JOHANNESBURG: Mohamed Salah, in prolific form for Liverpool this season, will lead Egypt against bogey team Nigeria in a blockbuster Group D opener at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.
Salah leads all scorers in the Premier League this season with 16 goals, including one in the 2-2 draw with Chelsea on Sunday, his last match before leaving for west Africa.
Although Egypt have won a record seven Cup of Nations titles, they have triumphed only twice in seven clashes with three-time champions Nigeria in the competition ahead of the January 11 showdown.
Here, AFP Sport puts the spotlight on the four Group D contenders. The group winners and runners-up are assured of last-16 places while the best four third-placed teams from the six groups also qualify.
The Pharaohs' Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz has backed Aston Villa forward Mahmoud 'Trezeguet' Hassan to shine at the Cup of Nations although he has not played a full senior match since mid-April due to injury.
The 27-year-old was an unused substitute in three Premier League matches during December before coming off the bench for a cameo appearance against Brentford.
"Trezeguet is an experienced and good player," former Real Madrid manager and twice Manchester United assistant manager Queiroz said. "I am sure he will be a key figure for us."
Unlike most Cameroon-bound teams, Egypt will rely heavily on home-based stars, choosing 19 and only six based abroad, including Salah and Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny.
A chaotic build-up for Nigeria has included a change of coaches, the loss of a star forward because they requested his release too late, and the withdrawal of several key players due to Covid and injuries.
German Gernot Rohr was sacked after the Super Eagles scraped into the final round of 2022 World Cup qualifying and Augustine Eguavoen, who played for Nigeria at the 1994 World Cup, has been placed in temporary charge.
He will have to do without in-form Emmanuel Dennis because Premier League club Watford say Nigeria did not alert them in time that they were selecting him, and coronavirus has ruled out another regular scorer, Victor Osimhen of Italian club Napoli.
But Nigeria are never more dangerous than when all seems lost. They possess a squad capable of winning the Cup of Nations, or making a humiliating last-16 exit.
The Djurtus (wild dogs), for decades an African football lightweight, have reached the finals a third consecutive time under coach Baciro Cande.
Gritty fighters in qualifiers, the west Africans have struggled at the higher level of the finals, securing just one point from each previous appearance.
But a team skippered by goalkeeper Jonas Mendes will be hopeful of a first win when they start against Sudan, a nation they hammered 4-2 in a World Cup qualifier in Omdurman last September.
Mendes and forwards Piqueti and Frederic Mendy were part of the 2017 and 2019 campaigns and Porto full-back Nanu and midfielder Moreto Cassama, from French Ligue 1 club Reims, are potential stars.
One-time champions Sudan are back after a 10-year absence having used aerial power to upset South Africa in a key qualifier.
The Jediane Falcons reached the 2012 quarter-finals, but it is difficult to imagine them repeating that feat under new coach Burhan Tia.
He succeeded Frenchman Hubert Velud, who paid the price for winless World Cup and Arab Cup group campaigns.
Salah-less Egypt hammered Sudan 5-0 in the Arab Cup while the chances of repeating a 4-0 whipping of Nigeria in 1963 are wafer thin. That leaves Guinea-Bissau as the only realistic hope of a victory.
AFP predicts: 1. Egypt, 2. Nigeria, 3. Guinea-Bissau, 4. Sudan