Angola starter for main course

LUANDA - The 2010 African football feast begins on Sunday in Angola with the Africa Cup of Nations serving as a tempting starter ahead of the multi-flavoured World Cup main course.

Only hosts South Africa of the six World Cup qualifiers from Africa will be missing and Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are expected to make the Afcon knockout phase.

Add defending champions Egypt and hosts Angola and the list of likely African champions is complete for the first Afcon to be staged in a Portuguese-speaking country since its inception 53 years ago.

Didier Drogba-inspired Ivory Coast are the darlings of the media and for the second consecutive tournament carry the favourites tag into a 22-day extravaganza scheduled for capital Luanda plus Benguela, Cabinda and Lubango.

After trampling all before them two years ago in Ghana the Ivorians came horribly unstuck in the semifinals against title holders Egypt, who won 4-1 with Amr Zaki scoring twice.

Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic has been busy lately dampening Ivory Coast expectations, warning that while his star-sprinkled squad makes for impressive reading, the total impact is often less than the sum of the parts.

Drogba, 31, who has hinted that Angola will be his Afcon swansong, says the arrogance and complacency of the 2008 squad must be eradicated if the Ivorians are to win the tournament a second time.

"We will treat every opponent with respect, humility and seriousness. There is no room for complacency like in Ghana. No game is won in advance," warned the Chelsea goal machine.

Ivory Coast are in an all-West Africa Group B with Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo and it would be a shock if the two World Cup qualifiers failed to stamp their authority.

Without an Afcon title since 1982, Ghana have been ravaged by injuries with central defenders John Pantsil and John Mensah and midfielders Stephen Appiah and Laryea Kingston ruled out.

Serb coach Milovan Rajevac also axed midfielder Sulley Muntari for ill discipline so Chelsea workaholic Michael Essien's workload just got heavier.

Togo boast Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor and the pick of the Burkina Faso line-up is Moumouni Dagano, a Qatar-based striker and leading scorer in the qualifying competition with 12 goals.

Champions a record six times, Egypt are another side staggering from pre-tournament blows with playmaker Mohamed Aboutraika, fellow midfielders Mohamed Barakat and Mohamed Shawky, and Zaki ruled out by injury.

No country has won the Afcon three times in a row and while the Pharaohs seem set to finish among the top two in Group C completed by Nigeria, Benin and Mozambique, it is difficult to imagine them going all the way again.

Nigeria coach Shaibu Amodu, boosted by successful late fitness tests on Everton defender Joseph Yobo and Vfl Wolfsburg striker Obafemi Martins, has been told to reach the semifinals or face some sombre music.

The advantages of playing at home should propel Angola into the last eight from Group A with Algeria and Mali contesting the other place and Malawi out of their depth.

Celebrated Portuguese coach Manuel Jose has set a quarterfinals target for Angola's Black Antelopes, but tradition suggests they could go further with just four of 27 hosts failing to reach the last four.

Cameroon, transformed under French coach Paul le Guen, appear stronger than Group D rivals Gabon, Tunisia and Zambia and even good enough to claim a fifth title. - Sapa-AFP