Africa Cup of Nations 2013: Group stage preview
Africa Cup of Nations 2013: Paddy von Behr and Chris Bailey bring us a group-by-group guide to this year's edition
Just one year on from Zambia’s dramatic, historic and emotional penalty shootout triumph at the African Cup of Nations, it’s back.
The big boys – Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria – are hunting the trophy, while the minnows – Niger, Burkina Faso et al – will look to turn a few heads.
Here’s a group-by-group run down of who’s who and what to expect from the latest instalment of Africa’s premier football tournament.
Two-and-a-half years after the World Cup, footballing eyes are back on South Africa as Bafana Bafana host AFCON for the second time.
They last staged the tournament in 1996 – also the only time they have lifted the trophy – and manager Gordon Igesund will attempt to repeat the feat.
They are without their talisman after Steven Pienaar’s retirement, but with bags of pace in the squad and the home crowd’s backing, Bafana have a chance.
Morocco have a squad filled with familiar names, including Montpellier’s Younes Belhanda and Liverpool winger Oussama Assaidi.
However, the exclusions of Premier League stars Marouane Chamakh and Adel Taarabt may not help them end the 37-year wait for AFCON glory.
Despite their competition debut, Cape Verde are in fact the highest ranked team in Group A – 69th in FIFA’s rankings.
After eliminating Cameroon in qualifying, manager Lucio Antunes enjoyed the ideal preparation last month, accepting an invite to meet Jose Mourinho and pick up some tips.
Angola complete the group – arguably the softest of the four – after reaching their fifth straight AFCON finals.
They are still in search of their first trophy and one-time Manchester United striker Manucho will play a big part if they are to succeed.
This is Ghana, but not as you know it. Michael Essien asked to remain unpicked, while ex-captain John Mensah and Marseille striker Jordan Ayew both miss out.
The Black Stars suffer almost perennial heartbreak at the AFCON – placing third, second and fourth respectively in the last three editions.
They’ve turned to ex-Under 23 coach Kwesi Appiah to deliver one of Africa’s most talented, if luckless, nations to glory.
Mali football is on an upwards curve after finishing a best-ever third in last year’s AFCON – beating Ghana in the runners-up game.
Premier League interest is present: ex-Liverpool destroyer Mohamed Sissoko, Samba Diakite, Modibo Maiga and Mahamadou Diarra are all set to feature.
But Malian hopes rest on former Barcelona star Seydou Keita, arguably the heartbeat of the team.
Qualification marks repeated success for Niger, as 2012 AFCON was their first tournament ever.
They finished bottom of their group, however, and many expect more of the same this time round.
But hope lies in the fact that recently-appointed coach Gernot Rohr guided Gabon to the quarter-finals last year.
Congo make up the numbers in their first appearance at an AFCON since 2006’s quarter-final effort.
Backflipping ex-Portsmouth striker Lomana Lua-Lua and West Brom’s Youssouf Mulumbu stand out, but keep an eye on Dieumerci Mbokani, who netted nine times in qualifying.
Crowned Kings of Africa after the most dramatic of penalty shootouts against Ivory Coast a year ago, Zambia are firmly in the spotlight.
French coach Herve Renard, who returns to lead them in South Africa, inspired Zambia’s extraordinary rise to prominence.
Elsewhere in Group C, Nigeria will be hoping to make up for lost time after failing to qualify for last year’s AFCON.
Manager Stephen Keshi must knit together a side with players who ply their trade in 12 different countries.
But his first worry will be to win a game, as he failed to do in prior campaigns with Mali and Togo.
Alain Traore’s dramatic injury-time winner against Central African Republic in qualifying perfectly embodied the spirit of Burkina Faso.
However, the Stallions may need more than pluck to emerge from a strong group – a feat they have achieved just once, on their own turf in 1998.
Ethiopia are the other contenders and announce themselves on the international stage after 31 years without an AFCON appearance.
Huge underdogs – only two squad members play outside Ethiopia – the youthful side will be eager to make their mark, spearheaded by star striker Saladin Said.
Ivory Coast enter the competition as strong tournament favourites, looking to end a 21-year wait for AFCON victory.
Despite their golden generation, penalty shootout defeat to Zambia in last year’s final is the closest they have come, and their big names, including Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba, are looking to bow out with the trophy.
Togo scraped through the qualifying stages to make their first AFCON appearance since the tragic Cabinda shooting incident in January 2010.
Emmanuel Adebayor’s late inclusion will be a boost for the Sparrow Hawks, who have never reached the second round in their five tournament appearances.
Sitting just one spot below Brazil in FIFA’s world rankings, Algeria are led by former Lille, Paris Saint Germain and Ivory Coast boss Vahid Halilhodzic.
Mehdi Lacen, Sofiane Feghouli and Hameur Bouazza are among the squad’s familiar names, but former Rangers fullback Madjid Bougherra is left out.
And Tunisia complete the 16 teams, with former international Sami Trabelsi in charge – his debut managerial position.
The Eagles of Carthage last won the AFCON in 2004 and Trabelsi has assembled a young squad in an attempt to end their nine-year wait.