The African Cup of Nations returns this Friday when hosts Egypt take on Zimbabwe in Cairo at 9pm. It is the first to feature 24 teams, leading to apparent mis-matches like the one we will surely see on Friday night when one of the tournament favourites take on a country that isn’t known for its footballing exploits.
In another first, the African Nations Cup, will be contested in summer so it will be interesting to see how teams will fare in the soaring Egyptian temperatures of 40 degrees celsius.
Here’s our three best bets for Friday’s opener.
Zimbabwe don’t exactly boast a proud record at the African Nations Cup. This is just their fourth time competing in the competition and are yet to avoid finishing bottom. In qualifying, Zimbabwe topped a group with the improving DR Congo, Liberia and Congo. They have since drawn each of their last four games, including one with renowned international heavyweights, Tanzania.
Egypt, on the other hand, are favourites for the tournament, despite a terrible showing at last year’s World Cup and an underwhelming qualifying campaign that saw them finish second behind Tunisia. However, as hosts and with one of the top 10 players in the world among their ranks in Mo Salah, they should have far too much for Zimbabwe.
The handicap markets for this are difficult. At 8/13, Egypt -1 is not exactly enticing, while a two-goal handicap might be too much to ask of the hosts. Therefore, a handicap draw might represent the most logical bet.
Not the most original of suggestions, but Salah is the favourite to open the scoring for a reason. He is by far and away the biggest name in either squad and also happens to be the only player in Egypt’s 23-man AFCON squad who has broken into double digits on the international scene. A record of 39 goals in 63 games for Egypt is nothing to be sneered at and it has led him to being reverenced by Egyptian fans as a divine being.
Last year’s World Cup showcased just how much Egypt relied on Salah, with the Liverpool attacker scoring both of the nation’s two goals in Russia despite playing with just the one shoulder. As Egypt’s penalty taker, Salah’s chances of opening the scoring are increased slightly as he has proved to be ruthless from the spot, succeeding with all five efforts in a Liverpool shirt.
While he may be the boring choice for first goalscorer, he is absolutely the most logical one.
If Brazil’s recent Copa America opener against Bolivia has taught us anything, it’s that hosts don’t always deal well with the pressure of an expectant home crowd.
Brazil floundered in the opening half against the Bolivians only to be met with boos from their supporters at the interval with game poised at 0-0. Since a flurry of trophies in the late 2000s, Egypt have failed to win the AFCON in almost a decade. The seven-time winners will be under serious pressure to break their duck on home turf and that could weigh on the players in the opening half.
Egypt have also struggled to break the deadlock of late, scoring just one goal in the first half of their last four matches. Zimbabwe, having drawn two of their last four games 0-0, will attempt to keep things tight against the favourites and may even get as far as half time.
Their resolve will eventually be broken though, and Egypt will prevail in the second half.
*Prices correct at time of publishing