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2019 Africa Cup of Nations ultimate preview: Salah, Mane & Co. ready to put on a show

The sense in recent years has been that, whenever African football takes a step forward, it quickly takes two back. The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations was a watchable, enjoyable tournament that was settled in thrilling style and showcased the best of what the continent has to offer. In 2018, that reputation took a hit as none of Africa's five representatives made it out of the World Cup's group stage.

The prevailing cliche is that without any truly world-class side, standards in Africa don't come close to those in Europe or South America but this time around, the script is flipped. With Egypt hosting, the field has been expanded to 24 teams and there are arguably more familiar faces in this edition than in any of the previous four.

The decision to move the Africa Cup of Nations to the summer (June 21-July 19), with no competing club interests and no other major international tournament running alongside it from the quarterfinal stage onward, means there will be a captive global audience of casual football fans and more than enough big-name players capable of attracting them.

It is a huge opportunity for Africa to put on a show.

ESPN FC's Nick Ames runs through the biggest storylines of the tournament and what to watch for in Egypt over the next month.

Jump to: Key storyline | Players to watch | Must-see matches | Team-by-team guide


Key storyline: Star power has never been stronger in 2019

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane just completed a stunning club season at Liverpool, winning the Champions League together and hauling their team to within one point of the Premier League title. In the process they finished joint-top scorers in the world's least forgiving league. Now they top the bill at this summer's tournament, carrying the hopes of the two leading contenders.

Salah, who holds something akin to deity status in Egypt, will be expected to guide the home nation to glory, while Mane, who missed a decisive penalty in the last eight of the 2017 competition, surely holds the key to success for second-favourites Senegal. Both players are at the peak of their careers and may have no better chance of victory. If Egypt and Senegal win their respective groups, the pair would be on course to meet in a potentially classic semifinal.

- AFCON Power Rankings: Who can challenge Egypt?
- The best players in Egypt this summer
- When is the Africa Cup of Nations?
- Full Africa Cup of Nations fixtures schedule

Of course, Egypt's home advantage, impressive depth and history as hosts, winning the past two times they've staged the event in 1986 and 2006, means they're hotly tipped to do it again. The pressure will be intense and the excitement almost overwhelming, but Javier Aguirre's squad is packed with experience and, with Salah likely to be in far better shape than during last summer's ill-fated World Cup campaign, looks equipped to handle to the weight of expectation again.

Beyond the hosts are Senegal. It seems impossible that a country producing such a steady flow of talent has never won an Africa Cup of Nations. Yet there is a reason why many feel this could, at long last, be Senegal's moment. Mane is their star but his supporting cast is enviable, including the exciting forwards Keita Balde and Ismaila Sarr.

Morocco last won this competition 43 years ago but look well placed to contend. Hakim Ziyech will pull the strings but is far from the only creative force, while defenders Medhi Benatia and Romain Saiss will add experience behind. Managed by two-time champion Herve Renard, Morocco should be well suited to the northern conditions and they arrive on the back of a decent 12-month span in which they've beaten Cameroon and Tunisia as well as drawing, in thrilling fashion, with Spain at the World Cup.

The Africa Nations Cup has max star power this summer as several Premier League giants do battle for continental supremacy in Egypt.

Adding to the excitement is the sheer scope of the competition. There has never been an Africa Cup of Nations this vast. Its expansion to 24 teams mirrors that of the European Championship and means a number of new faces are joining the party. Mauritania, Madagascar and Burundi are the three first-timers and each will bring its own unique stories over the next few weeks.


Players to watch beyond Mohamed Salah

Riyad Mahrez: Much of his first season at Manchester City was played under the radar but he delivered when it mattered, most notably when he scored a brilliant goal on the day they clinched the title at Brighton. Can he do the same for his country? Algeria are a continental powerhouse but have not won this competition since 1990, failing to even reach the last four since. They have a wealth of attacking talent, and a tournament in north Africa, the first since Egypt last hosted in 2006, could be to their liking both in terms of climate and travelling support. If he sparkles this summer, perhaps Algeria will finally get the shot at glory they crave.

Hakim Ziyech: The 2018-19 season elevated the Ajax forward to football's elite tier. A series of marvelous performances helped the Dutch champions to the brink of the Champions League final and it's already confirmed that he will be sold this summer, with a price tag of €30 million or better quoted to suitors in England, Spain or Germany. Morocco are among the five or six most realistic contenders, and as they showed at the World Cup in Russia, are capable of some devastating attacking football. It's safe to say Ziyech will dictate all their best moves.

Ziyech is coming off a superb season for Dutch champions Ajax and will be hoping to lead Morocco all the way in Egypt this summer.

Nicolas Pepe: The Lille forward arrives in Egypt on the back of a phenomenal season in Ligue 1. Pepe scored 22 times in 38 appearances for the French runners-up and weighed in with 11 assists, too; it's no surprise that the 24-year-old is being tipped for great things, with Manchester United and Arsenal chasing his signature. Before any big summer move, he has a chance to put Ivory Coast back on Africa's summit. They've struggled in the post-Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure era, but an exciting younger generation looks ready to step up.


Must-see matches

June 22, Nigeria vs. Burundi: Nigeria, the three-time champions and continental giants, didn't qualify for the past two Africa Cup of Nations and so their return to the fray, with a multitalented young team that is rightly among the favourites, is something to savour. The match in Alexandria will be Burundi's debut in the competition and they've got enough big wins to be taken seriously.

June 27, Senegal vs. Algeria: The first genuine heavyweight clash of the tournament takes place on matchday 2 of the group stage, when the pair of front-runners size each other up and, perhaps, lay down an early marker to their rivals. The result matters, too: whoever wins Group C would probably see hosts and favourites Egypt in its half of the knockout draw, with a possible meeting in the semifinals. Weirdly, finishing second in the group could prove to be a better bet.

Moussa Konate and Sadio Mane are key for Senegal's AFCON chances. If they defeat Algeria in their second group game, the sky's the limit.

June 28, Morocco vs. Ivory Coast: In 2017, on a wild night in the Gabonese town of Oyem, Morocco's Rachid Alioui scored a stunning winner to knock out Ivory Coast, then-defending champions, in the group stage. Ten months later, Morocco inflicted an even heavier blow by winning 2-0 in Abidjan and beating the Elephants to a World Cup place. What will happen this time around? It should also be one of the most watchable games in this phase: with the likes of Ziyech, Pepe and Wilfried Zaha on show, expect an open, attack-minded encounter.


Team-by-team guide

ALGERIA, Group C

Group games: vs. Kenya (6/23, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Senegal (6/27, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Tanzania (7/1, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 70

Why they'll go far: When they are at full tilt, it's hard to imagine a more creative trio than Mahrez, Sofiane Feghouli and Yacine Brahimi at this tournament. The three have 150 caps between them and are all just under 30. Algeria have exciting youngsters coming through too, with Empoli midfielder Ismael Bennacer earning rave reviews after a fine season and Youcef Atal, the attacking right-back from Nice, turning heads. The pair are among a number of fresher faces in the midfield and defense; if Djamel Belmadi gets the blend right, Algeria could be formidable.

Why they won't: Algeria have flattered to deceive in the Cup of Nations ever since 1990, the year of their sole triumph, and will need a huge improvement on their group stage exit of 2017 if they are to have hopes of making it two. In qualifying they were unconvincing, too. The sense still persists that the leap needed to become continental champions is too far for them.

Player to watch: Riyad Mahrez

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Rais M'Bolhi; Yousef Atal, Ramy Bensebaini, Mehdi Tahrat, Mohamed Fares; Mehdi Abeid, Ismael Bennacer; Riyad Mahrez, Sofiane Feghouli, Yacine Brahimi; Baghdad Bounedjah.

ANGOLA, Group E

Group games: vs. South Africa (6/24, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Mauritania (6/29, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Mali (7/2, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 123

Why they'll go far: Angola arrive as outsiders. Successive quarterfinal finishes around the turn of the decade are distant memories now but there are signs the "Palancas Negras" are on the way back. They have a sprinkling of players from big clubs, like Lazio defender Bastos and Sporting Lisbon's Bruno Gaspar, and a healthy representation from the Portuguese league who showed they could score goals in qualifying. Veteran striker Mateus, who plays for Boavista and represented Angola at the 2006 World Cup, was on target four times and Rio Ave front man Gelson only finished one short.

Why they won't: Away defeats in qualifying suggested Angola are far more accomplished on home soil. While they're far from the only side to whom this applies, a decent attack risks being let down by a defence of more questionable quality. The midfield in particular lacks somebody who can take control of a game and a lopsided-looking team risks being exposed when it arrives in Egypt. A repeat of those last-eight appearances would be some surprise.

Player to watch: Gelson Dala

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Landu Mavanga; Bruno Gaspar, Bastos, Jonathan Buatu, Paizo; Show, Herenilson; Mateus, Fredy Kulembe, Djalma; Gelson Dala

BENIN, Group F

Group games: vs. Ghana (6/25, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Guinea-Bissau (6/29, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Cameroon (7/2, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 91

Why they'll go far: Anyone tempted to underestimate Benin might recall that, last October, they defeated Algeria 1-0 in Cotonou. They qualified ahead of Togo and Gambia and this first Cup of Nations appearance since 2010 comes after years of turmoil that included a brief suspension by FIFA in May 2016. Their coach, Michel Dussuyer, began his second stint with the "Squirrels" last year and there are few coaches as experienced on this stage. That will do them no harm and nor will the presence of the evergreen Stephane Sessegnon, who still pulls the strings in midfield, and Huddersfield striker Steve Mounie.

Why they won't: This is not a squad of household names and a third of them play for modest sides in France; they rely on players like Sessi D'Almeida, most recently of relegated English League Two side Yeovil Town, to play above themselves. That may be too tall a task and much will rest on the shoulders of Sessegnon and Mounie to pull them through tough situations. The sense is that they will need rather more.

Player to watch: Stephane Sessegnon

Best XI (5-4-1): Fabien Farnolle; Seidou Baraze, Junior Salomon, Khaled Adenon, Olivier Verdon, Emmanuel Imorou; David Djigla, Jordan Adeoti, Stephane Sessegnon, Jodel Dossou; Steve Mounie

BURUNDI, Group B

Group games: vs. Nigeria (6/22, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Madagascar (6/27, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Guinea (6/30, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 136

Why they'll go far: Burundi may have been surprise qualifiers but it was the culmination of many years' hard work and they will arrive in Egypt determined to take their opponents on. They have a reputation in Africa for playing slick, intricately-structured possession football and will cause problems when on the front foot. Saido Berahino may have endured a torrid time at club level but forms a potent attack with fellow striker Fiston Abdul Razak, who scored six times in qualifying.

Why they won't: They might play good football but Burundi aren't known for their physical strength. Opponents will feel they can be dominated and Nigeria will be keen to set a tone by overpowering them in their opener, perhaps exposing a weakness at left-back for starters. A lack of major tournament experience may also come into play; do they really have it in them to put a bigger fish to the sword?

Player to watch: Saido Berahino

Best XI (4-1-4-1): Jonathan Nahimana; Karim Nizigiyimana, Frederic Nsabiyumva, Omar Ngandu, Christophe Nduwarugira; Gael Bigirimana; Mohamed Amissi, Pierre Kwizera, Shasiri Nahimana, Fiston Abdul Razak; Saido Berahino

Patrick Kluivert, left, and Clarence Seedorf were soccer legends during their playing days. Now they're trying to restore Cameroon to the continent's elite tier.

CAMEROON, Group F

Group games: vs. Guinea-Bissau (6/25, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Ghana (6/29, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Benin (7/2, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 54

Why they'll go far: If anyone doubts Cameroon's capabilities, they only need to look back to 2017 when an unheralded and unremarkable side found an extra set of gears to achieve a brilliant victory in Gabon. They will need to again this summer but are presided over by a pair of born winners -- Clarence Seedorf is the head coach, assisted by Patrick Kluivert -- and possess a core of players who now know how to come through the sharp end of the tournament. The breakout star last time, Christian Bassogog, is still around while goalkeeper Andre Onana has had a superb season with Ajax. The champions cannot quite be discounted.

Why they won't: Seedorf's management career is yet to ignite despite a promising early spell at AC Milan and it's a big ask for him to grapple with a Cameroon squad that rarely does things simply. One example of their problems is the continued absence of Joel Matip, the Champions League-winning Liverpool defender, who has not featured since 2015 due to a "bad experience" with a previous coaching regime. Matip would arguably be the Indomitable Lions' best player at the moment and they simply do not have the depth to let a talent like his go.

Player to watch: Christian Bassogog

Best XI (4-3-3): Andre Onana; Collins Fai, Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, Banana Yaya, Ambroise Oyongo; Arnaud Djoum, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Georges Mandjeck; Christian Bassogog, Clinton N'Jie, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting

DR CONGO, Group A

Group games: vs. Uganda (6/22, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Egypt (6/26, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Zimbabwe (6/30, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 46

Why they'll go far: DR Congo have been "nearly men" in recent years, finishing third in 2015 and coming agonisingly close to reaching the 2018 World Cup. They are brilliantly managed by Florent Ibenge and a battle-hardened group offers few surprises now. Cedric Bakambu, Africa's most expensive player, has been prolific in four different leagues and has a one-in-two record for his country; Yannick Bolasie and Britt Assombalonga are both over major injuries and, further back, the likes of Chancel Mbemba and Youssouf Mulumbu have been around the block. They have the mix of experience and quality to have make an impact in the knockout rounds.

Why they won't: There is a feeling that this generation has had its time. Mulumbu, Mbemba, Bolasie and Tresor Mputu are among those whose peak years have passed and Dieumerci Mbokani, now 33 but so important to past successes, didn't even make the cut this time. Ibenge has work to do if the Leopards are to shake off a slightly stale feel.

Player to watch: Cedric Bakambu

Best XI (4-2-4): Anthony Mossi; Issama Mpeko, Christian Luyindama, Marcel Tisserand, Arthur Masuaku; Youssouf Mulumbu, Chancel Mbemba; Paul-Jose M'Poku, Tresor Mputu, Yannick Bolasie, Cedric Bakambu

Mohamed Salah has enjoyed a renaissance at Liverpool but now comes time to deliver with Egypt in their first hosting duties since 2006.

EGYPT, Group A

Group games: vs. Zimbabwe (6/21, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Congo DR (6/26, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Uganda (6/30, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 57

Why they'll go far: Their formidable record on home soil in this competition has not occurred by accident. It's been almost five years since Egypt lost to an African side on their own turf and the advantage should not be underestimated, particularly with Salah on top of his game and a talented supporting cast like Trezeguet and Marwan Mohsen ready to step in. Egypt are battle-hardened too, retaining the core of the side that reached the final in 2017 and then qualified for the World Cup. They will be tough to break down and as long as things are clicking in attack, it's hard to see them falling flat.

Why they won't: The pressure to deliver will be immense and there is a risk it could prove stifling. While Salah is almost in a class of his own, Egypt are otherwise short of top-quality performers even though this is a highly competent and experienced squad. Under their previous manager, Hector Cuper, they were largely a reactive side that relied upon swift counters and the incisiveness of their star man. Javier Aguirre will be expected to make them a more fluent, forward-thinking outfit but the concern is they may not have the guile to break down organised opponents. They have rock-solid foundations but some of their rivals certainly possess more weapons.

Player to watch: Mohamed Salah

Best XI (4-5-1): Ahmed El Shenawy; Ahmed Elmohamady, Ahmed Hegazy, Baher El Mohamady, Ayman Ashraf; Mohamed Elneny, Tarek Hamed; Trezeguet, Abdallah El Said, Mohamed Salah; Ahmed Hassan Kouka

GHANA, Group F

Group games: vs. Benin (6/25, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Cameroon (6/29, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Guinea-Bissau (7/2, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 49

Why they'll go far: It must be their time, right? In the last five AFCON editions, they've finished runners-up twice and finished fourth the other three times. The pressure to win a first title since 1982 is immense but Kwesi Appiah's side has a fighting chance in Egypt. Ghana are a battle-hardened side with one of the most experienced, recognisable spines in the tournament. While the Ayew brothers, Christian Atsu, Thomas Partey and Mubarak Wakaso seem to have been around forever, all are still in their 20s and competing in top leagues. Their group game vs. Cameroon should provide a solid indication of their prospects for the knockouts.

Why they won't: Ghana qualified serenely enough but a wobble in Kenya, where they lost 1-0, will have alerted their rivals. There is clearly work still to be done and it is a concern that, put bluntly, the present generation have failed to get an AFCON success over the line in the past. Asamoah Gyan's bizarre inclusion, which was decreed a day after he had announced his international retirement, hardly points to a stable setup and political interference is invariably a warning sign.

Player to watch: Jordan Ayew

Best XI (4-4-2): Richard Ofori; Baba Rahman, Jonathan Mensah, John Boye, Lumor Agbenyenu; Andre Ayew, Thomas Partey, Mubarak Wakaso, Christian Atsu; Jordan Ayew, Asamoah Gyan

GUINEA, Group B

Group games: vs. Madagascar (6/22, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Nigeria (6/26, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Burundi (6/30, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 68

Why they'll go far: Guinea are generally considered a second-tier side in Africa, as four quarterfinal appearances in their past five AFCON appearances suggests, but they do have a top-class ace up their sleeve. If Naby Keita has recovered fully from the adductor injury that ruled him out of Liverpool's Champions League final win, he has the ability to drive them to better things, flanked by teammates who largely play for good European clubs. Paul Put's side will look well set to push for a first semifinal appearance.

Why they won't: So much hinges on Keita's fitness and even if he makes it for the start of the tournament, it is hard to see he will be 100 percent ready. A wise strategy would be not to rush him for a group they should pass through, hoping that the extra couple of weeks leave him in peak condition. Guinea do not have an obvious replacement and they also lack a top-class striker. They have fallen flat before when expectations have been high and it is hard to shake the feeling that, like some of its predecessors, this side has a "quarterfinals" feel to it again.

Player to watch: Naby Keita

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Aly Keita; Baissama Sankoh, Ernest Seka, Simon Falette, Issiaga Sylla; Amadou Diawara, Mady Camara; Mohamed Yattara, Naby Keita, Francois Kamano; Sory Kaba

GUINEA-BISSAU, Group F

Group games: vs. Cameroon (6/25, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Benin (6/29, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Ghana (7/2, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 118

Why they'll go far: At their AFCON debut two years ago, Guinea-Bissau won hearts with their enterprising play even though they didn't get beyond the group stage. They seem well placed to build on that this time around: the Portugal-based striker Frederic Mendy scored three vital goals in qualifying and the trio behind him include Piqueti, who scored against Cameroon in the 2017 edition, the captain Zezinho and the ex-Liverpool winger Toni Silva. Baciro Conde is still in charge and should feel optimistic of pipping Benin to third place in the group.

Why they won't: Guinea-Bissau remain one of the competition's minnows even if they've improved since last time. Their defence looked vulnerable against decidedly moderate opposition in qualifying and a favourable path does not appear likely: should they finish third, they would almost certainly play one of Senegal, Algeria, Morocco and Ivory Coast in the last 16 and it's hard to see the quality needed to depose one of the favourites.

Player to watch: Frederic Mendy

Best XI (4-5-1): Jonas Mendes; Nadjack, Juary Soares, Mamadou Kane, Mama Balde; Sori Mane, Pele; Toni Silva, Zezinho Djafal, Piqueti Djassi; Frederic Mendy

Nicolas Pepe is the next star to emerge from the Ivory Coast's talent pool. Can the Elephants finally win another Africa Nations Cup?

IVORY COAST, Group D

Group games: vs. South Africa (6/24, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Morocco (6/28, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Namibia (7/1, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 65

Why they'll go far: They aren't the force of old but nobody can ignore the talent. Any three of Nicolas Pepe, Wilfried Zaha, Max Gradel, Jonathan Kodjia and Maxwel Cornet would form a rapid, fearsome attack. In midfield, Franck Kessie has stood out for AC Milan this season while the sensational 21-year-old from Toulouse, Ibrahim Sangare, who has been linked with a big-money move to Barcelona, is pushing hard to partner him. A new Ivorian generation has come through and on paper, they've got a more comfortable-looking path to the last eight than most. This could be their year.

Why they won't: Eric Bailly's absence due to injury means the defence lacks quality, even though Serge Aurier's presence at right-back is helpful. Centre-back might prove a critically weak position for them and it puts pressure on those further forward -- particularly on Kodjia, whose goalscoring record for the Elephants is good but who does not quite look a top-bracket centre-forward. It might end up being a tournament too early for a dynamic but unpolished team.

Player to watch: Wilfried Zaha

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Sylvain Gbohouo; Serge Aurier, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Wilfried Kanon, Check Comara; Franck Kessie, Ibrahim Sangare; Nicolas Pepe, Jean Michael Seri, Wilfried Zaha; Jonathan Kodjia

KENYA, Group C

Group games: vs. Algeria (6/23, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Tanzania (6/27, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Senegal (7/1, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 108

Why they'll go far: The Harambee Stars' first qualification since 2004 was predicated on a solid defence. They only conceded once in four games against Ghana and Ethiopia, defeating the latter at home last September. Victor Wanyama, the Spurs midfielder, is their biggest name and an imposing screen in front of the back line; it should mean Kenya are able to take bigger-name opponents to the wire. They could frustrate at least one of Algeria and Senegal, the latter struggling in particular against tight defences, and coach Sebastien Migne may find he has the right formula in place for tournament football.

Why they won't: It's optimistic to think Kenya have the firepower to record enough wins in Egypt. While their defensive organisation is strong, the likes of Mahrez and Mane should be able to pick a way through. They will hope to keep matches cagey; it is hard to see them turning games around after going behind and it makes their task tough on one of the stronger groups. Migne has said he will look to play "a different game" in Egypt, requiring forwards who can create space, but the time to come up with a formula to defeat the best has been limited.

Player to watch: Michael Olunga

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Patrick Matasi; Philemon Otieno, Musa Mohammed, Joash Onyango, Aboud Omar; Victor Wanyama, Dennis Odhiambo; Johanna Omolo, Francis Kahata, Eric Ouma; Michael Olunga

MADAGASCAR, Group B

Group games: vs. Guinea (6/22, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Burundi (6/27, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Nigeria (6/30, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 107

Why they'll go far: They were the first team to qualify for this AFCON, some achievement given they had never reached the finals before. They did it in enterprising style, too, their French coach Nicolas Dupuis creating a side whose experience is heavily weighted towards its attack. Faneva Andriatsima, 35, will lead the line and, like several of his teammates, has a successful career in France behind him. The Egypt-based Paulin Voavy is a diminutive threat from wide and scored three times in a qualifying campaign that started with a preliminary round knockout tie against Sao Tome. They have momentum could take them as far as the second round.

Why they won't: Madagascar conceded eight goals during qualifying and will find it tough to keep opponents out. They have tried to bolster their back line with French-born players like Romain Metanire and the experienced Lyon man Jeremy Morel, but it is not a unit with much experience of playing together. That means there is a heavy onus on their front line to click. The suspicion is that, for all their attacking intent, Madagascar will eventually be picked off by all three of their group opponents.

Player to watch: Faneva Ima Andriatsima

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Ibrahima Dabo; Roman Metanire, Thomas Fontaine, Pascal Razakanantenaina, Jerome Mombris; Ibrahim Amada, Marco Ilaimaharitra; Lalaina Nomenjanahary, Ando Rakotoloharimalala, Paulin Voavy; Faneva Ima Andriatsima

Moussa Marega has been prolific for Porto. Now it's time to apply his scoring talents to Mali's bid for a deep Africa Nations Cup run.

MALI, Group E

Group games: vs. Mauritania (6/24, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Tunisia (10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Angola (7/2, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 65

Why they'll go far: Mali often sit on the fringes of the favourites although successive group stage exits may have tempered some optimism. What might pique it, though, is the sheer amount of talent available this year. The Eagles have been outstanding at age-group levels for some time and are reaping the rewards. RB Leipzig's Amadou Haidara and his former Red Bull Salzburg teammate, Diadie Samassekou, are brilliant midfield talents while the Southampton-bound winger Moussa Djenepo stands a chance of reaching the very top. Up front they have a fine striker in Porto's Moussa Marega while the left-back Youssouf Kone has had a superb campaign for Lille. Sekou Koita, a star of this month's Under-20 World Cup, could be a dazzling inclusion having made the final cut. Mali could have the verve to revive their AFCON fortunes.

Why they won't: The absence of Yves Bissouma, the Brighton playmaker, with a shoulder injury is a big blow; they don't really have another attacking midfielder like him and it may pose problems when tough opponents need breaking down. Mali's "upset" tag looks appropriate this time around but none of their outfield squad are over 28 and they probably lack the depth of experience required to make a full-on title tilt.

Player to watch: Amadou Haidara

Best XI (4-1-4-1): Djigui Diarra; Hamari Traore, Molla Wague, Mamadou Fofana, Youssouf Kone; Diadie Samassekou; Abdoulay Diaby, Amadou Haidara, Lassana Coulibaly, Moussa Djenepo; Moussa Marega

MAURITANIA, Group E

Group games: vs. Mali (6/24, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Angola (6/29, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Tunisia (7/2, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 122

Why they'll go far: What a surprise package Corentin Martins' side proved to be in qualifying, reaching their first AFCON and knocking out Burkina Faso, who finished third in 2017, altogether. The desert state has never featured on the football map but their emergence is no aberration. They are an example of careful planning, their meticulous use of development funds seeing them cited as a case study by FIFA. They are compact and well-drilled; three-quarters of the squad play abroad and is bolstered by a number of French-born players. Threats include Adama Ba, the exciting Turkey-based forward. A place in the last 16 does not look unrealistic.

Why they won't: Mauritania are first-timers at this level and despite their rapid progress, they will almost certainly hit a ceiling this summer. They will need to prove they can win matches outside of their own country, too. They lack a cutting edge when they are on top, too; when the better sides come calling that pattern looks likely to repeat itself and the second round seems their absolute limit for now.

Player to watch: Khassa Camara

Best XI (4-3-1-2): Brahim Souleymane; Moustapha Diaw, Sally Sarr, Bakary N'Diaye, Aly Abeid; Khassa Camara, Moctar Sidi El Hacen, Sileye Gueye; Alassane Diop; Adama Ba, Bessam

MOROCCO, Group D

Group games: vs. Namibia (6/23, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Ivory Coast (6/28, 1 p.m. ET), vs. South Africa (7/1, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 45

Why they'll go far: "Everything is possible" according to manager Henri Renard, and given his AFCON record, it is hard to disagree. Morocco feel stronger for their World Cup experience and, if they can add a touch more steel to the bewitching attacking football of which they are capable, they should be hard to live with. Ziyech might be the tournament's most gifted playmaker and their attack is fronted by the impressive 21-year-old from Levante, Youssef En-Nesyri, who scored against Spain last summer. Few sides will be able to match their speed and flair.

Why they won't: A lot may rest on En-Nesyri's shoulders to make sure their slick football has some cutting edge. Morocco weren't exactly free-scoring in qualifying and may lack a figure who can consistently settle tight games at this level. They have a potent blend of youth and experience but the balance looks delicate and Morocco could well find themselves exposed by the better sides.

Player to watch: Hakim Ziyech

Best XI (3-4-3): Yassine Bounou; Medhi Benatia, Manuel Da Costa, Romain Saiss; Noussair Mazraoui, Mbark Boussoufa, Karim El Ahmadi, Achraf Hakimi; Nordin Amrabat, Youssef En-Nesyri, Hakim Ziyech

NAMIBIA, Group D

Group games: vs. Morocco (6/23, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. South Africa (6/28, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Ivory Coast (7/1, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 113

Why they'll go far: Namibia are rank outsiders for this competition and could hardly have been placed in a tougher group. Expectations will be low and that may mean they play a bit more openly. The squad is full of useful foreign-based players like Ryan Nyambe, the impressive Blackburn Rovers defender, and the prolific Carl-Zeiss Jena forward Manfred Starke, who returns after a long absence. If they start quickly, they could battle a vulnerable South Africa for third place and a spot in the last-16.

Why they won't: A first appearance in the finals since 2008 is a welcome achievement but Namibia came through the weakest qualifying group and it's hard to see them laying a glove on the big guns. The lack of top-level experience in the squad is clear; the margins are unlikely to work in their favour at this level.

Player to watch: Manfred Starke

Best XI (5-3-1-1): Maximilian Mbaeva; Larry Hoaseb, Denzil Haoseb, Ryan Nyambe, Ananias Gebhardt, Riaan Hanamub; Willy Stephanus, Petrus Shitembi, Ronald Ketijere; Manfred Starke; Benson Shilongo

Kelechi Iheanacho has struggled to stay in form for Leicester City this season but he fits nicely into Nigeria's attack.

NIGERIA, Group B

Group games: vs. Burundi (6/22, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Guinea (6/26, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Madagascar (6/30, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 42

Why they'll go far: It's impossible to discount Nigeria in this competition. They have been away for a while but return on the back of a respectable World Cup showing, boasting a formidable well of talent and top-level knowhow that should ease them to a last-four place at least. A friendly win over Egypt, albeit with Mohamed Salah staying at home, in March bodes well. The likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa and Alex Iwobi may have had varying fortunes in the Premier League but all should be able to influence an AFCON campaign; Henry Onyekuru has had a fine season at Galatasaray while Wilfred Ndidi is an outstanding all-round midfielder these days. The Super Eagles look strong and solid, with a hefty punch at the sharp end.

Why they won't: John Obi Mikel is back after a self-enforced absence and while his experience could make all the difference in midfield, parachuting him straight in would be a gamble. There are issues in defence too, particularly given the goalkeeper Francis Uzoho's propensity to make errors, and there the age-old problem of the link between midfield and attack. Nigeria lack a playmaker and it makes them over-reliant on finding their front men in space.

Player to watch: Ahmed Musa

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Francis Uzoho; Leon Balogun, William Troost-Ekong, Kenneth Omeruo, Jamilu Collins; Wilfred Ndidi, John Obi Mikel; Henry Onyekuru, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa; Odion Ighalo

SENEGAL, Group C

Group games: vs. Tanzania (6/23, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Algeria (6/27, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Kenya (7/1, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 23

Why they'll go far: It's not hard to see why Senegal are Africa's highest-ranked side. The Teranga Lions should have reached the last 16 at Russia 2018 and should go much further than that this summer. A remorseless defence is marshalled by Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the world's most in-demand centre-backs; it is bolstered by an experienced midfield and, ahead of that, an attack that can work magic. Mane, their captain, needs no introduction but unlike title rivals Egypt, there's a depth of other players who can share the goals around. There is no more finely-tuned unit in all of Africa; is this, at last, their year?

Why they won't: Senegal have just never been able to get over the line in the Africa Nations Cup. That could become a factor as their tournament progresses or, as happened against Cameroon last time out, if they are taken to penalties. Aliou Cisse will need to manage his team's mentality as the prize nears. There is also, as in Nigeria's case, the long-standing issue of a workmanlike midfield and lack of genuine guile. With just one of the lock-picking options available to group rivals Nigeria, Senegal would look hands-down the continent's most complete team; as things stand, the fear is that opponents will be able to sit deep and frustrate them.

Player to watch: Sadio Mane

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Edouard Mendy; Lamine Gassama, Salif Sane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Youssouf Sabaly; Idrissa Gana Gueye, Cheikhou Kouyate; Ismaila Sarr, Sadio Mane, Keita Balde; M'Baye Niang

SOUTH AFRICA, Group D

Group games: vs. Ivory Coast (6/24, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Namibia (6/28, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Morocco (7/1, 12 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 73

Why they'll go far: Gone are the days when South Africa would be considered among the favourites, but their name still carries weight. They have a lively front line, too, and should be able to cause their group rivals headaches. Percy Tau was named the best player in Belgium's second tier in 2018-19 while Lebo Mothiba has enjoyed a good campaign in Ligue 1 with Strasbourg. A strong domestic league provides most of their players and the Englishman Stuart Baxter, coaching them for a second spell, has moulded a solid defensive unit. On a good day they can perform against anyone; string together two or three good games and Bafana Bafana may cause a surprise.

Why they won't: It's hard to see them finishing above either Morocco or Ivory Coast even if they run both of them close. They are a side that lacks standout quality across the park and may come to curse the fact they were not handed an easier group. A quarterfinal spot would be a more than acceptable finish but it would be some achievement to get that far at all.

Player to watch: Percy Tau

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Darren Keet; Thamsanqa Mkhize, Buhle Mkhwanazi, Thulani Hlatshwayo, Sifiso Hlanti; Dean Furman, Kamohelo Mokotjo; Themba Zwane, Thulani Serero, Percy Tau; Lebo Mothiba

TANZANIA, Group C

Group games: vs. Senegal (6/23, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Kenya (6/27, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Algeria (7/1, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 131

Why they'll go far: The former Nigeria star Emmanuel Amunike, who has managed Tanzania since last August, has some fine attacking talent to pick from in the Taifa Stars' first finals appearance since 1980. Mbwana Samatta, the brilliant Genk striker who scored 23 goals in the Belgian league last season, leads the line and a good showing in Egypt could finally convince one of the many Premier League clubs who are circling. Having a centre-forward in this kind of form could help Tanzania spring a surprise.

Why they won't: Tanzania were arguably fortunate to be drawn in a weak qualifying group and there is little sign that Tanzania can defeat well-schooled rivals in a tournament environment. They may find that, in comparison to a well-drilled Kenya, a largely locally-based defence and midfield possess little of the steel and knowhow required to make a splash in Egypt.

Player to watch: Mbwana Samatta

Best XI (4-4-2): Aishi Manula; Erasto Nyoni, Aggrey Morris, Kelvin Yondani, Gadiel Michael; John Bocco, Mudathir Yahya, Himid Mao, Faridi Mussa; Mbwana Samatta, Simon Msuva

TUNISIA, Group E

Group games: vs. Angola (6/24, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Mali (6/28, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Mauritania (7/2, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 28

Why they'll go far: New manager Alain Giresse has inherited a side whose World Cup performances showed that they have shed the cynical image of old. They can call upon the mercurial talent of Youssef Msakni, who missed Russia 2018, once again and should have enough movement between the lines to bamboozle the best defences. Wahbi Khazri's gifts are well known and Naim Sliti, the Dijon schemer, was an excellent performer with four goals in qualifying. If they can create chances consistently, a repeat of their 2017 quarterfinal finish could at least be on the cards.

Why they won't: Giresse's side do not have a brilliant path to the latter stages, with Morocco or Ivory Coast their likely last-16 opponents if they win the group and Cameroon or Ghana in line if Mali nudge them into second. As well as last November's loss to Egypt, they've been beaten in friendlies against Morocco and Algeria in the last seven months; while they have plenty of talent they look, on balance, the weakest of a strong north African lineup this year and certainly lack a high-class defender. They may well be the first of the region's teams to pack their bags this summer.

Player to watch: Naim Sliti

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Farouk Ben Mustapha; Karim Aouadhi, Dylan Bronn, Yassine Meriah, Oussama Haddadi; Ellyes Skhiri, Ferjani Sassi; Anice Badri, Naim Sliti, Youssef Msakni; Firas Chaouat

UGANDA, Group A

Group games: vs. Congo DR (6/22, 10:30 a.m. ET), vs. Zimbabwe (6/26, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Egypt (6/30, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: =79

Why they'll go far: Uganda reached their first AFCON for 39 years in 2017 and although they did not pass through the group stage, they looked comfortable at this level. They are one of the continent's most improved sides, formidably organised by their French coach Sebastien Desabre and brighter in the final third than they were two years ago, too. They can hold their own with the best and assuming they come through Group A, will be a particularly awkward opponent to face later on.

Why they won't: A lack of quality in attacking areas will probably limit their progress. Their solidity should always give them a chance, and the likes of Farouk Miya and Emmanuel Okwi will cause defences trouble, but more practiced opponents should eventually edge them out.

Player to watch: Farouk Miya

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Denis Onyango; Nicholas Wadada, Timothy Awany, Murushid Juuko, Godfrey Walusimbi; Khalid Aucho, Taddeo Lwanga; Emmanuel Okwi, Farouk Miya, Joseph Ochaya; Patrick Kaddu

ZIMBABWE, Group A

Group games: vs. Egypt (6/21, 4 p.m. ET), vs. Uganda (6/26, 1 p.m. ET), vs. Congo DR (6/30, 3 p.m. ET)

FIFA rank: 110

Why they'll go far: Zimbabwe won friends in 2017 despite going out at the group stage. This time they can go at least one step further. Sunday Chidzambwa's side qualified in outstanding style and will not be fazed about facing the competition in Egypt. Khama Billiat, their outstanding attacking midfielder, is capable of wreaking havoc alongside the Belgium-based Knowledge Musona, who scored a superb goal against Tunisia two years ago and was on target five times in the qualifiers. Those two can trouble any defence.

Why they won't: There will be concerns about a defence that has little top-level experience (one possible starter, Alec Mudimu, plays in the Welsh league) and, like several other less-fancied sides in the tournament, the Warriors may need to hope their attack takes every chance in front of goal. The worry is that despite their obvious improvement, a lack of goals will be their downfall. Playing the former in front of a ferocious Cairo crowd on the opening day may put them on the back foot straightaway.

Player to watch: Khama Billiat

Best XI (4-2-3-1): George Chigova; Tendayi Darikwa, Alec Mudimu, Teenage Hadebe, Ronald Pfumbidzai; Danny Phiri, Marvelous Nakamba; Evans Rusike, Khama Billiat, Knowledge Musona; Tino Kadewere

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