Elephantine pressure on Nations Cup favourites

Ivory Coast
In the absence of Egypt - who have won the last three Nations Cup - as well as Cameroon and Nigeria, Ivory Coast are favourites for the tournament

Group B has drawn tournament favourites Ivory Coast against Burkina Faso, 2010 Nations Cup hosts Angola and Sudan, one of three teams to contest the first Nations Cup in 1957.

Until the last round of matches, the group will be based in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.

IVORY COAST

The Ivorians arrive at the Nations Cup as favourites for the event - but it's a tag they have carried badly in the past few years.

For every Nations Cup since they returned to the competition in 2006, football writers have praised the quality of a squad comprising Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers, Didier Zokora and Emmanuel Eboue etc. - one that has been good enough to reach the first two World Cups in the country's history.

Yet this talented generation has gone steadily backwards at the Nations Cup: runners-up in 2006 (albeit losing on penalties), semi-finalists in 2008 and quarter-finalists in Angola last time around - so fuelling the fires of those critics who have questioned their ability to gel into a united side.

In the absence of seven-time champions Egypt, who have won the last three Nations Cups (twice knocking out the Ivorians), Cameroon, who boast four African titles, and two-time winners Nigeria, the pressure is on Ivory Coast more than ever - but can they handle it?

One key area where the team may appear different is in central midfield where it will be fascinating, and perhaps decisive, to see if Yaya Toure maintains his transformation from a holding player into a box-to-box goalscoring midfielder.

If he carries the drive - and continues the marauding runs - shown since joining Manchester City six months after the last Nations Cup, then the Elephants could prove a different prospect in 2012.

Either way, the goalscoring burden on Drogba's shoulders should be less - with Gervinho a more mature player since the last Nation Cup, while a sign of the Ivorians' strength is that highly-rated striker Seydou Doumbia has to settle for a place on the bench.

The Elephants' sole Nations Cup triumph came twenty years ago under a local man (Yeo Martial) and the superstitious will point to the fact that an Ivorian, Francois Zahoui, is leading the team out at the tournament for the first time since.

SUDAN

Sudan coach Mohamed 'Mazda' Abdallah believes his side are better prepared for the 2012 finals than they were for their Nations Cup return four years ago - and fans of the Nile Crocodiles, the second weakest team at the finals for Fifa, will hope he is right.

The fact that the Sudanese had returned to the tournament for the first time since 1976 seemed to be the sole positive from Ghana 2008, where the team failed to score while conceding nine goals in three comprehensive defeats.

Although some stalwarts remain, such as goalkeeper El Moez Mahjoub and captain Haitham Mustafa, record scorer Haytham Tambal has been axed after failing to play for the last seven months because of injury - and Mazda will bring a newlook team to the finals.

Sudan coach Mohamed 'Mazda' Abdallah
Mazda hopes one of his squad will earn a foreign move during the finals

He experimented during recent tournaments in Tanzania (Cecafa Cup), Morocco (LG Cup) and Qatar (2011 Arab Games), and knows his players well since Sudan's squad is the only one at the finals to be entirely composed of local players - 19 of whom come from just two teams (Al Hilal and Al Merreikh).

Nonetheless, the coach is fully aware of the negatives this situation brings and has been working hard to try to bring the squad's fitness levels up to those that Sudan's group rivals - many of whose players are based in Europe - will boast in Malabo.

The Sudanese were the last team to qualify for the 2012 finals - doing so as one of the best runners-up - and have a big task if they are to make an impression at the finals.

They have not won a match at their last three Nations Cups - with their last victory coming in the final itself in 1970 - but that game was on home soil in Khartoum, where Sudan have been traditionally strong over the years.

Often poor on their travels, the Sudanese won twice and drew in Ghana this time around - the first time they have avoided defeat away from home in a qualifying campaign this century - so allowing Mazda to dream of a quarter-final placing in 2012.

BURKINA FASO

Burkina Faso's Nations Cup place was only confirmed on 10 January, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected Namibia's claim that the Stallions should be expelled after fielding an ineligible player in qualifying.

Namibia believed that Cameroon-born Herve Zengue failed to fulfil Fifa's criteria to play for an adopted nation but despite the CAS ruling, the left back has not made the Burkinabe squad.

Nonetheless, it remains to be seen what impact the uncertainty over Burkina's participation at the finals will have on the side in Malabo.

Coach Paulo Duarte was in charge of the Stallions at Angola 2010, where the team failed to score - meaning Burkina Faso have now registered four blanks in their last five Nations Cup matches.

Fans of Burkina Faso's Stallions
Supporters of Burkina Faso's Stallions almost missed out on the 2012 finals in a row over the eligibility of Herve Zengue in qualifying

However, the problem goes deeper than that since the Stallions have never managed to win a Nations Cup match on foreign soil - with all their victories coming when hosting the tournament in 1998.

So fans will be hoping for big performances from tricky Rennes winger Jonathan Pitroipa as well as attacking midfielder Alain Traore, who has already bagged a very impressive seven league goals from 17 games for Auxerre this season.

Traore's younger brother Bertrand has also made the squad but is the 16-year-old's inclusion a sign of his brilliance or, alternatively, one of Duarte's desperation?

Turkey-based defender Mahamoudou Kéré will captain the side, with the experienced Daouda Diakite in goal and veteran striker Moumouni Dagano joining Aristide Bance up front.

ANGOLA

After many failures to achieve anything of note in African football, Angola burst onto the scene when qualifying for the 2006 World Cup - appearing at the finals just four years after the end of a three-decade civil war.

Despite a creditable performance in Germany, it would be another two years before the Palancas Negras made it out of the group stages at the Nations Cup, which they achieved at Ghana 2008 thanks to four goals from then Manchester United striker Manucho.

Angola repeated their quarter-final feat when hosting the competition two years ago, as former Al Ahly coach Manuel Jose led the side, only for the southerners to be knocked out by eventual finalists Ghana.

Angola's Djalma Campos
Angola forward Djalma has seen little playing action since joining Porto

The Palancas Negras' star had seemed very much on the rise yet they were in danger of missing this month's finals altogether until Lito Vidigal took charge this time last year.

One month later, the former international - who played at the 1998 Nations Cup - had instantly proved his worth when leading his country to the final of the African Nations Championship, a tournament for locally-based players only.

Although he then lost his first 2012 Nations Cup qualifier in March, Vidigal delivered when it most mattered - as his charges won their final three matches without conceding a goal to pip seemingly-certain qualifiers Uganda to the finals.

Just over half the squad have survived from the last tournament, with some veterans among them: such as defender Kali (the 33-year-old captain) as well as forwards Flavio (32) and Love (32).

Gilberto and Manucho (who top scored in qualifying with four goals) are also nearing 30, but at least Vidigal has younger players to turn to - with Mabina, Djalma and Zuela all impressing last time out.

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