam and Mohamed Nagi â€œGeddoâ€) there is a feeling that coach Hassan Shehataâ€™s time may have passed and the defeat to Algeria has left some heavy psychological blows.
The smart money, with Ivory Coast such overwhelming favourites, should be spent on two of the continents giants, Cameroon (11/2 to win the tournament, 15/8 to reach the final) and Nigeria (9/1 to win the tournament, 100/30 to reach the final), who produced some incredible late form to secure their places at the World Cup.
Captain Samuel Etoâ€™o (4/1 to be top goalscorer) is obviously a major factor for the Indomitable Lions but just as important could be Espanyol keeper Carlos Kameni, likely to be the best goalkeeper in Angola. Paul Le Guen has resurrected both his managerial career and Cameroonâ€™s fortunes since he took over in September. Alexandre Songâ€™s performances for Arsenal so far this campaign suggest he could be a major star over the next month and a strong spine is completed by Nicolas Nâ€™Koulou, a central defender of Monaco who looks set to make a name for himself.
The Super Eagles also left it absurdly late to reach the World Cup on their own continent and they should be buoyed by their late dramatic win against Kenya. Mikel Jon Obi can be expected to be combative in midfield and with Obafemi Martins threatening up front we should get an indication of how good this Nigerian side is when they face Egypt in Group C on the third day of the tournament.
It is difficult to see past the five teams above but this is an open tournament if the Ivory Coast slip up, especially if the lesser known players are ambitious to impress the watching scouts. Hosts Angola should make it out of Group A (4/9 to qualify out of the group & 9/4 to win the group) but are relying on former Manchester United forward Manuchoâ€™s presence up front.
Mali (11/4 to win the Group A) boast one of the most underrated African strikers in Europe in Fredi Kanoute (15/2 to be top goalscorer) as well as Barcelonaâ€™s Seydou Keita (who has kept out Yaya Toure at the Nou Camp this season), Algeria will be on a high from securing a World Cup berth from great rivals Egypt and Togo will be hoping Emmanuel Adebayor returns to his early season form at Eastlands.
Without using too many stereotypes, we can expect plenty of pace and power, defensive mistakes as well as fantastic goals from distance in this tournament. An exciting tournament awaits and it would be no surprise if a new Drogba, Essien or Etoâ€™o emerged to take the tournament by storm.
Top goal scorer: Samuel Etoâ€™o (4/1) (Cameroon) but Gervinho (Ivory Coast) may be a good bet.
Overall winners: Ivory Coast (12/5)