Ivory Coast were firm favourites for each of the last four African Nations Cups but fell short every time and are likely to enjoy going in somewhat under the radar on this occasion.
The focus instead on Group D at the finals in Equatorial Guinea will be on the sudden revival of Cameroon plus the unpredictable threat posed by west African nations Guinea and Mali.
It has been a torrid last few months for the Ivorians who squeezed into the tournament after an unimpressive qualifying campaign that included a 4-1 defeat in Cameroon and a surprise 4-3 home defeat by the Democratic Republic of Congo. A dramatic last-minute failure at the 2014 World Cup, the retirement of Didier Drogba and a crisis in defence has led to a downscaling of their prospects and that could work in their favour after years of being accused of choking under a heavy burden of expectation.
Yaya Toure is their key player and Gervinho their creative spirit and it may be that Drogba’s successors up front, Wilfried Bony and Seydou Doumbia, could achieve what he failed to do in recent editions and score the goals that take the Ivorians to the title.
Cameroon showed a stark improvement in form after their 2014 World Cup disappointment and were unbeaten in the qualifiers as coach Volker Finke purged his squad and introduced several exciting youngsters, including teenage goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoua from the youth ranks at Barcelona.
The disruptive influence of Samuel Eto’o and Alex Song is no longer there and the revival in the Indomitable Lions’ form from their shoddy showing in Brazil has been one of African football’s major stories over the last six months.
Mali won the bronze medal at the last two Nations Cups despite being given little chance of making the knockout phase. They remain an unpredictable force but will go into this tournament with healthy respect from their opponents. The same is true for Guinea who overcame the ravages of the Ebola virus on their country to qualify. They were not allowed to host any matches and had to switch home games to a neutral venue. Despite the disruption and odds staked against them, they qualified.
Group D matches are to be hosted in the Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo which was also one of the venues used when the small oil-rich country co-hosted the 2012 finals with Gabon.