Welcome sir. A relief to know that we have at least one intelligent soul to guide the bookie's hand.
Off we go, brothers.
Sunday, January 9th
Cameroon vs. Burkina Faso
As noted in the preview section, we get an absolute blockbuster for a starter. These two West African superpowers also met on the first day of action in the 2017 tournament. Thought the match ended in a 1-1 draw, Hugo Broos' Indomitables made a very strong statement on Day One of the competition that they would go on to win.
Benjamin Moukanjo's set-piece stunner put the Lions ahead. All these years later it remains fresh in the mind. One of the most brilliant bends around the wall you'll ever witness. Cameroon really should have killed the game off, but an obscenely good goal-saving tackle from Burkinbé keeper Herve Koffi kept the Stallions in it until Fabrice Ondona let in a soft late equalizer.
Here's hoping for another memorable match for the annals. We've talked about the form Cameroon enter this tournament in. Kamou Malo's Bukinabés aren't doing half bad either. The Stallions are unbeaten in seven on the trot. While the hosts should be considered favorites to take all three points, the bookie is a bit concerned about early COVID quarantines for Christian Bassogog and Clinton N'jie.
At last check, Vincent Aboubakar and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting have also had injury problems precluding them from taking part in full team training. In terms of talent, the advantage goes to the hosts. To assume that this team is prepared to click already this early nevertheless seems a stretch.
Bookie tips a draw. Hopefully another immensely entertaining one.
THE LINE: Pick em'
Cape Verde vs. Ethiopia
A fairly big moment for both of these programs. The Cape Verdean Sharks return to AFCON following a seven-year-absence whilst the Ethiopian Walias have not attained this level since 2013. On paper, Bubista's Islanders retain a clear advantage; or at least that's what we all through before we saw the East Africans net three against Sudan in a pre-tournament friendly.
Despite the fact that Ethiopians did get the "bottom of the barrel" treatment in the Preview section, the bookie should emphasize that he is familiar with some of the players on this team. Shimelis Bekele, Amanuel Gebremichael, and Getaneh Kebede are competent offensive actors who can (and in fact just did) contribute on the pitch.
I really do like the Sharks here, but you have to understand that the opening day at AFCON is commonly known as the "Day of the Draw". In two of the four competitions that we've covered, the first two fixtures needed in draws. To the bookie's infinite chagrin and embarrassment, the two matches in the very first tourney that we covered in this sportsbook (2013) ended 0-0.
Lovers of international football generally concede that it can take time for tournament squads to get rolling. These players have barely had time to grow accustomed to each other. Hopefully it won't be another 0-0, but I'm thinking that these two sides won't be separated.
THE LINE: Pick em'
Monday, January 10th
Senegal vs. Zimbabwe
Another 2017 rematch gets us started on Monday. These two sides met in the second group stage fixture of the competition taking place five years ago this month. On that day, Sadio Mané and Henri Saviet lifted the Teranga Lions into the knockouts with a second consecutive 2-0 victory.
Great team that year.
Great kits too.
One of the big tournament favorites shouldn't have too much difficulty getting of the mark quickly here. Aliou Cissé's lads won't be in their smoothest form, but they really don't need to be against a broken team winless in its last twelve. The only two wins the warriors have even managed over the last three years came in flukish circumstances during the qualifying round.
We have to set a high line here for what might be a blowout.
THE LINE: Senegal +3 Goals
Guinea vs. Malawi
A warm welcome to our syndicate debutants "The Flames". As if the task ahead of them wasn't difficult enough, it's just been confirmed that Malawi will be without perhaps their two best players after Charles Petro and Mark Foyada tested positive for COVID. They already weren't a stable club under new Romanian trainer Mario Marincia.
Not to say that everything is going necessarily going smoothy for the Syli National either. We noted in the preview section that their program is in the equivalent of emergency receivership as well. Following Didier Six's dismissal, new head-coach Kaba Diawara hasn't had a chance to get a victory underneath his fragmented (and some report) squabbling squad.
In this case the talent gap looks to be simply too great. The National Elephants have enough European top flight level quality to prevail even if coordination and muscle memory isn't up to standards yet. If the bookie happens to be wrong about this, say hello to prime "Cinderella Candidates" emergent. This being AFCON, we might get more than one of those.
THE LINE: Guinea +1 Goal
Morocco vs. Ghana
This tournament was actually scheduled to kick off this past Friday. A two-day-delay was approved late so as to give teams a little extra time to set up camp and (very importantly) make sure that said camp was as COVID free as possible. As a result of this, we're already getting simultaneous kickoffs in the first round. Guinea-Malawi will kick off at the same time as this one does.
Bookie is obviously imparting this information for a reason. You mustn't consider missing this match. DON'T THINK ABOUT SKIPPING THIS ONE. Good Lord, what an offering. We've no nostalgic photo to throw up this time as, incredibly, these two African giants have not met on this level since we started syndicate coverage of the African continental festival in 2013.
Bookie isn't in point of fact very happy about this, but it's not shaping up to be the tit-for-tat affair that we all want. Vahid Halihodzic's Atlas Lions appear to be much stronger than the beloved Black Stars. Fears for the bookie's cherished Gold Coast Brethren were confirmed with the 0-3 loss to Algeria in the test match.
You may wish to take advantage of the low line accorded here. Black Stars bias certainly plays a role in it being just one goal. Perhaps the oddsmaker just inherently wants to watch the sub-Saharans make a go of it. You be the judge.
THE LINE: Morocco +1 Goal
Comoros vs. Gabon
The breaking news has Gabonese talisman Pierre Emerick Aubameyang out for this one with COVID. After some thought, I've come to the conclusion that this happens to be one of those cases that doesn't really affect the line. If anything, the temptation was to push it up a bit higher.
The Panthers may end up performing better without this unwelcome distraction.
When it comes to the (no joke) Coelacanths, we're obviously dealing with a completely unknown entity. AFCON invariably always features at least one out-of-nowhere team. The first tournament with the expanded field of 24 taught us that we can have two, Benin and Madagascar.
Just wait and see when it comes to the "Prehistoric Fishes". That's all the bookie suggests. If the big underdogs can escape with a draw here, we can all have a conversation about momentum. It won't be too early at all. Promise.
For now, it has to be a high line.
THE LINE: Gabon +2 Goals
Tuesday, January 11th
Nigeria vs. Egypt
Another heavyweight battle to get you started on Tuesday. For whatever it's worth, a lot of the "stats houses" are picking these two teams as the most likely to win the tournament. Bookie happens to think that those algorithms are pretty useful in tournament football. As anyone who covers them knows, the "bracket paths" are anything but fair and balanced.
If you generate probable group stage finishes, then run the various permutations through the hypothetical knockout round brackets, it ends up looking like the winner of this group will likely get the most favorable path to the final. All the more reason why YOU MUST NOT MISS THIS MONSTER MATCH EITHER. Everything is on the line Tuesday in Garoua.
No little "make me a memory" photo to share here either as the teams kept missing one another in the previous syndicate chapters. The Pharaohs weren't there at all when the Super Eagles took the title in 2013 as it was the middle of their seven-year-slog away from Port Said. The Eagles themselves missed out on the two tournaments after they captured the crown.
In summation, just beautiful stuff. Neither one of these programs has been able to retrieve their glory since their last major continental win. The Eagles came closest last time in their long awaited return to the competition.
The heart goes one way, the head the other. Bookie feels completely comfortable allowing them to offset and tip a draw here. It should really be Queiroz's match to lose. His Egypt stand a better chance than the side in disarray. At a certain point, however, the home-field advantage has to kick in for the sub-Saharan teams.
This feels like a good time for it to do so.
THE LINE: Pick em'
Sudan vs. Guinea-Bissau
I generally like the Djurtu lineup I was able to piece together in the preview section. These two teams have literally just met twice as part of the same World Cup Qualifying Group. They squared off in September and November. In both cases the Falcons surprised.
A Mohamed Abdelrahman brace wasn't enough in the first meeting, which Guinea Bissau still won 4-2. The two sides then drew 0-0 in a final qualifying round fixture so meaningless for both teams that both coaches mostly went with reserves.
Watching some highlights and playing around a bit with potential lineups featuring Sudanese players I've never heard of didn't convince me that some sort of sensational upset could be in the cards here.
If you know something the bookie doesn't, feel free to chime in.
THE LINE: Guinea-Bissau +1 Goal
Algeria vs. Sierra Leone
We could get an upset here. Okay not really. That's more wishful thinking than anything else. One sort of fancies the idea of the Fennecs storming out of the gate here, particularly in light of their uplifting performance in the recent FIFA Arab Cup. All North African teams retain that advantage to a certain extent, but finalists Algeria and Tunisia are the most likely to parlay momentum.
Chances of the defending champions repeating remains a different story entirely. When it comes to the initial statement, however, there's a totally shambolic team to beat up upon here. The poor Leone Stars dropped a friendly to the Comoros in their most recent recorded piece of action in November. Not looking good for those syndicate debutants.
We'll nevertheless lower the line a bit to account for their extra adrenaline.
THE LINE: Algeria +2 Goals
Wednesday, January 12th
Cote d'Ivoire vs. Equatorial Guinea
It was actually one year prior to the bookie's initial AFCON sportsbook coverage that these two teams last met on the grand continental stage. While it's not technically part of syndicate lore, I sure as hell was watching that year.
Cote d'Ivoire's enthralling 3-0 victory over the Equatoguineans in the quarterfinals proved an critically important moment in the decision to cover the 2013 tournament.
The legend himself with a brace! That's Gervinho right behind him. Yaya Touré also scored in this fantastic romp. Such an incredible tournament that year, actually won by Zambia in a penalty shootout just as dramatic as the one Cote d'Ivoire ended up winning three years later.
Drogba was retired by then, but the video of his family watching the 2015 win in real time remains the best thing ever shared on the internet. No bloody debate on this brothers. The bookie hath spoken!
Anyways, we've gotten entirely off tangent here. I simply wanted to bring up the 2012 tournament as a personal milestone. I can vividly recall realizing that anyone missing out on tournament football was essentially missing out on life.
You don't want to skip AFCON, gentlemen. This should be a pretty good match between regional rivals as well. No clue which one of Les Elephants' six qualified strikers gets the brace here, but I'll back one of them to do so.
THE LINE: Cote d'Ivoire +2 Goals
Tunisia vs. Mali
Great match here. Bookie truly loves both of these teams, neither of which has missed an AFCON since coverage began. He's got a photo for you too. The Timbuktu Eagles and the Carthaginian ones just met in the group stages of the last competition. Splendid goals in the 1-1 draw.
Vicey's "Bundesliga Buddy" Diadie Samassekou.
Yeah, okay. Former Sunderland striker Whabi Khazri as well.
You've probably gotten a very clear idea of which team the bookie prefers based on the reactions to those two photographs. Alas, I didn't tip the Eagles of Carthage to win this tournament for nothing.
A different result would be perfectly fine for me. The Line must reflect the expected reality.
THE LINE: Tunisia +1 Goal
Mauritania vs. Gambia
Oh Christ. Who the hell knows? Partially because he was running out of steam, the bookie found little of analytical worth on either one of these sides in the preview sections. You can rightly accuse the bookie of running out of steam here too.
The fact is that we're bound to get at least one 0-0 stinker during this opening round. If fate smiles upon us, it shall be this one. With a point apiece, we might be compelled to care a little more about these two sides when it comes to the next round of Lines.
THE LINE: Pick em'
GENTLEMEN, ENTER YOUR WAGERS