Time for Ghana's Black Stars to light up Africa

GROUP D FIXTURES

  • 24 Jan: Ghana v Botswana
  • 24 Jan: Mali v Guinea
  • 28 Jan: Botswana v Guinea
  • 28 Jan: Ghana v Mali
  • 01 Feb: Botswana v Mali (Libreville)
  • 01 Feb: Ghana v Guinea

Group D has drawn one of the tournament favourites, four-time champions Ghana, against 1976 runners-up Guinea, hit-and-miss Mali and debutants Botswana.

Until the last round of matches, the group will be based in Franceville in Gabon.

GHANA

GHANA FACTFILE

  • Nickname: Black Stars
  • Coach: Goran Stevanovic
  • Captain: John Mensah
  • Nations Cup record: Making 18th appearance
  • Best Performance: Winners (1963, 1965, 1978, 1982)
  • Fifa ranking: 26

There will surely never be a better time for Ghana to end a 30-year Nations Cup drought than at a finals for which traditional powerhouses Egypt (who have won the last three tournaments), Cameroon and Nigeria have all failed to qualify.

Since their last triumph in 1982, the Black Stars - whose four Nations Cups are only bettered by Egypt's seven - have at least proven their pedigree on the global stage, coming closer than any other African team to reaching the World Cup semi-finals at the 2010 edition in South Africa .

Over half of the World Cup squad will be in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, with Andre 'Dede' Ayew and Asamoah Gyan expected to be as influential this month as they were in South Africa.

Did you know?

On the two previous occasions that Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria all missed the Nations Cup, the Black Stars reached the final on both occasions - winning in 1965 but losing three years later

One notable squad addition is Emmanuel Agyemang Badu, the Udinese midfielder who has been earning rave reviews this season but who missed the World Cup through injury.

He is one of seven players from Ghana's historic Under-20 squad in the side, with the Black Satellites becoming the first African nation to win Fifa's U20 World Cup in 2009 .

Another key change comes in goal where Norway-born Adam Kwarasey has become coach Goran Stevanovic's number one in place of Richard Kingson.

Although Ivory Coast are the highest-ranked Fifa team in the finals (18th) and the favourites, many people are backing Ghana (26th) to go one step closer than they did in Angola - when a side missing several regulars and patched up with youth reached the final.

The Black Stars only succumbed to an 85th-minute match-winner from Egypt and although they must do without Michael Essien once again, his deputies have shown they are more than capable of covering his giant footsteps.

BOTSWANA

BOTSWANA FACTFILE

  • Nickname: The Zebras
  • Coach: Stanley Tshosane
  • Captain: Diphetogo Selolwane
  • Nations Cup record: Tournament debutants
  • Fifa ranking: 94

While all eyes were on the World Cup in South Africa in July 2010, a funny thing happened at the other end of the continent.

For a team that had totalled just eight Nations cup qualifying wins in history won 1-0 in Tunisia to start a run of five victories from their opening six games.

This remarkable form qualified the Zebras for their first ever finals but the mood within the squad has significantly dampened since.

Botswana's Diphetogo 'Dipsy' Selolwane

Dipsy Selolwane will end his Zebras career with a first Nations Cup finals

Neither the coach nor the players have been happy with the FA, which has failed to give history-making coach Stanley Tshosane a new deal while refusing the squad the bonuses they wanted for the tournament.

Botswana legend Diphetogo 'Dipsy' Selolwane, whose international career will be crowned by his Nations Cup debut, credits Tshosane and the emergence of more professionals as the reasons for the Zebras' success.

"The talent has always been there but the mindset of the players has changed. Guys here have turned professional and that has really changed everyone's thinking," he told BBC Sport.

Did you know?

Dipsy Selolwane is the only Batswana to have ever played in Europe, although his spell in Denmark in the early 1990s was short-lived

Tshosane has been able to mould the team thanks to nearly a decade's work with the technical team - and will rely on goalkeeper Modiri Marumo, veteran midfielder Mogogi Gabonamong and striker Jerome Ramatlhakwane, who netted five goals of Botswana's seven qualifying goals.

Ramatlhakwane may be rusty after seeing precious little action at club level due to contractual rows, while locals tip defensive midfielder Oftense Nato, just 22, as one to watch in Africa's Team of 2011 .

MALI

MALI FACTFILE

  • Nickname: Eagles
  • Coach: Alain Giresse
  • Captain: Cedric Kante
  • Nations Cup record: Making 7th appearance
  • Best Performance: Runners-Up (1972)
  • Fifa ranking: 69

After an incredible record at their first four Nations Cups - when they reached the semi-finals on every occasion - Mali's recent displays have been poor.

In both 2008 and 2010, the team failed to reach the knock-out stages - although the Eagles counted themselves unfortunate to miss out in Angola as the hosts and Algeria played out a lacklustre draw ( which prompted an official Mali protest ).

Coach Alain Giresse will know the conditions in Gabon well since he led the Panthers at the last Nations Cup - and there is the possibility that he could meet the co-hosts in the last eight.

Having taken charge in February 2010, the Frenchman was without Seydou Keita for the first year and a half of his reign - strangely failing to call up the midfielder even after he had ended his self-imposed exile.

Angola's Zuela reacts with disbelief after teh final whistle in Luanda

Mali contested one of the most dramatic games at the last Nations Cup in Angola, drawing 4-4 with the hosts despite trailing by four goals with 11 minutes to play

Did you know?

After reaching the final at their first Nations Cup in 1972, Mali had to wait over two decades before returning to the competition in 1994

But after intense fan pressure, Giresse turned to the Barcelona star in time of need - with the team struggling in qualifying - and passage to the tournament was duly achieved.

Nonetheless, local Malians have low expectations ahead of a finals where they are missing key players ( Adama Coulibaly among others ), will be fielding a newlook youthful side and where retired striker Frederic Kanoute will be conspicuous by his absence.

One reason for the pessimism may have been Mali's unusual preparations, with the federation dismissing Giresse's assistant coach without the Frenchman's approval last month as well as the failure to organise any international friendly prior to the finals.

Striker Garra Dembele could catch the eye while many scouts will be closely following Modibo Maiga, the Sochaux striker whose proposed move to Newcastle United was turned down because of concerns over his knee.

GUINEA

GUINEA FACTFILE

  • Nickname: Eagles
  • Coach: Michel Dussuyer
  • Captain: Kamil Zayatte
  • Nations Cup record: Making 10th appearance
  • Best Performance: Runners-Up (1976)
  • Fifa ranking: 79

Guinea return to the Nations Cup after missing out on the 2010 finals, an unexpected failure since they had reached the quarter-finals at the three preceding tournaments.

The first of these had come under current coach Michel Dussuyer, who reached the last eight in 2004 during his first spell in charge before losing to Mali, who they meet in their first match on 24 January, in the knock-out stage.

Returning after leading Benin at Angola 2010, the Frenchman says he is targeting second place in the group - fighting Mali and Botswana to finish behind 2010 World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana.

Guinea striker Ismael Bangoura

Ismael Bangoura's career has fallen since leaving Ukrainians Dynamo Kiev in 2009

But facing the Black Stars, one of the tournament favourites, should hold few fears for the 1976 runners-up after Guinea knocked out Nigeria in qualifying with a 2-2 draw in Abuja - a result which reflected the squad's mental strength.

Dussuyer must do without midfielder Kevin Constant after the Italy-based star asked not to play at the tournament as his side Genoa try to offload him .

Concerns also surround the form of Ismael Bangoura, a striker with seven Champions League goals to his name during his time with Dynamo Kiev but whose most recent club football has been in the United Arab Emirates.

Did you know?

Pascal Feindouno will be the player with the most Nations Cup goals at the finals - his tally of 8 one better than that of Ivorian Didier Drogba

Meanwhile, veteran Dianbobo Balde looks set for his final Nations Cup as the imposing centre-back, now 36, winds down his career in the second tier of French football.

At the other end of the scale, former France youth player Abdoul Razzagui Camara, 21, is one of a handful of up-and-coming youngsters, alongside Spain-based striker Alhassane Bangoura (19) and VfB Stuttgart midfielder Ibrahima Traore (23).