You can't bet against the Ivorians but, with Ghana, Algeria and Nigeria looking strong, it would still be no surprise if they failed once more
Ah, Ivory Coast. As we approach kick-off in another Africa Cup of Nations, all we can say for sure is that it would be as foolish to back against Didier Drogba & Co as it would be cavalier to count on them. For the fifth time in a row the Elephants go into the tournament as one of the heaviest favourites, but this time no one will be surprised if they flop in timid or traumatic fashion.
Bad luck and bad attitudes have been foremost among the factors that have led to seemingly the most gifted generation of Ivorian players losing the 2006 and 2012 Nations Cup finals on penalties and getting dumped out of the two tournaments between by opponents who turned out to be sharper and more balanced (Egypt in the 2008 semi-finals and Algeria in the 2010 quarter-finals).
There are reasons to believe those experiences have made Ivory Coast stronger, but there is also cause to suspect that other teams with exciting young talents are about to add to their woes.
Ghana and Nigeria look reinvigorated, the three north African teams have the potential to go far, Zambia bring virtually the same squad that triumphed so memorably last year, and Angola, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and even Cape Verde are capable of toppling anyone. This tournament is up for grabs.
Despite previous misadventures, the Ivorians are rightly fancied. Seventeen of their 23-man squad stomped through last year's tournament without conceding a goal until freezing on the big day and losing the final to Zambia in a shootout. It is hard to gauge how they will go this time.
The way they navigated their way past Senegal in the playoff suggested they are not about to crumble under pressure – the 2-0 second-leg win in Dakar was particularly impressive given the intensity of the occasion (which exploded into a riot when it became clear that the home side were not going to reverse their 4-2 first-leg defeat). But in the first leg there had been still signs of defensive slackness and those resurfaced in this week's friendly against Egypt before the Elephants eventually recorded another 4-2 win.
One of the newcomers since last year – the striker Lacina Traoré of Anzhi Makhachkala – was excellent in that match but one of the team's age-old attitude problems persists: Ivory Coast's lack of success in recent years has been partially down to a vaguely Manchester City-esque tendency to play ponderously by numbers and wait for one of their gifted individual to spark things up.
The manager Sabri Lamouchi has tried to inject urgency to unhinge opponents and help those individuals flourish but they still seem prone to lapsing into lethargy or fear. Which means they remain vulnerable to more dynamic, well-drilled teams. And there may be a couple of them in their group.
Tunisia, Togo and Algeria are the Ivorians' first opponents. Togo are as disorganised as ever, with the government interfering in Didier Six's squad selection and then interfering to convince Emmanuel Adebayor not to withdraw in protest at interfering. But Tunisia and, particularly, Algeria look much more formidable. Algeria have the talent to win the tournament for the first time since 1990. The Desert Foxes are defensively strong, and in a tournament in which several relatively unheralded talents look poised to earn wider acclaim, the Algerian strikers El Arbi Hillel Soudani (of Vitoria Guimaraes) and Islam Slimani (of the Algerian club CR Belouizdad) could stand out, especially if Valencia's Sofiane Feghouli continues providing first-class service. The Ivorians will not want to go into their final group game needing to beat Algeria, whose manager, Vahid Halilhodzic, used to be in charge of the Elephants before leaving and lamenting the Ivorian stars' "psychological" problems.
Tunisia could to be tough, too. Their manager, Sami Trabelsi, is still seeking the right formula to get the best out of his team and they struggled in the play-offs against Sierra Leone and also in their warmup games, but with the ingenious Youssef Msakni in their side they can never be written off.
Two of the most intriguing teams to watch will be Nigeria and Ghana. Both bring youngish squads with undoubted skills and motivation but uncertain cohesion. Stephen Keshi is still banking on Vincent Enyeama in goal and Joseph Yobo in defence but ahead of them there is a potentially thrilling attacking force including Victor Moses, Villarreal's Ikechukwu Uche, Spartak Moscow's Emmanuel Emenike and Lazio's Ogenyi Onazi. There is no need for Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins or Shola Ameobi. The question is whether Keshi has had enough time to find a way to harness the mighty firepower. In the warmups the Super Eagles were at times disjointed, at times delightful.
Ghana's manager, James Kwesi Appiah, deserves praise for showing the gumption to omit the likes of Sulley Muntari and Andre Ayew and the risk of him regretting the absence of the latter, in particular, is lessened by the refulgent promise of Porto's Christian Atsu. Kwadwo Asamoah should orchestrate play in midfield, aided by Derek Boateng and Emmanuel Badu, while sturdy veterans (and the promising Mubarak Wakaso) man the defence and Asamoah Gyan gets another go at glory up front – and has vowed not to take any penalties.
It will be fascinating to watch Ghana against their first opponents, DR Congo, erstwhile habitués who are returning to the tournament for the first time since 2006. Much will depend on the form of the left winger Déo Kanda and the mercurial TP Mazembe trickster Trésor Mputu, plus the displays of the equally mercurial but slightly less tricky forwards Dieudonné Mbokani and Lomana LuaLua. The Congolese could challenge Ghana and Mali for qualification from Group B. Niger do not look strong enough to improve on last year's showing.
Group A could be anyone's. Rachid Taoussi has sought to mould Morocco into a reliably dangerous side following last year's flop. The manager has chosen to dispense with prodigious creative powers by overlooking the disruptive Adel Taraabt, the out-of-form oussine Kharja and the out-of-favour Mbarak Boussoufa so will be heavily reliant on Younès Belhanda to generate chances for the Fiorentina forward Mounir El Hamdaoui and Granada's Youssef El Arabi. Belhanda can be marvellous but has only flickered for Montpellier this season and the capacity of Liverpool's Oussama Assaidi to help out is difficult to assess given how little he has played recently.
South Africa's creativity has scarcely been helped by Steven Pienaar's decision to retire from international football just a few months ago but Bafana Bafana's chief problem has not so much been creating chances as taking them. They have mustered just seven goals in eight games under Gordon Igesund and with Katlego Mphela struggling to regain form after injury and the manager admitting his team have grown more nervous as the tournament approaches, their finishing has been getting worse.
There is a real risk of South Africa suffering another first-round elimination from a tournament they are hosting. Angola are strong and Cape Verde, who knocked out Cameroon en route to their first ever finals, are disciplined and tough, with the speedy forward Ryan Mendes and the marauding midfielder Marco Soares capable of piercing any defence.
While Nigeria represent the most obvious threat to Zambia in Group C, especially as Jonathan Pitroipa's injury troubles risk sabotaging Burkina Faso, Ethiopia will be interesting to watch. The Walias Antelopes have been absent from the finals for the past 30 years and in the last decade, in particular, they have been hindered by instability that has cost 14 managers their jobs, including one who was sacked for telling journalists that he had to chase cows off the pitch before training.
The latest incumbent, Sewnet Bishaw, has kept any ruminations about cattle to himself and concentrated on nurturing a young, mainly home-based side who have demonstrated their battling prowess by squeezing past Benin in the play-offs before fighting back from 5-3 down to eliminate Sudan.