Egypt was scheduled to play Mali in its opening match of the Africa Cup of Nationson Tuesday 17 January.Al-Ahram Weeklywent to press before the Group D game.
In the same group, Ghana would have also clashed with Uganda in the same venue at the Stade de Port-Gentil in Gabon.
The game between Egypt and Uganda on Saturday 21 January and the match the same day and time between Ghana and Mali will decide, to a great extent, the top two teams of the group who will progress to the quarter-finals. Each would have played two games with only one remainingscheduled for Wednesday 25 January when top contender Egypt meets favourite Ghana and Uganda plays Mali. That would conclude the group stage of the 31st edition of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Unfortunately, and despite its importance, the three-week tournament has seen a low spectator turn-out in its first week. Most of the stadiums appeared empty in almost everymatch. The only exception was the opening match which saw the host nation Gabon draw with Guinea Bissau 1-1 despite enjoying an early lead. In the same Group A, Burkina Faso also drew with the same result with Cameroun. The second round of this group was scheduled to kick off Wednesday 18 January when the host nation meets Burkina Faso in a tough game while Cameroun takes on Guinea Bissau in the second match.
Egypt was scheduled to play Mali in its opening match of the Africa Cup
Today, Group B resumes its second round with a North African clash between neighbours Algeria and Tunisia. The Algerians had escaped defeat against Zimbabwe earlier in the week when Africa’s player of the year RiadMehrez came to their rescue and scored twice to come from behind late and level the score 2-2. The second match will see Senegal facing Zimbabwe. The Senegalese are in command after their 2-0 victory over Tunisia in the first round.
The second round in Group C takes place Friday 20 January with the Ivory Coast meeting RD Congo in what appears to be a tough game for the Ivorian team, the defending champions, who had drawn with Togo in the first match of the group 0-0 while their opponents RD Congo beat Morocco 1-0. The Lions of Atlas are to play against Togo in the second match of the group.
The Egyptians are looking to make an impressive comeback to the Africa Cup of Nations after being absent for the past three editions but having won the three before starting in 2006.Altogether, Egypt has won the tournament a record seven times.
In the pre-match press conference against Mali, team captain and goalkeeper EssamAl-Hadarihad said that the championship was of great importance to the Egyptians in general and to himself as well. “We have been away for three editions and we missed that and we would definitely play and compete to win an eighth title but to do so we need to concentrate on each game as we go. As for myself, I am glad I won four of the seven titles of the Africa Cup of Nations and believe winning Gabon 2017 would be good for my career.” Al-Hadari turned 44 two days before the first game against Mali. If he plays he would be the oldest player ever in the championship.
Head coach of the Egyptian team Hector Cuper is also ready. “We are here to compete for the title, not just participate. I don’t promise the cup but all I can say is that we are all going to do our best so we can fulfill the Egyptian dream. I am aware of the importance of this tournament to the Egyptian people. They want the victory. I can see it in the eyes of the people I meet on the street and feel it in the way they ask me to do my best to win the cup. Me too, I want to win. Any coach would want to win. I want to win every match I play even if it is a friendly game.
“This is my first participation as a coach in the Africa Cup of Nations where I have no experience like most of our players. Only three or four players played before, but the rest are new in the African championships, eventhough 11 of them play professionally in Europe.
Cuper, from Argentina,said that in order to reach the goal, he would take each match individually. “They are three different teams and each needs a different strategy and that is what I am going to work on: concentrate on each game and play to win and definitely they will do the same as well.”
Interestingly, the draw had placed Egypt with two if its competitors in the FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifications — Ghana and Uganda. However, Cuper found that to be positive. “To be honest, at the beginning, when we were again drawn in the same group for the Africa Cup of Nations, I was disappointed. I wanted other teams. But then I thought why not? It is even better and I started considering it as something positive.” Egypt recently beat Ghana 2-0 at home in the World Cup qualifiers. It has yet to play Uganda.
Cuper said his players were ready and that he was satisfied with all the work and the progress that has been done during the past two years and was looking forward to see the results in this tournament. “We have done everything, tested so many players and made several changes during that period and I am glad with the final combination we reached in the end. Now, we have to focus, play and win.”