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Jan 19, 2012

African Nations Cup: Group C

Group C: Gabon | Niger | Tunisia | Morocco

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

GROUP C

GABON

Coach: Gernot Rohr
Captain: Daniel Cousin
Nickname: Les Panthères (The Panthers)
Nations Cup record: Quarter-finals 1996; qualified five times

Gabon produced arguably the biggest upset of the 2010 tournament when they beat Cameroon 1-0 in their opening game, but it ultimately ended in disappointment as defeat to Zambia in the final group match condemned the Panthers to a third-place group stage finish. The co-hosts' lack of competitive matches has, as usual, made preparation difficult for this year's finals, with defeats against Ghana and Brazil and victories over fellow minnows Niger and Equatorial Guinea not really revealing a great deal about their prospects ahead of a really tough group. "I think the most difficult group in the forthcoming is Group C," Gabon coach Gernot Rohr said in December. "We inherited this terrible group...together they make it a group of death for us all."

Hopes are nonetheless high for the co-hosts, particularly on the back of the Under-23 team's shock qualification for the Olympics - Gabon triumphing against the odds at the qualifying tournament with a 2-1 victory over Morocco in December's final. Rohr has called up some of the stars of the Under-23 side for the African Nations Cup, with Olympic captain Cedric Boussoughou joined by Remy Ebanega, Henri Ndong and Andre Biyogo Poko, who was snapped up by Bordeaux last August on the recommendation of Rohr - a former Girondins player and manager.

One to watch: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Once a scoring sensation for AC Milan's youth teams, Aubameyang didn't quite manage to make the first-team grade at the San Siro but is currently impressing at Saint-Etienne, after making his loan move from the Rossoneri permanent in December. He is in decent form going into the tournament, with two goals and three assists from his past five Ligue 1 games, and the 22-year-old's poaching instinct will be vital if Gabon are to advance.

Trivia: Gabon's worst ever defeat came against Group C opponents Morocco, a 6-0 thrashing in Rabat in 2006.

ESPNsoccernet prediction: Home support will be willing them on, but another third-place group stage finish seems the most likely outcome.

MOROCCO

Coach: Eric Gerets
Captain: Houssine Kharja
Nickname: Atlas Lions
Nations Cup record: Winners 1976; qualified 12 times.

The appointment of former Marseille, PSV and Galatasaray manager Eric Gerets was a real coup for Morocco but he struggled to guide them through qualifying, only securing a spot at the finals at the expense of Central African Republic and Algeria thanks to a 3-1 victory over Tanzania in the final game. However, home and away defeats against their North African rivals helped endear him to the Atlas Lions fans and the 4-0 victory over the Algerians in Marrakech last June was arguably the team's best performance in recent years.

Once possessing a reputation as Africa's strongest nation, Morocco's star has faded over the past decade, with a run to the 2004 Nations Cup final the only achievement of note. Turning a group of skilful individuals - the likes of Adel Taarabt, Mbark Boussoufa and Oissama Assaidi are unquestionably precocious - into a cohesive unit has been Gerets' biggest challenge, while there is still a huge reliance on Marouane Chamakh for goals. It will be interesting to see if the Atlas Lions hero's confidence has been adversely affected by his lack of playing time at Arsenal, and whether Gerets can indeed get his players to play as an effective team.

One to watch: Younes Belhanda. French-born attacking midfielder Belhanda has played a major role in Montpellier's surprise challenge at the top of the Ligue 1 this season, contributing five goals and three assists. Belhanda has touch and vision in abundance, and offers excellent delivery from set-pieces and a real goal threat as well. He is most comfortable pulling the strings in a central role but can also play in a wider role as part of a three-pronged attack, a formation usually favoured by Morocco.

Trivia: Morocco became the first African nation to qualify for the second round of the World Cup when they won a group containing England, Poland and Portugal in 1986 before losing 1-0 to eventual finalists West Germany.

ESPNsoccernet prediction: They may have had an unconvincing qualifying campaign, but there is enough natural talent to ensure a quarter-final appearance.

NIGER

Coach: Harouna Doula Gabde
Captain: Idrissa Laouali
Nickname: Mena
Nations Cup record: Never previously qualified

The undisputed minnows of the 2012 finals, Niger were placed a lowly 165th in the FIFA World Rankings just 22 months ago, making them the ninth-worst country in Africa at the time. Nigerien football development has been previously hampered by a lack of support from the drought-ridden country's government, but qualification for the tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon was incredibly achieved thanks to coach Harouna Doula Gabde creating a disciplined team with an unshakable team spirit.

Three home victories were responsible for getting Niger to the finals, with Sierra Leone, 2010 World Cup hosts South Africa and, most surprisingly, record seven-time Nations Cup winners Egypt put to the sword at the Stade Général Seyni Kountché in the capital Niamey. Had South Africa not been confused about the head-to-head tie-breaking rule in their final game, Niger may not have found themselves at the tournament, but Bafana Bafana's loss was well and truly Mena's gain. Nigeriens will likely be concerned about their chances of succeeding far away from the team's fervent home support, and most prevalent is a hope that there will just be no embarrassments in their Group C games.

One to watch: Ouwo Moussa Maazou. Coming to the fore at Belgian side Lokeren in 2008, Maazou's fruitful goal return saw him earn a big-money transfer to CSKA Moscow, where he initially impressed before falling out of favour. He has since had loan spells at Monaco and Bordeaux, and is currently plying his trade back in Belgium with Zulte Waregem. He is a powerful forward, whose footwork and movement is a nuisance for any defender he comes up against, and Maazou also has an eye for an important goal - having scored winners in qualifying against South Africa and Egypt.

Trivia: Niger won their qualification group despite scoring just one goal more than they managed during 2010 qualifying, when they finished bottom after suffering five defeats.

ESPNsoccernet prediction: Avoiding humiliations will be the No. 1 priority, but a group stage exit is inescapable.

TUNISIA

Coach: Sami Trabelsi
Captain: Karim Haggui
Nickname: Les Aigles de Carthage (Carthage Eagles)
Nations Cup record: Winners 2004; qualified 15 times.

Last year was an excellent year for Tunisian football. It began with the Carthage Eagles winning the African Nations Championship - a competition that only allows countries to field players who play in their national leagues - while Esperance went on to fly the Tunisian flag on the continental and global stage by winning the African Champions League and subsequently competing in December's Club World Cup. Unsurprisingly, there are six Esperance players included in the final squad, and coach Sami Trabelsi has placed plenty of faith in Tunisian-based players.

Qualification was not a straightforward affair and the Carthage Eagles advanced behind unfancied Botswana, with Trabelsi appointed in the wake of a humiliating 1-0 home defeat to the Zebras in the opening game. In Auxerre striker Issam Jemaa they had the top scorer in qualifying and he will be among the favourites for the Nations Cup Golden Boot after his six strikes helped Tunisia to the finals. Sudan were comfortably beaten 3-0 in one warm-up game, but a 2-0 loss to ten-man Ivory Coast suggests they have work to do if they want to mix-it with the big boys.

One to watch: Oussama Darragi. At 6' 3'', he is not the most natural-looking creative midfielder, but Darragi is an effortless player whose direct approach helped both Esperance and Tunisia claim silverware last year. He averages almost a goal every three games for his club, but it is his ability to find a team-mate with a key pass that could prove most crucial at the Nations Cup.

Trivia: Tunisia manager Sami Trabelsi played for the Carthage Eagles at the 1998 World Cup.

ESPNsoccernet prediction: Should win the battle of the North Africans and have a great chance to make it to the semi-finals.

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