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LUANDA - African superstars Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto'o and Michael Essien will discover today who they face at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.
A draw ceremony in the capital of the oil-rich southwest African state divides the 16 qualifiers into four groups from which the winners and runners-up advance to the quarter-finals.
Chelsea striker Drogba is the main source of Ivory Coast goals, Eto'o of Inter Milan serves a similar role with Cameroon and Essien, also from English Premiership table-toppers Chelsea, drives the Ghana midfield.
And with the top 10 football nations on the continent among those securing places, the stage is set for an intriguing tournament from January 10 to 31 as Egypt seek a record third consecutive title.
Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, all qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, are former African champions and potential winners of the first Nations Cup to be staged by a Portuguese-speaking country.
Even Angola, lowest ranked of the contenders at 21, cannot be dismissed given the record of hosts in a tournament first staged 52 years ago in Sudan and won by Egypt.
Egypt (2006) and Tunisia (2004) lifted the title on home soil, Nigeria (2000) came second, Ghana (2008) third and, significantly, apparent whipping boys Mali (2002) and Burkina Faso (1998) fourth.
Apart from the benefit of home support in one of the few African countries where basketball rivals football for popularity, Angola are automatically among the top seeds as the hosts, which generally delivers a kinder draw.
There is also the Manuel Jose factor. The charismatic 63-year-old Portuguese steered Cairo club Al-Ahly to four African Champions League titles and is hoping his formula works equally well at national team level.
No Nations Cup line-up would be complete without a fairytale participant and this time it is Malawi, back for a second appearance 25 years after last competing.
After failing with a succession of foreign coaches, the Flames turned to former national star Kinnah Phiri and a come-from-behind home draw against Ivory Coast secured an ultimately decisive point.
Another country back on centre stage after a long absence is Mozambique, a well-drilled team under Dutch coach Mart Nooij who defeated Tunisia and held Ivory Coast and Nigeria to draws in Maputo.
The full Cup line-up includes Angola, Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Togo, Tunisia and Zambia.
Notable absentees are former champions Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, South Africa and Senegal with only the North African "Atlas Lions" even managing to make the final qualifying round. - Sapa-AFP