A source of frustration to many Premier League managers, the Africa Cup of Nations (ACON) is also a prime source of entertainment for football fans as the best sides from the continent go all out with free-flowing, flair-focused football against a colourful backdrop of spectators unlike any other major tournament.
Ivory Coast with Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba et al look good value as 3/2 favourites to take the title, but this tournament has already thrown up surprises with Egypt, Cameroon and South Africa all not qualifying and several other teams will fancy their chances of raising the trophy in Gabon on February 12th.
Outside of the overall market, the group stages provide an opportunity for great returns for punters and here’s a look at the best bets for the groups and beyond:
Group winner odds: Senegal 7/20, Zambia 6/1, Libya 7/1, Equatorial Guinea 9/1
While Senegal no longer boast the squad that shocked defending champions France in the 2002 World Cup, boss Amara Traore can call on Newcastle’s new strike pairing of 15-goal Demba Ba and £9m Papiss Cisse and those two should have enough to see them through this group.
Second place in the group is harder to call, with co-hosts Equatorial Guinea hoping home advantage will make up for their inexperienced squad (average age 23) and Zambia lacking in European-based players. That may leave the door open to surprise package Libya, who battled their way through qualifying unbeaten despite the well-publicised issues affecting the country.
Best bet: Libya to qualify for the quarter-finals @ 29/20
Group winner odds: Ivory Coast 1/5, Angola 15/2, Burkina Faso 15/2, Sudan 22/1
Ivory Coast have the quality in their squad to beat any team in the world and should win this group at a canter to leave three teams battling for one quarter-final berth.
Angola have reached the quarter-finals of the last two tournaments and will be hoping former Manchester United forward Manucho can fire them back there but will face a struggle to get past a pacy Burkina Faso team and a young Sudan side who lost just once in qualifying.
Best bet: Ivory Coast to finish first and Angola to finish second @ 33/20
Group winner odds: Morocco 29/20, Tunisia 7/4, Gabon 14/5, Niger 12/1
The draw did co-hosts Gabon no favours as they face two northern powerhouses in Morocco and Tunisia, but Gernot Rohr’s side are an emerging force and will push hard for second place.
Given all three will comfortably beat minnows Niger, it might come down to whether one team can dominate and Morocco look best placed to be that team.
Celtic’s Badr El Kaddouri and Udinese’s Mehdi Benatia form a rock-solid defence for the Atlas Lions behind the potentially explosive forward pairing of QPR’s Adel Taarabt and Arsenal’s Marouane Chamakh.
Best bet: Morocco to win Group C @ 29/20
Group winner odds: Ghana 3/5, Mali 43/20, Guinea 15/2, Botswana 18/1
Ghana’s chances of ending their 30-year Nations Cup drought improved when Asamoah Gyan declared himself fit this week and with the bulk of the side that were within one kick of the World Cup semi-finals re-united, they should easily qualify from this group.
With the ongoing argument between coach Alain Giresse, star player Seydou Keita and the national FA disrupting Mali’s preparations and Guinea’s main men Kevin Constant and Ismael Bangoura either out of form or absent, outsiders Botswana may be able to pull off an upset in their first ever finals appearance.
Best bet: Botswana to reach the quarter-finals @ 4/1
With the winners of eight of the last nine ACON tournaments failing to qualify, these finals will have a different feel to them but it’s still likely that the remaining major teams will find their way through, so it’s worth betting on a semi-final line-up of Senegal (47/100), Ivory Coast (1/4), Morocco (23/20) and Ghana (1/2).
From those sides it’s very difficult to pick a winner and much will depend on which team reaches the final with the best form and the least injuries.
Given Ivory Coast’s strength in depth (Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou and Man City’s Kolo Toure will likely start on the bench) they are hard to bet against, but given northern sides have won the last four tournaments, it’s worth considering Morocco as a good alternative, especially if the mercurial Taarabt hits top form.
Best bet: Morocco to win 2012 African Cup of Nations @ 8/1
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