Africa Cup of Nations Power Rankings: Algeria poised for successful title defence

Klopp admits he is unsure when Liverpool's AFCON stars will depart (1:19)

Jurgen Klopp says he is unsure when Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita will leave for the Africa Cup of Nations. (1:19)

The Africa Cup of Nations is scheduled to kick-off on January 9, after Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Patrice Motsepe, last week, seemingly ended concerns that the already delayed finals could be postponed again.

The announcement followed a meeting between Motsepe and Cameroon president Paul Biya, after concerns had been expressed over a lack of organisation for the 24-team tournament, incomplete building work and the threat of coronavirus outbreaks due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

But which teams are expected to dominate once the action begins?

1. Algeria

It's hard to look beyond the reigning champions, who have played 33 matches without defeat since October 2018.

Victory at the recent Arab Cup only increased their momentum, and 25 goals scored in six World Cup qualifiers is testament to their ferocity going forward.

Admittedly this is an ageing side, but the players have a winning mentality -- and tournament nous -- in their DNA.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Sierra Leone (Jan. 11, Douala), Equatorial Guinea (Jan. 16, Douala), vs. Ivory Coast (Jan. 20, Douala).

2. Senegal

Unperturbed during qualifying for both the Africa Cup of Nations and, to date, the World Cup, the spine of Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye and Sadio Mane -- not to mention a talented supporting cast -- should ensure Senegal are there or thereabouts come the tournament conclusion.

Can the Teranga Lions -- the most prominent African footballing nation never to win the AFCON -- finally get their hands on the gold this time around?

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Zimbabwe (Jan.10, Kouekong), vs. Guinea (Jan. 14, Kouekong), vs. Malawi (Jan. 18, Kouekong).

3. Morocco

The Atlas Lions have been breathless in recent months, responding well to the tutelage of Vahid Halilhodzic, who has taken a hard line with some of the squad's more prominent players.

Playmaker Hakim Ziyech is one of several high-profile stars to have been omitted from the coach's plans -- the Chelsea midfielder's behaviour was criticised by the Bosnian -- but Morocco have responded well to Halilhodzic's methods.

A World Cup qualifying record of six wins in six games, 20 goals scored and only one conceded -- against three teams who will be present in Cameroon -- ought to make the rest of the continent sit up and take notice.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Ghana (Jan. 10, Yaounde), vs. Comoros (Jan. 14, Yaounde), vs. Gabon (Jan. 18, Yaounde).

4. Cameroon

Questions remain about head coach Toni Conceicao and the Indomitable Lions' strength in depth, but victory over Ivory Coast to unseat the Elephants atop their World Cup qualifying group provided evidence of hidden depths in this squad.

That match also offered a glimpse of Cameroon's potential potency in front of their own fans -- if the wind is with them -- and they'll take some beating if they start well.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Burkina Faso (Jan. 9, Yaounde), vs. Ethiopia (Jan. 13, Yaoundée), vs. Cape Verde (Jan. 17, Yaounde)

5. Egypt

They boast one of the world's finest players in Mohamed Salah, while the appointment of Carlos Queiroz may give Egypt an X-factor as they look to bounce back from the disappointing performance on home soil in 2019.

The clash with Nigeria on Jan. 11 has the potential to set the tone for both teams' entire campaign, but the Pharaohs must do better than their limp fourth-placed finish at the Arab Cup, in which they were beaten by Qatar in their final fixture.

Concerns about a clash with Al-Ahly's Club World Cup run -- eight of Queiroz's provisional squad play for the African champions -- is an unwanted distraction.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Nigeria (Jan. 11, Garoua), vs. Guinea-Bisseau (Jan. 15, Garoua), vs. Sudan (Jan. 19, Yaounde).

6. Tunisia

Made light work of their World Cup qualifying group -- their away defeat by Equatorial Guinea notwithstanding -- and will bring their familiar qualities and strengths to bear at the Nations Cup.

A strong run in the Arab Cup, where they were defeated finalists, augurs well, and their semifinal victory over Egypt in Qatar is a particularly significant boost heading into the Africa Cup of Nations.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Mali (Jan. 12, Limbe), vs. Mauritania (Jan.16, Limbe), Gambia (Jan. 20, Limbe).

7. Ivory Coast

No shortage of quality players -- even if Wilfried Zaha's participation looks unlikely -- while the Elephants can also call upon several players with experience of winning the tournament in 2015.

Coach Patrice Beaumelle also has experience of going the distance in the tournament -- he was victorious in 2012 and 2015 -- but defeat by Cameroon in their final World Cup qualifier (therefore missing out on Qatar already) will take some getting over.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Equatorial Guinea (Jan. 12, Douala), vs. Sierra Leone (Jan. 16, Douala), vs. Algeria (Jan. 20, Douala).

8. Nigeria

Nigeria finally opted to mix things up at the most unlikely time -- having been criticised for being too staid, too predictable, too dull, under Gernot Rohr -- parting ways with the German coach on the eve of the Nations Cup despite successfully reaching the World Cup playoffs.

The talent is definitely there -- with eye-watering options across the squad -- but can new head coach Augustine Eguavoen help this group break from the habits that nullified Rohr's successes?

The Super Eagles also face an anxious wait to see if star striker Victor Osimhen can be passed fit in time.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Egypt (Jan. 11, Garoua), vs. Sudan (Jan. 15, Garoua), vs. Guinea-Bissau (Jan. 19, Garoua).

- ESPN FC 100: Ranking the world's best players by position
- ESPN+ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more (U.S.)
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)

9. Mali

Regularly touted as AFCON dark horses, could this be the year?

Mali didn't concede a single goal in World Cup qualifiers as they romped into the playoffs, dispatching 2019 AFCON qualifiers Kenya and Uganda in the process, and they shouldn't need to be at their best to make the last 16.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Tunisia (Jan. 12, Limbe), vs. Gambia (Jan. 16, Limbe), vs. Mauritania (Jan. 20, Limbe).

10. Ghana

There's a sense that Ghana have turned the corner after the underwhelming tenure of C.K. Akonnor, who clearly cared about the national side but failed to establish a true identity for the Black Stars.

Milovan Rajevac, architect of Ghana's run to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2010, was re-appointed in September, and he has overseen a notable improvement in mood, performances, and results.

The squad now looks to be bubbling with talent -- rather than tired -- although this tournament may come too soon in the Serbian coach's revolution to finally end Ghana's 40-year wait for African gold.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Morocco (Jan. 10, Yaounde), vs. Gabon (Jan. 14, Yaounde), vs. Comoros (Jan. 18, Yaounde).

11. Burkina Faso

Back in the big time after missing out in 2019, Burkina Faso can take encouragement from the fact they were not beaten by Algeria in either World Cup qualifier between the pair; indeed, they haven't been defeated in a full competitive international since Nov. 2018.

The likes of Bertrand Traore and Lacina Traore will give them a cutting edge, and they're a resolute unit defensively.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Cameroon (Jan. 9, Yaounde), vs. Cape Verde (Jan. 13, Yaounde), vs. Ethiopia (Jan. 17, Yaounde).

12. Guinea

Like Sudan, they will head into the tournament without a permanent manager after the decision to dismiss Didier Six in October.

Ex-Arsenal striker Kaba Diawara has been appointed interim head coach, and he has included a few exciting new faces in his provisional squad.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Malawi (Jan. 10, Bafoussam), vs. Senegal (Jan. 14, Bafoussam), vs. Zimbabwe (Jan. 18, Bafoussam).

13. Cape Verde

They finished just two points behind Nigeria in World Cup qualifying, and will rue their home defeat by a weakened Super Eagles team in September.

Cape Verde will be well organised, and they have enough about them to escape Group A.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Ethiopia (Jan. 9, Yaounde), vs. Burkina Faso (Jan. 13, Yaounde), vs. Cameroon (Jan. 17, Yaounde).

14. Gabon

A strong start against Comoros could set Gabon up for a positive campaign, although they'll be desperate for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to shake off his Arsenal malaise.

A bona-fide matchwinner on his day, he should at least relish the big occasions of showdowns with Ghana and Morocco.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Comoros (Jan. 10, Yaounde), vs. Ghana (Jan. 14, Yaounde), vs. Morocco (Jan. 18, Yaounde).

15. Guinea-Bissau

They'll be battle-hardened after qualifying for 2017 and 2019, and they have proven that they're tough to break down -- an 8-0 aggregate humbling by Morocco notwithstanding.

Taking four points from Sudan during World Cup qualifying suggests Guinea-Bissau will have the edge when these two meet in their Group D opener.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Sudan (Jan. 11, Garoua), vs. Egypt (Jan. 15, Garoua), vs. Nigeria (Jan. 19, Garoua).

16. Equatorial Guinea

They ultimately fell short in World Cup qualification, but home victories over Mauritania, Zambia and Tunisia during that campaign boosted hopes that Equatorial Guinea could be genuine dark horses in Cameroon.

Little will be expected of Nzalang Nacional considering they've never previously qualified for an AFCON they haven't hosted, but it's worth noting that Tunisia are the only team to have beaten them since Nov. 2019.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Ivory Coast (Jan. 12, Douala), vs. Algeria (Jan. 16, Douala), vs. Sierra Leone (Jan. 20, Limbe).

17. Mauritania

Impressive during AFCON qualifying -- Mauritania lost just once -- they were found out during the World Cup program and finished bottom of their group.

Failing to win any match at home was disappointing, but losing all three away games to an aggregate score of 8-0 was even more concerning.

Their first-round exit at the Arab Cup has hardly fueled optimism, although they did beat Syria in their final group game.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Gambia (Jan. 12, Limbe), vs. Mali (Jan. 16, Limbe), vs. Tunisia (Jan. 20, Limbe).

18. Sudan

Eliminated South Africa in qualifying, but took just one point from Guinea-Bissau during their World Cup campaign and are in disarray after a feeble showing at the Arab Cup.

That latest showing prompted the dismissal of French coach Hubert Velud, with local coach Burhan Tia set to oversee the AFCON campaign in an interim capacity. It's an inauspicious start.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Guinea-Bissau (Jan. 11, Garoua), vs. Egypt (Jan. 15, Garoua), vs. Nigeria (Jan. 19, Garoua).

19. Zimbabwe

Have endured a miserable 2021, with victory in Botswana in their penultimate Nations Cup qualifier their only win in 15 matches for the senior side, the COSAFA team and the CHAN squad.

A home draw against South Africa in their World Cup qualifying opener was the only (partially) positive result in a miserable campaign, while Khama Billiat's international retirement is a blow.

Injuries to the likes of Marvelous Nakamba, Marshall Munetsi and Tendayi Darikwa threaten to completely undermine Zimbabwe's campaign.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Senegal (Jan. 10, Bafoussam), vs. Malawi (Jan. 14, Bafoussam), vs. Guinea (Jan. 18, Yaounde).

20. Ethiopia

Heavyweights back in the 1960s, Ethiopia will be boosted by a favourable group stage as they go in search of their first Nations Cup victory since the mid-'70s.

November's draw at home with Ghana, and the September triumph over Zimbabwe, were encouraging blueprints for the Walias, but they haven't won a match away from home against a team not named Djibouti since June 2016.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Cape Verde (Jan. 9, Yaounde), vs. Cameroon (Jan. 13, Yaounde), vs. Burkina Faso (Jan. 17, Bafoussam).

21. Gambia

Gambia built on several years of progression under head coach Tom Saintfiet to qualify for the tournament ahead of Gabon, eliminating the Democratic Republic of Congo in the process.

That was an outstanding feat for the debutants, and Gambia relish the 'underdog' tag that will accompany them in Cameroon.

The group is favourable, and they'll fear no one after some excellent results in recent years, although a lack of recent competitive action could hurt them.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Mauritania (Jan. 12, Limbe), vs. Mali (Jan. 16, Limbe), vs. Tunisia (Jan. 20, Limbe).

22. Comoros

Unlike almost all of the other Nations Cup contestants, the Comoros weren't able to sharpen up during the World Cup qualifying group stage -- they'd already been eliminated -- and they'll need to pick up the momentum they enjoyed as they reached their maiden tournament... sharpish.

Their 0-0 draw with Egypt offers hope that they can trouble the bigger boys in their group, but that staunch display was 25 months ago -- a lifetime in football terms.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Gabon (Jan. 10, Yaounde), vs. Morocco (Jan. 14, Yaounde), vs. Ghana (Jan. 18, Garoua).

23. Sierra Leone

Friendly results have been patchy for the Leone Stars since they dispatched Benin in their belated -- controversial -- final Group L fixture to book their ticket to Cameroon.

They face Algeria then Ivory Coast in their first two competitive games since June; it couldn't get much trickier, although this is the team that salvaged a point in Nigeria after being 4-0 down inside 29 minutes last year.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Algeria (Jan. 11, Douala), vs. Ivory Coast (Jan. 16, Douala), vs. Equatorial Guinea (Jan. 20, Limbe).

24. Malawi

One of the darlings of the qualifying campaign, Malawi capitalised on Ugandan complacency to reach the Nations Cup, but they were brought back down to ground during World Cup qualifying.

They've won just one and lost eight of their past 11 matches across all competitions, and risk being the tournament's whipping boys.

Africa Cup of Nations group fixtures: vs. Guinea (Jan. 10, Bafoussam), vs. Zimbabwe (Jan. 14, Bafoussam), vs. Senegal (Jan. 18, Bafoussam).