Afcon 2021: Group B preview - Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea & Malawi

Algeria lift the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 2019
Algeria are looking to defend the Africa Cup of Nations trophy they won in 2019

The 33rd Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Cameroon on Sunday 9 January after being delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic.

Here, BBC Sport Africa runs the rule over Group B, which includes 2019 runners-up Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea and Malawi.

Fixtures

Monday, 10 January; Senegal v Zimbabwe, Guinea v Malawi

Friday, 14 January: Senegal v Guinea, Malawi v Zimbabwe

Tuesday, 18 January: Malawi v Senegal, Zimbabwe v Guinea

Senegal

Sadio Mane in action for Senegal
Liverpool forward Sadio Mane provides a threat up front for Senegal, runners-up in the last Nations Cup
Appearance: 16thBest finish: Runners-up (2002 and 2019)
Coach: Aliou CisseCaptain: Kalidou Koulibaly
Fifa ranking: 20Nickname: Lions of Teranga

Babacar Diarra (BBC Sport Africa, Dakar): Remaining the top African side in Fifa's world rankings for 36 months is a record and a proof of consistency.

Still, any other outcome than becoming champions would be considered a failure for Senegal, beaten finalists in 2019. The federation openly reminded head coach Aliou Cisse of this target while his contract was renewed until the 2022 World Cup.

Since the tournament in Egypt, the backbone of the team has not changed a lot with Edouard Mendy as goalkeeper, captain Kalidou Koulibaly as defensive leader, Idrissa Gana Gueye in the midfield and Sadio Mane the main offensive threat.

The depth of the squad could be an issue as Monaco winger Krepin Diatta's season is already over after his knee surgery while the other main rising star, Watford's Ismaila Sarr, is also recovering from a knee injury and might miss the start of the tournament.

Twenty years after their first appearance in the final, Senegal hope to finally bring a trophy home.

Zimbabwe

Knowledge Musona in action for Zimbabwe
Al Tai and Zimbabwe striker Knowledge Musona captains a side hit by injuries and FA chaos
Appearance: 5thBest finish: Group stage (2004, 2006, 2017, 2019)
Coach: Norman MapezaCaptain: Knowledge Musona
Fifa ranking: 121Nickname: The Warriors

Steve Vickers (Sports journalist, Harare): Zimbabwe go into their fifth Nations Cup with issues at boardroom level which risk a ban from international football. The board of the country's football association (Zifa) was recently suspended and even claimed the appointment of Norman Mapeza as coach was not valid.

The Warriors have been hit by injuries to key players including midfielder Marvelous Nakamba (Aston Villa), Brendan Galloway (Plymouth) and Marshall Munetsi (Reims), while the influential Khama Billiat announced his retirement from international football in November.

This leaves captain Knowledge Musona, playing in Saudi Arabia, and Lyon forward Tino Kadewere as the biggest names in the squad.

Zimbabwe have just one win from their past 18 matches in all competitions - the away victory in Botswana which saw them qualify.

Their last win at the Nations Cup finals was a 2-1 victory over Ghana in 2006, while the 2017 and 2019 campaigns saw them securing one point both times. Given the build-up, it looks like being another difficult finals.

Guinea

Naby Keita in action for Guinea
Naby Keita is set to come up against Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane when Guinea face Senegal on 14 January
Appearance: 13thBest finish: Runners-up (1976)
Coach: Kaba DiawaraCaptain: Naby Keita
Fifa ranking: 81Nickname: Syli National

Cellou Tata (Conakry-based sports journalist): Unease is deep in Guinea, after World Cup qualifying was far from a smooth river. Coach Didier Six was dismissed after three games and his deputy, the former international Kaba Diawara, took over the post.

Yet to win a single match, the work that awaits him is enormous. We are not far from the atmosphere of the last Nations Cup, which saw the Syli National ingloriously eliminated in the last 16 by eventual champions Algeria.

Midfielders Amadou Diawara (Roma), Mady Camara (Olympiakos) and Naby Keita (Liverpool) do not gel and what was supposed to be an asset has become a weakness.

The challenge for Kaba Diawara will be to have the courage to put some "executives" aside for the sake of the team - as he showed by omitting Camara from his squad.

After Fifa appointed a normalisation committee for the Guinean Football Federation, the first objective will be figuring out how to avoid the fiasco of 2019.

Malawi

Charles Petro in action for Malawi
Malawi defender Charles Petro plays for Moldova's Sheriff Tiraspol
Appearance: ThirdBest finish: Group stage (1984, 2010)
Head of technical panel: Mario MarinicaCaptain: John Banda
Fifa ranking: 129Nickname: The Flames

Frank Kandu (Football writer in Malawi): Malawi will be making just their third appearance at the continent's biggest football festival. On previous appearances in 1984 and 2010, they failed to get past the group stage.

Meck Mwase was rewarded with a two-year contract extension for becoming only the third coach to lead the country to the finals, but since qualifying the side has struggled.

The Flames won just one of six group matches in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers - results which forced swift changes by the Football Association of Malawi. Mario Marinica was named head of Malawi's technical panel with Mwase demoted to assistant coach.

Marinica believes Malawi can beat the likes of Zimbabwe and Guinea but he has a big task making his team ready for the big stage.

"High expectations lead to bitter disappointment. We do not want that to happen. So we will try to improve on our shortcomings so that we have a good performance at Afcon," the Romanian has said.

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