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Battle for Nations Cup begins

Africa Cup of Nations hosts Equatorial Guinea will be pressed to get off to a winning start when they face Congo Brazzaville in the tournament’s opening game in Group A on Saturday.

The curtain-raiser to the competition in the country’s largest city Bata will be followed later in the day by a meeting of the group’s other two sides, Burkina Faso and Gabon, who clash again after doing battle in qualifying.

Equatorial Guinea rescued this year’s tournament by agreeing to act as hosts after the late withdrawal of Morocco due to Ebola fears, and their fans will now expect Nzalang Nacional to match the exploits of three years ago, when they beat all the odds to reach the last eight of the same competition on home soil.

Nevertheless, they were initially disqualified from the competition for fielding an ineligible player, and their build-up has been somewhat chaotic, with Argentine Esteban Becker only named as the country’s new coach last week in place of Andoni Goikoetxea, whose contract expired recently and was not renewed.

“We want to surprise a few people. We will take things one game at a time and try to do well for the people of the country who are all behind us,” Becker said in an interview with Spanish Radio Marca.

“We have a new, young squad of players who play in the lower leagues in Spain. I called up hungry young players and I hope they do well.”

Survivors from the 2012 campaign include Javier Balboa, Sipo and Juvenal Edjogo, and they will again be expected to inspire the oil-rich country far beyond most expectations.

CATASTROPHIC

Meanwhile, Congo Brazzaville’s veteran coach Claude Le Roy has put the host nation under extra pressure after he openly dismissed as “catastrophic” his team’s hotel in Bata, where the tournament final will be staged on Sunday, February 8.

The Red Devils have returned to the top table of African football in style after a long absence from a tournament they won in 1972.

They upstaged defending champions Nigeria to reach Equatorial Guinea 2015 and with the class and goals of Spain-based forward Thievy Bifouma and the towering Fode Dore, they will not be a team to be taken lightly.

Later, Burkina Faso square up against Gabon after both teams first clashed in qualifying last year.

In October, Gabon beat Burkina Faso 2-0 in Libreville courtesy of a brace by skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, before they forced the west Africans to a 1-1 draw in Ouagadougou four days later.

Controversial Belgian coach Paul Put, who guided Burkina Faso on an historic run to the Nations Cup final in 2013 in South Africa, is still in charge of the Stallions.

Jonathan Pitriopa, who was named the best player of the 2013 competition, will be complemented upfront by the unmistakable Aristide Bance as well as the Traore brothers, Alain and Bertrand.

They remain solid at the back with Lyon’s Bakary Kone, who has won over 40 caps for his country, a pillar of power in the heart of the defence.

Past winners:

1957: Egypt
1959: Egypt
1962: Ethiopia
1963: Ghana
1965: Ghana
1968: Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo)
1970: Sudan
1972: Congo Brazzaville
1974: Zaire
1976: Morocco
1978: Ghana
1980: Nigeria
1982: Ghana
1984: Cameroon
1986: Egypt
1988: Cameroon
1990: Algeria
1992: Ivory Coast
1994: Nigeria
1996: South Africa
1998: Egypt
2000: Cameroon
2002: Cameroon
2004: Tunisia
2006: Egypt
2008: Egypt
2010: Egypt
2012: Zambia
2013: Nigeria