Carlos Amato picks new stars who could steal the Africa Cup of Nations show and lists some of the matches you can't afford to miss.
Lacina Traoré (Côte d’Ivoire, 22)
The Anzhi Makhachkala striker may not get much game time, what with Didier Drogba leading the Ivorian attack and the excellent Wilfried Bony as a rival impact sub. But if Traoré does get a run, you won’t miss him – looming 2.03m above sea level, he’s the tallest player at these finals. And as Egypt’s defenders found during their 4-2 bollocking by the Elephants last weekend, he’s as hard to mark as a grumpy giraffe.
Albert Adomah(Ghana, 25)
The Bristol City winger is not the new Abedi Pele, or the new André Ayew, for that matter. But the British-Ghanaian has inherited the Black Stars' number 10 jersey from that illustrious father and son, and he’ll do a proper job in it. Raised on the mean streets of Brixton, Adomah trained as a painter-decorator while playing amateur footie for Harrow Borough, and impressed Barnet scouts with his pace and vision. A fine spell with the fourth-tier club won him a move to the Championship with Bristol, and he’s good enough to rise higher. Adomah is known for his madcap media interviews.
Emmanuel Mbola (Zambia, 19)
He first turned out for the Copper Bullets at the tender age of 16 and nearly four years later he’s ready to seize the attention of planet football. A feisty, defensive-minded leftback, Mbola has a potent mix of aggression, anticipation and close control that could come lift him into the elite echelon of Ashley Cole and Fábio Coentrão. Now on loan at FC Porto from TP Mazembe, he has fully recovered from a broken leg that kept him out of last year’s Nations Cup.
Efe Ambrose (Nigeria, 24)
The Celtic centreback has no reason to fear any enemy forwards this month. Ambrose played a heroic role in thwarting Lionel Messi and friends in the Bhoys’ famous triumph over Barcelona last November. Little wonder Celtic coach Neil Lennon has bragged about paying just £650000 for Ambrose last summer to prise him from Israeli side FC Ashdod – he’s worth several times that sum just a few months later. Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi could use him in midfield, as his ball skills are none too shabby.
Djamel Mesbah (Algeria, 28)
He’s not a regular at AC Milan, being the understudy to Luca Antonini, but the leftback showed his canniness against Bafana. Thuso Phala’s pace saw him win one or two skirmishes with Mesbah in their warm-up clash last weekend, but the 28-year-old Algerian won the war, thwarting the South African winger in a goalless clash. Born in France and groomed in Switzerland with Servette, he earned his move to Milan by excelling for Serie A battlers Lecce.
Héldon (Cape Verde, 24)
He may hail from the Ilha do Sal (the Island of Salt) but this playmaker was born with a sugary touch. Héldon, also known as Nhuck, shot up the Portuguese lower divisions to make his name with Madeira side Maritimo in the past two seasons. This weekend, Gordon Igesund will be fretting about the threat the explosive, agile number 10 poses to the Bafana’s rearguard. Héldon top scored for the Blue Sharks in qualifiying for the finals.
Moussa Maâzou (Niger, 24)
PSL club Chippa United have been talking about signing the bullocking forward all season, and dispatched suits to Niger’s base in Port Elizabeth this week to schmooze a deal. But Maâzou, currently working for Tunisian giants Étoile du Sahel, is surely out of the Chilli Boys’ league. The former Bordeaux and Monaco ace spent three years with CSKA Moscow, but left after receiving racist abuse and a club reprimand for observing a fast during Ramadan.
Tokelo Rantie (South Africa, 22)
Bafana urgently need some competition and support for goalscoring kingpin Katlego Mphela. Is Rantie, who plays for Malmö in Sweden, the answer? The youngster’s pace is exceptional and he has shown very promising coolness in the box. But his short stature makes it hard for him to lead the line alone. The Ghost were none too pleased when Rantie was snapped up by Malmö after a stellar loan spell with Orlando Pirates last season and this month he may force Buccaneers bosses to regret their tardiness all over again.
Four games not to miss
South Africa vs Angola
Group A, January 23, 5pm
Moses Mabhida Stadium
Amid all the hoopla about Bafana’s opener against Cape Verde, there has been little talk about this spicy SADC derby. The Palancas Negras are a stronger side than the Blue Sharks – and, because they are mostly based in the Angolan league, Bafana may not be properly briefed on their abilities. Danger looms.
Ghana vs Mali
Group B, January 24, 5pm,
Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
An intriguing game that could doom or boost Bafana’s campaign by determining their potential quarterfinal opponents. Expect the Black Stars to prevail here and top the group, thus obliging Bafana to top their
own to avoid a nightmare date with Gyan and company. Not
that facing Mali would be fun.
Zambia vs Nigeria
Group C, January 25, 5pm,
The juiciest clash of the group stage is a rematch of a coruscating 2010 quarterfinal that the Super Eagles won on penalties after the Copper Bullets dominated. It was agony for Zambia but gave them crucial faith in their own quality. Now the power relation is reversed.
Côte d’Ivoire vs Algeria
Group D, January 30, 7pm,
Royal Bafokeng Stadium
This final group tie will be the first significant test for the Elephants, who are likely to have seen off Togo and Tunisia without much sweat to book their quarterfinal place. If so, coach Sabri Lamouchi will be tempted to test his reserves and risk a harmless defeat.