The Bookies’ Favourites

Of the teams who made it to January’s tournament, Ivory Coast and Ghana are again among the favourites, and yet again if both win their first stage groups the draw means that they won’t meet until the final.

Ivory Coast are clear favourites, and according to FIFA the highest ranked team in the tournament. A team of well-known players who need no introduction to football fans, they qualified comfortably, beating the highly rated Senegalese both home and away. However, the draw has placed them in a group with Africa’s second highest ranked team, Algeria. The winner of the match between these two on 30th January should have a relatively straightforward run through to the final. The loser would probably have to get past either last year’s champions Zambia or a strong Nigerian side, and much-fancied Ghana, to reach the final. So 30th January looks like a key deciding match, but Group D is further complicated by the inclusion of Algeria’s neighbours Tunisia; derby games are always hard to predict, and both are strong teams. On balance, because of the North African derby game and Ivory Coast’s vast experience, I tip them to win this group, but if Algeria can get a result on 30th January Ivory Coast could be in trouble…

Ghana are second favourites, with odds of around 6/1. Although they should avoid Ivory Coast until the final if they win their group, the draw has presented the Black Stars with mixed fortunes. On the one hand, they are in a group with outsiders DR Congo and Niger, so qualification from the group should be straightforward. On the other hand, the other place in the group is taken by Mali, who finished third last year, beating Ghana in the third place playoff. If Ghana fail to win their group – and their fate is likely to be decided in the match against Mali on January 24th – they will probably face a quarter final against hosts South Africa, and then a potential semi-final against favourites Ivory Coast. Although still a strong team, many of Ghana’s stars of a few years ago are ageing, so for me they look certain to qualify from their group, but I don’t see them as tournament winners this time.

Perhaps surprise third favourites are Nigeria. Although the Super Eagles have a long history in international tournaments, they failed to qualify for this tournament last year, and only qualified this time by beating Rwanda (who are ranked 124th in the world!) 2-0 on aggregate, and then beating Liberia (ranked 98th). Prior to that, their competitive record isn’t too hot either – in 2012 they have lost to Egypt and Peru, beaten Namibia (who are ranked 108) 1-0, and drawn with Malawi (ranked 96). FIFA rate Nigeria as Africa’s 13th strongest side, so I am a little surprised at the bookies rating them as third favourites. Perhaps it is because in Group C they face last year’s surprise champions Zambia, unfancied Burkina Faso and lowly Ethiopia, so it is fair to expect them to qualify from the group stage. Beyond that, they would face Ivory Coast, Algeria or possibly Tunisia, all of whom would fancy their chances against Nigeria. So for me, the bookies have got this one wrong; I don’t fancy the Super Eagles to fly beyond the quarter finals.

Fourth favourites are hosts South Africa. Their team is hardly littered with international superstars, and as hosts they have had few competitive matches in the build-up to the tournament, just a string of friendlies. Most recently the Bafana Bafana played reigning champions Zambia, and came out 1-0 losers. On a more positive note, they of course have a huge home advantage; the South African crowds will be colourful, passionate and noisy in their support. They also find themselves in one of the weaker groups. Along with South Africa (ranked 76 in the world by FIFA) in Group A are Morocco (75), Angola (83) and tournament newcomers Cape Verde (ranked 51 after some impressive results in qualifying, but rated as complete outsiders by the bookies). It’s a tough group to call, with Cape Verde being such an unknown force and the other three being so close in their rankings; anything could happen. The home crowd could therefore be the deciding factor, and South Africa may scrape through the group stage. Beyond that, they would probably face either Ghana or Mali in the next round, so personally I can’t see how they justify their status as 4th favourites.

The Strong Second Tier

Last year’s champions Zambia are 5th favourites at 9/1, but then last year you could have got 40/1 on them before the tournament! They are clearly a stronger team than anyone gave them credit for a year ago, but their results since have been mixed; a 0-0 draw with Angola, defeats to Sudan and Malawi, but victories over Ghana, South Africa and Uganda. My opinion is that last year was a one-off, and that the Copper Bullets have neither the star names nor the consistency to win the title again. They are drawn in Group C with Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, and are the highest ranked team in that group, according to FIFA. But qualification from the group will only result in a quarter final against one of the three strong Group D teams, and although they managed to overcome Ivory Coast in last year’s final, I doubt they can manage it twice, so my prediction is that they’ll get through the group stage before crashing out.

Assuming Zambia do qualify, their possible opponents in the next round include Ivory Coast, Algeria and Tunisia. Tunisia, ranked 46 in the world and priced at 11/1, are seasoned campaigners, having qualified for the finals every time since 1994; they won the event in 2004. They may not have many star names to call on, but there seems to be a good blend of youth and experience in their squad, and recent results have largely been positive. Ivory Coast will be clear favourites to qualify top of Group D, and second place is likely to go to the winner of the match between Tunisia and Algeria on 22nd January; qualifying in second place would leave Tunisia with the probability of facing reigning champions Zambia or Nigeria in the next round, which although tough would be far from impossible. So the key factor for Tunisia’s fate is the match against Algeria…

As Africa’s second highest ranked team, Algeria have been dealt a cruel blow by being put in the same group as Ivory Coast and Tunisia. Compared to Ivory Coast, they have fewer “star names”, with most of their team playing their club football at home. However, they have some experience, with the average age of the team being mid-twenties. First matches in major tournaments can be nervous affairs, and Algeria’s is against their neighbours Tunisia on 22nd January. Algeria have in the past been superb in some “high pressure matches”, and completely lost the plot in others, so it will be interesting to see how they cope with their opening game. It’s a tough draw for Algeria, but not an impossible one, so don’t write them off just because they’ve ended up in the same group as Ivory Coast. The bookies rate them at about 11/1 (exactly the same as Tunisia, so the bookies obviously see it as a close call between these two sides), and if they get off to a strong start those odds will shorten quickly. They have the potential to beat anyone – the question is whether or not they have the nerve to do it.

In a similar situation, Africa’s third ranked team Mali have been drawn in the same group as fourth ranked (and second favourites) Ghana. So again, much depends on the meeting between the two on January 24th. Mali have the ability to win this game on a good day – they beat Ghana in last year’s third place playoff, and have recently beaten Algeria in a World Cup Qualifier, so they are a strong team who concede few goals in open play. I would back them to beat the other two teams in Group B – Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo – without too much trouble, and so qualify from their group regardless of their result against Ghana. Their likely quarter final opponents would be either Morocco or South Africa, and although the latter have a huge home support advantage, both are ranked well below Mali, so personally I think 12/1 (their current price) are interesting odds for such a strong team with a favourable draw.

Morocco – currently rated by the bookies’ at 16/1 – are placed in Group A with South Africa, Angola and Cape Verde. Ranked 72nd in the World according to FIFA, their past record in this tournament has been somewhat “hit or miss” – they won the event in 1976, came second in 2004 and third in 1980, but more often than not they either fail to qualify, or go straight out in the first round. They have chalked up some impressive results in the last 18 months (against the likes of Iraq and Ivory Coast), and they have players with talent and experience. Much will depend on how much South Africa’s home support can influence events, and the match between Morocco and Angola could well be decisive; the winner is likely to qualify from the group stage, but with the prospect of facing either Ghana or Mali in the next round, I suspect we won’t be seeing a Moroccan team in the final.

The “Might Get Lucky” Mid-Tier

Angola have qualified for the last four tournament finals, although they have never got beyond the quarter finals. They find themselves in Group A (the hardest group to predict), which comprises South Africa (FIFA ranked 84), Angola (79), Morocco (72) and Cape Verde (63). South Africa have home advantage. Cape Verde are the highest ranked team but have never before qualified for the finals, so this is new territory for them. My money would be on South Africa and Morocco qualifying from the group, and the bookies seem to agree, but anything is possible in African football, and this group could throw up some surprises; I wouldn’t bet against Angola (or even Cape Verde for that matter) scraping through.

Burkina Faso – ranked 89 in the world by FIFA and viewed by the bookies as relative outsiders at 33/1 – are in Group C. The most likely qualifiers from this group are Zambia and Nigeria, but Burkina Faso are no mugs. Only twice since 1996 have they failed to qualify, so they have experience. It’s fair to expect them to get a win against Ethiopia, so if they can earn a draw against one of the two more fancied teams, they may get through, but it’s unlikely, which is reflected in their odds.

The Outsiders

Togo are in Group D. With a more favourable draw they might have fancied their chances of getting to the quarter finals, but they face Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Algeria, all of whom are potential group – if not tournament – winners. So sadly I can’t see Togo getting beyond the group stage. The bookies rate them at 40/1, which with a decent draw would be good odds. With the draw Togo got, I’d say 40/1 is being kind!

Cape Verde could be this year’s surprise package. They certainly surprised many by qualifying, and have gradually crept up FIFA’s rankings to now sit at number 63. Recently they have recorded some impressive results, knocking out Cameroon to qualify, and only losing 1-0 in a recent friendly against Ghana. They find themselves in Group A, which is the hardest to predict, so it is far from impossible for Cape Verde – rated as outsiders at 50/1 – to again surprise everyone and qualify from their group. However, the chances are that they would then face Ghana or Mali in the next round, both of whom have strong, experienced teams. It’s great to see Cape Verde qualifying for the tournament, but I can’t see them winning it.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, the third lowest ranked qualifier (rated 99 in the world by FIFA and 60/1 by the bookies). They had a straightforward draw in qualifying, beating the Seychelles and Equatorial Guinea, neither of whom have ever qualified for a major tournament finals. They find themselves in Group B, with highly rated Ghana and Mali, and outsiders Niger. On paper this should be the easiest group to predict, and Ghana and Mali will qualify, and Niger and DR Congo will be on early flights home.

Which brings us neatly to fellow-outsiders Niger, ranked 107 in the world and 100/1 by the bookies. In their favour, they did qualify for last year’s finals, although they crashed out in the first round, so they do have some experience at least. In qualification Niger knocked out Guinea who are ranked significantly higher than themselves, but I can’t see them getting a result against either Ghana or Mali, and therefore cannot see them getting beyond the group stage again.

And finally Ethiopia, making their first appearance at the finals since 1982. The Ethiopians struggled through the qualification process, winning both their ties on the away goals rule. They are placed in Group C with Zambia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, all of whom have more experience. Having said that, I don’t see anyone from Group C as tournament winners, so anything could happen, but I think the bookies have got it about right with Ethiopia, rating them as complete outsiders at 200/1. Great to see them back, but I fear it will be a flying visit!

So there you have it. Sixteen teams, thirty two matches, and only one eventual winner. Most of the money is going on Ivory Coast, Ghana and South Africa, but don’t be surprised if an outsider – Mali or Algeria – makes it through to the semi-finals at least. But the one certainty in African football is that it will always surprise you!