Absences leave 2012 Africa Cup of Nations wide open
This month's Africa Cup of Nations is the most open tournament in years and as much about those that haven't made the finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon as about those who have.
The Carthage Eagles, who lifted the trophy on home soil in 2004, are the only team at the finals to have won the competition since the early 1990s. In 1992, this year's favourites, Ivory Coast, beat Ghana in a final played in Senegal - and these three countries headline the leading acts at this month's tournament.
The Senegalese are the first in action, playing in Saturday's opening round of Group A matches, meaning that Newcastle United fans won't have to wait long to catch a first glimpse of their new number 9 - but whether the freescoring Papiss Demba Cisse starts against Zambia is open to question.
Senegal coach Amara Traore has top-quality strikers in the shape of Moussa Sow (last season's Lille hero who is now seemingly Fenerbahce-bound), Newcastle's Demba Ba, high-flying Montpellier forward Souleymane Camara and former Marseille man and current national captain Mamadou Niang - but five into three clearly doesn't go, so someone has to miss out.
Most bookmakers have Senegal at what seems a generous 6/1, with Ghana rated at 4/1 while Ivory Coast are the stand-out favourites at 6/4 - but whether they can handle this tag is another matter.
Ivory Coast are bookmakers' favourites, but come with a reputation as chokers
The Elephants earned a "chokers" tag following failures in 2006, 2008 and 2010 (fully deserving the label on the last occasion after they blew a 90th-minute lead in the quarter-finals against Algeria) and coach Francois Zahoui is fully aware of his side's previous mental failings, saying this week that the Ivorians' status as favourites is one "we need to manage psychologically better".
As Yaya Toure says, it's time to deliver and while Manchester City fans may hope the Elephants stumble early on so that he can help their nervy title campaign, long-suffering fans in Ivory Coast will only accept one result from this supposedly gilt-edged generation.
Any slip-up in a group containing Burkina Faso, Angola and Sudan could lead them to face Senegal in the quarters since the Teranga Lions should comfortably depose of Equatorial Guinea, Libya and Zambia in Group A. Indeed if all goes to plan, the Ivorians are set to meet likely Group D table-toppers Ghana in the Libreville final on 12 February.
The Black Stars look well-placed to win their first trophy since 1982 and enjoy that trusty blend of youth and experience - with old-timers like John Mensah and John Paintsil mixing with Asamoah Gyan (still only 26) and youngsters Andre "Dede" Ayew, Emmanuel Agyemang Badu and Kojo Asamoah (who could do with a decent finals).
Coach Goran Stevanovic - who seems to have taken over from World Cup coach Milovan Rajevac effortlessly - makes no secret of his belief that his charges have the ability to be African champions and relishes the pressure in a way Ivorians appear not to.
While these may be the major players, although Morocco's Atlas Lions (boasting Premier League names in Marouane Chamakh and Adel Taarabt) look strong too, the supporting cast is just as intriguing.
All those involved with Zambian football are feeling raw emotions as the Chipolopolo contest a finals in an area where most of the national team died in a plane crash in 1993 - the plane coming down off the coast of Gabon en route to a game in Senegal who, fittingly perhaps, Zambia meet in their opening game.
Niger are among a trio of Cup of Nations debutants, along with Botswana and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea
Libya are also set to steal many headlines as a team representing a new nation comes out in new colours, with a new nickname, anthem and flag, and boasting former rebel soldiers among their number.
The newly named Mediterranean Knights meet an incredibly limited Equatorial Guinea side in Saturday's opening match, when a team that has never come close to qualifying for the Nations Cup makes its tournament debut.
Given that they lost their last competitive match 2-1 to Madagascar - a World Cup qualifier in November - and that their coach took charge just 18 days ago, any point is going to be welcome for a side whose naturalisation of foreign players has rankled many with genuine Equatoguinean heritage in the squad.
Some have been critical of taking the tournament to Equatorial Guinea, a country that has been criticised over its human rights record, and to Gabon, which put its oil wealth to such effect that the Central African nation once had the world's highest per capita consumption of champagne.
There is also the question of how many travelling fans will actually be there, given the problems many journalists have had acquiring visas, and whether we are set for another Nations Cup where the stands are depressingly empty for any game not involving the host.
The Equatoguineans are joined by Niger and Botswana as debutants at the finals, but it will be a major upset - albeit a most welcome one - should any of them get out of their groups.
For aside, obviously, from the absence of any repeat ofa Cabinda-style tragedy, what would be most welcome at these finals would be some decent games. Too often, recent Nations Cup matches have appeared one-sided affairs - and I can only recall four games with any fondness from the last finals (where, as discussed before, teams seemed to win through not because of their class but simply because one of them had to).
From a neutral's perspective, it would enjoyable if the big teams' absence leads to a more even playing field - one where teams that go behind have the wherewithal to fight back to win (as has happened just six times in the last 68 matches) - and if a new generation of stars can seize the opportunity this power vacuum leaves.
With Samuel Eto'o, Osaze Odemwingie and Ahmed Hassan among the notable absentees, can the likes of Alain Traore and Jonathan Pitroipa (Burkina Faso), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon), Oussama Darragui (Tunisia), Modibo Maiga (Mali) and Alhassane Bangoura (Guinea) steal their thunder?