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Jan 19, 2012

African Nations Cup: Group D

Group B: Ghana | Botswana | Mali | Guinea

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D |

GHANA

Coach: Goran Stevanovic
Captain: John Mensah
Nickname: Black Stars
Nations Cup record: Winners 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982; qualified 18 times

The pain of last-gasp defeat to Egypt in the 2010 final was tempered by the Black Stars' sensational run to the World Cup quarter-finals later that year, but winning the 2012 African Nations Cup and ending the three-decade wait for a major trophy is the minimum requirement for coach Goran Stevanovic this time around. Ghana sidestepped the threat of an emerging Sudan side in qualifying, a 0-0 home draw against them the only points dropped as Stevanovic's side reached the finals unbeaten and with just one goal conceded in six games.

Back in 2010, it was a Ghana team packed with youth that enjoyed such a memorable year, but those players have further matured both physically and mentally since then, and Ghana can now boast a powerful side, teeming with technique and experience of some of Europe's biggest leagues. The Black Stars were also handed a major boost a week before the tournament with the return to fitness of World Cup star Asamoah Gyan, the iconic Al Ain frontman nursed back to health by the healing hands of renowned Serbian alternative therapist Mariana Kovacevic and her horse-placenta inspired treatment.

One to watch: Andre Ayew: Being the son of Ghana's greatest ever player, Abedi Pele, has never seemed to bother Ayew one iota. One of the stars of the Under-20 team's 2009 World Cup triumph, the Marseille attacking midfielder has made a seamless transition from raw talent to polished jewel and is the creative lynchpin for both club and country. Michael Essien's absence over the past couple of years has allowed Ayew to flourish and he will take centre stage again in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Trivia: Ghana share a number of African Nations Cup records with Egypt including the most tournaments hosted (4), most appearances in the final (8) and most successful coach (Charles Kumi Gyamfi and Hassan Shehata - 3 titles).

ESPNsoccernet prediction: Third in 2008, second in 2010, the Black Stars will make the step up and win the crown in 2012.

BOTSWANA

Coach: Stanley Tshosane
Captain: Mompathi Thuma
Nickname: The Zebras
Nations Cup record: Never previously qualified.

Botswana's journey to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea has been both incredible and wholly unexpected. The Zebras have never come close before and in their nine previous qualification campaigns had lost four times in preliminary rounds and come bottom of their qualifying group on four occasions - with a second-from-bottom finish in 2008 qualifying their best previous effort. But, led by homegrown coach Mompathi Thuma, Botswana upset the odds to make it, mainly thanks to shock 1-0 home and away wins over North African giants and 2004 Nations Cup winners Tunisia along the way - prolific striker Jerome Ramatlhakwane netting the winner in both games.

The Zebras have passion in abundance, and as well as the goals of Ramatlhakwane have relied heavily on the midfield brilliance of inspirational veteran Dipsy Selolwane, who has starred in the South African Premier Soccer League in recent years and also has experience of playing in the MLS. It was disappointing to see their players go on strike ahead of the tournament over a bonuses argument with the Botswana FA, but hopefully they can refocus and cause some shocks at the tournament.

One to watch: Jerome Ramatlhakwane. The second-highest scorer in African Nations Cup qualifying with five goals (four of them match-winners), Ramatlhakwane's form was all the more remarkable considering he went 18 months without playing club football because of a legal wrangle between his former club Santos and the club he wanted to join, Vasco de Gama (both of South Africa). His coach describes him as "strong, fast and skilful with a sharp mind and an eye for goal," adding that "his club problems have not affected his form for the national team and he is the arrowhead of the Zebras".

Trivia: Botswana is the eighth most sparsely populated country in the world with its population of nearly 2 million people living across around 580,000 km² of land.

ESPNsoccernet prediction: Any points achieved would represent a magnificent achievement, but the Zebras will need a miracle to advance. Group stage exit.

MALI

Coach: Alain Giresse
Captain: Seyfdou Keita
Nickname: Les Aigles (The Eagles)
Nations Cup record: Runners-up 1972; qualified seven times

Both Mali and their manager suffered group stage heartache at the last African Nations Cup, with Alain Giresse just missing out on taking Gabon through to a surprise quarter-final berth. Indeed, the Eagles cried foul as they beat Malawi 3-1 but were eliminated as Angola and Algeria played out a dour 0-0 draw, the result both nations needed to ensure progress. Mali's disappointing campaign - the highlight of which was one of the most remarkable comebacks in football history as they fought from 4-0 down with ten minutes to go to draw 4-4 with Angola - prompted star players Momo Sissoko, Fredi Kanoute and Seydou Keita to retire and Giresse was left to pick up the pieces.

"The team was in disarray and hopeless when I came in," Giresse said recently. "But today, I'm very happy because we have a better mentality now." Qualifying for the 2012 finals was an arduous task and a young Mali side laboured through despite having one of the easiest groups. There were away defeats to Zimbabwe and the Cape Verde Islands but the latter were eventually edged out on goal difference and the return of Barcelona midfielder Keita from the international wilderness halfway through the campaign was a major boost. Mali finished fourth at both the 2002 and 2004 African Nations Cup and Giresse will be determined to guide them at least a step further than their past two tournaments, which have both brought group stage elimination.

One to watch: Cheick Diabate. Bordeaux snapped up Diabate in 2006 from Centre Salif Keita, the club that also produced Diarra and (ironically) Keita, and while the powerful striker's rise has hardly been meteoric, he has worked hard and was rewarded with a new four-year contract with Les Girondins last year. At 6' 4'' he is dominant in aerial duels but also excels when running at defenders; he has not scored since October for his club, but Diabate netted three in Mali's final two qualifiers.

Trivia: Former Mali striker Frederic Kanoute is the only European-born player to win the African Footballer of the Year award, picking up the accolade back in 2007.

ESPNsoccernet prediction: Mali really scraped into the finals and bereft of experience - barring Seydou Keita - they will fall short of making the quarter-finals once again.

GUINEA

Coach: Michel Dussuyer
Captain: Kamil Zayatte
Nickname: Syli National (National Elephants)
Nations Cup record: Runners-up 1976; qualified ten times.

After three successive quarter-final appearances in 2004, 2006 and 2008, Guinea were brought crashing down to earth when finishing bottom of their group in qualifying for 2010 with one win and five losses. But experienced coach Michel Dussuyer - who took the National Elephants to the last eight in 2002 and led Benin in the 2010 tournament - has steadied the ship on his return.

Qualification was most notable for their elimination of two-time champions Nigeria with pretty much the last kick of the campaign; at 2-1 down away to the Super Eagles, Guinea would have still gone through as best group runners-up but Ibrahima Traore scored a last-minute equaliser to ensure the visitors qualified outright. Dussuyer has created an excellent blend of youth and experience, with seasoned veterans like Bobo Balde and Pascal Feindouno sitting alongside exciting youngsters such as Bastia striker Sadio Diallo and teenage Rayo Vallecano forward Alhassane Bangoura. The absence of Genoa midfielder Kevin Constant - who asked to be excused from playing in the tournament - will be a blow but Guinea still have plenty to offer.

One to watch: Ismael Bangoura. The Al Nasr frontman has been out of favour with his club this term despite being their top scorer last season, but will nonetheless be relied on as a focal point of Guinea's attack. He is pacy, skilful, possesses excellent composure in front of goal and is capable of playing on the wing, in the hole, or as a leading man.

Trivia: Guinea had a very even distribution of goalscorers in qualifying for the 2012 finals, with their 13 goals spread across ten players - the most of any nation competing, just ahead of Ivory Coast and Ghana (9).

ESPNsoccernet prediction: While they may not be able to topple Ghana, a quarter-final berth should await.

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