Welcome to the Cup of Nations: Burundi and Madgascar prepare for action
Burundi and Madagascar make their Cup of Nations debuts on Saturday in Alexandria against Nigeria and Guinea respectively. On paper, Burundi have the tougher task with a tie against the four time champions.
The Nigerians enter the tournament after a trip to the World Cup in Russia last summer where they were unlucky not to reach the last 16.
Gernot Rohr, the Nigeria coach, insisted during the Russian campaign that the youngsters in his side would flourish at their next major tournament.
That boast will be put to the test over the next few weeks. The Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi was one of the starlets Rohr was keen to protect in Russia. However he has thrust the striker to the fore.
"Although only 23, Alex is an experienced international and I want to see him scoring more regularly for the national team," said Rohr.
The 65-year-old German also has experience in his ranks. John Obi Mikel has come out of international retirement to skipper the squad. The 32-year-old, along with Kenneth Omeruo and Ahmed Musa, were part of Stephen Keshi’s sides that won the 2013 Cup of Nations title in South Africa.
However, despite being nearly 100 places beneath the Nigerians in the rankings of world football’s governing body Fifa, Rohr says he will not take Olivier Niyungeko’s men lightly.
Burundi qualified ahead of Gabon in a group also featuring Mali and South Sudan.
They have also shown their mettle in their warm-up matches with a draw against Algeria and a last minute defeat to Tunisia.
Though Guinea do not boast the heft of Nigeria, they have a wily coach at the helm. Paul Put defied the odds to lead Burkina Faso to the 2013 final and his side will provide a stern test for Madagascar.
Jérémy Morel, the Lyon defender, conceded that Madagascar were overwhelming underdogs.
“But that means we have to go for it as we have absolutely nothing to lose,” said the 35-year-old. “Our qualifying matches went well … obviously or else we wouldn’t be here.
"We’ve got to give everything to try and reach the last 16. We know it will be difficult as we don’t have experience of big tournaments.”
The odds for newcomers at the Cup of Nations make bleak reading. Twenty-five of the 39 debutants - 64.10 percent - headed for their holidays after first rounds comprising two or three group matches.
A chance then for Burundi and Madagascar to upset the odds.
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