The 28th African Cup of Nations, which runs from 21st January until 12th February, is set to provide a feast of football in the weeks ahead, packed with vibrancy, flair and drama and enhanced by some of the most passionate supporters in sport. The tournament will showcase an array of established, mesmerising talents, from the Ivory Coast powerhouses Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure to Senegal’s prolific Demba Ba – and will undoubtedly unveil several future stars.

The cast for Africa’s thrilling football show has a somewhat different look this year. Egypt, winners of the past three tournaments, failed to qualify while traditional frontrunners Cameroon are also forced to watch from the sidelines. Equatorial Guinea, co-hosting with Gabon, take their African Cup of Nations bow – as do Botswana.

With three gripping weeks of action ahead, Inside Futbol picks out the most unmissable group stage games.

Equatorial Guinea vs Libya – 21st January

There will inevitably be butterflies for the co-hosts as they take their first steps in the African Cup of Nations, but the home crowd will be full of colour and noise, setting the early tone for a special tournament. This is where it all begins for Equatorial Guinea and having landed in an extremely difficult group, things will only get tougher. However, a $1M prize-pot on offer for winning this game, should drive the team to give everything to start the group brightly.

Libya were unbeaten en route to the tournament, using a rock solid defence as their foundation and recording two 1-0 wins and two goalless draws. But this game might well be more open as the Libyans cannot afford a tentative start given the quality of their next two opponents, Senegal and Zambia.

Senegal vs Zambia – 21st January

Senegal’s qualifying campaign (five wins and a draw) sent a clear message that the current group is ready to emulate the 2002 squad that shot to prominence with their World Cup exploits. They will be looking to make a flying start in this opening fixture and lay down a marker for the matches ahead, particularly with Ba having arrived fresh from a ruthless goalscoring run of form for Newcastle.

Zambia, meanwhile, could be a surprise package. The signs were there during qualification, where Collins Mbesuma shone and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mayuka showed his promise in front of goal. These two teams should both make it out of Group A and into the quarter-finals – but there will be plenty to play for in this match.

Morocco vs Tunisia – 23rd January

This bout between nearby neighbours has the potential to be a classic. Neither team were fully convincing in reaching the tournament, with strengths and weaknesses on display. Morocco conceded just two goals in qualifying but, at the other end, they will hope Marouane Chamakh breaks out of his Arsenal slump in their tournament opener.

Tunisia, meanwhile, were more ruthless in front of goal and should be an eye-catching side. Issam Jemaa is a man to watch after netting six goals in the qualifying campaign. With a lot at stake, expect to see goals in this one.

Niger vs Tunisia – 27th January

Niger scored one of the shocks of the qualification period by topping a group that included South Africa and Egypt and this face alone should be enough to ensure Harouna Douala Gabde’s men are taken seriously by their North African opponents here. With a team of unknowns, much will depend on striker Moussa Maazou, who has turned out for the likes of CSKA Moscow, Monaco and Bordeaux.

Regardless of Tunisia’s result against Morocco, this game will be critical to their chances of making the last eight. With neither team likely to win any awards for defending, there should be no shortage of end to end action.

Ivory Coast vs Angola –
30th January

No opponent can match the strength of the Ivory Coast starting line-up, from Drogba, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou up front to Yaya Toure in midfield and brother Kolo marshalling the backline. A 100% qualifying campaign came as no surprise. But the Ivorians have failed to convert this quality on paper into a run of silverware – and the clock is ticking. If a spot in the next round has not been clinched by this final group game, this clash should be a thriller.

The Angolans are no pushovers, having reached the quarter-finals in the last two tournaments, and may well present the toughest test for Drogba and company in Group B. Manucho, who spent a brief spell at Manchester United, will be one of Angola’s key men as they chase an upset in this game.

Ghana vs Guinea – 1st February

Ghana are rightly considered at the front of the contending pack, given their unbeaten qualifying campaign (13 goals scored, one conceded) and the experience the country can boast throughout the squad. Asamoah Gyan remains the lynchpin in attack but this is a well-balanced team from back to front. The Black Stars will be looking to send a message to the other challengers throughout the group stage.

This fixture might be the decider in Group D, given Guinea’s solid recent form in topping their qualifying group. The west Africans proved that they have a versatile style of play, with two 4-1 wins as well as a gritty 1-0 victory, and they have goalscorers all over the pitch, with Ibrahima Yattara and Ismael Bangoura experienced performers.

These games are the highlights of the group stage but every contest is sure to be packed with memorable moments. So, settle in and savour Africa’s finest doing what they do best.

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