JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – Debutants Nigeria appear the strongest of the 16 contenders for the African Nations Championship (CHAN) which kicks off in Cape Town this weekend.
Although ranked only third in Group A because they failed to qualify for two previous editions of a competition for home-based footballers, they should advance with hosts South Africa.
Nigeria are seeking a second African national team title in South Africa within 13 months having won the more prestigious Cup of Nations last February.
The architect of that success, coach and former national team captain Stephen Keshi, is back with four of his 2013 Confederations Cup squad.
Goalkeeper Chigozie Agbim and defenders Francis Benjamin, Azubuike Egwuekwe and Solomon Kwambe went to Brazil, and striker Ejike Uzoenyi was part of the Nations Cup-winning squad.
Another goalkeeper, Dele Alampasu, helped the national junior team defeat Mexico last October to capture the world title in the United Arab Emirates.
But fellow gold medalist, striker Kelechi Iheanacho, was omitted after leaving the training camp for unsuccessful trials with English Premier League giants Manchester City.
Midfielder Sunday Mba, match-winner in the 1-0 Cup of Nations final triumph over Burkina Faso, is another absentee having recently joined French club Ajaccio.
Expectations of another trophy remain high in the most populous African country, though, which concerns Keshi given he had little time to create his squad.
“It is not possible to build a team for a major championship in three weeks — not even Fabio Capello or Arsene Wenger can do that,” he told reporters.
“However, I know the boys are physically and mentally prepared for what lies ahead and are ready to make Nigerians proud.”
South Africa are equally confident they can conquer Africa for the first time since winning the 1996 Cup of Nations with coach Gordon Igesund stressing the importance of home advantage.
“Nothing is more inspiring to a footballer than having a packed stadium behind him. We face tough opposition, but I am looking forward to winning the tournament.”
Igesund must do without the stars of 2013 CAF Champions League runners-up Orlando Pirates because of a domestic fixture backlog.
But the experience of goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala and striker Bernard Parker should ensure they go far.
A Mali team boasting star goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite and a Mozambique side including veteran defender Dario Khan complete the Group A line-up.
Morocco can call on seven of the Raja Casablanca team that defied the odds to reach the Club World Cup final in Marrakech last month before succumbing to Bayern Munich.
That could give the team that eliminated title holders Tunisia in a qualifier the edge over Group B rivals Burkina Faso, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Although Ghana have been criticised by coach Maxwell Konadu, they remain Group C favourites with Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia and Libya likely to fight for the other quarter-finals slot.
It is anticipated that Democratic Republic of Congo, winners of the maiden CHAN tournament five years ago in Ivory Coast, will justify being the top Group D seeds.
Gabon look set to join them in the knockout phase given the inexperience of Burundi and Mauritania, who are making their CAF senior national team tournament debuts.
The organisers have not disclosed ticket sales, but the 20,000-plus average crowds of the Cup of Nations last year are unlikely to be matched given the lack of big names.
Mba and DR Congo playmaker Tresor Mputu were flagged as potential stars, but both miss out with the latter axed after criticising the treatment of the national squad.
Officials will hope for a goal glut with matches in Ivory Coast and Sudan two years later averaging less than two per fixture and 1-0 the most frequent result.
But Gabonese Daniel Cousin, the former Rangers and Hull City striker, and others will not find scoring easy given the impressive line-up of goalkeepers.
Apart from Agbim, Diakite and Khune, Nadir Lamyaghri of Morocco and Robert Kidiaba of DR Congo are top-class shot-stoppers.