The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations: A group by group guide to the challengers

This year's tournament begins on January 14th in Gabon

Ghana, Africa Cup of nations

A Ghana soccer team supporter painted in Ghana flag chants before their their African Cup of Nations Semifinals soccer match with Equatorial Guinea at Estadio De Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, Thursday Feb. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

The Africa Cup of Nations is a tournament that the managers of the major European leagues dread as it takes centre stage right in the middle of the domestic club season.

But taking clubs out of the equation, it will be interesting to see familiar talents like Sadio Mane (Senegal), Riyad Mahrez (Algeria) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon) performing in a vastly different environment to the Premier League, Bundesliga or elsewhere.

And the tournament has become increasingly well balanced as there is no national team in the Confederation of African Football that stands out above any of the others. Indeed, the 2013 champions and most populous nation Nigeria for example, didn't even qualify this time, just like in 2015.

All of which makes it hard to predict whether Ivory Coast will retain a trophy won so dramatically two years ago; if Egypt can make it eight titles; whether Cameroon can resurrect some of the vestiges of their glorious past; and if there is a surprise package like the fairytale Zambia win from 2012.

The format hasn't changed at all for Gabon 2017 with four groups of four teams with the top two from each going into the quarter-finals.

Group A

Teams: Gabon, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea Bissau

There is an intriguing mix in Group A from the host nation Gabon and the formerly Indomitable Lions of Cameroon to 2013 runners up Burkina Faso and debutants Guinea Bissau.

Gabon have the most fearsome striker in the tournament in the shape of Borussia Dortmund's Pierre Emerick Aubameyang who has scored 20 goals from 22 games in all competitions this. He also happened to finish second for African Footballer of the Year 2016, just 12 months after winning the award.

Last time, Gabon hosted (or co-hosted to be more precise) in 2012, they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Mali on penalties. Home advantage and Aubameyang's goals could help them through again.

Cameroon last won the tournament in 2002 but don't have the big names they tended to take to tournaments in the past i.e. think Samuel Eto'o and Roger Milla to name just two.

They have also been deprived of players like Liverpool defender Joel Matip and West Brom's Allan Nyom, who were ultimately not called up after deciding to concentrate on club matters.

The final squad lacks any standout names which is a sign of Cameroon's slip down the African pecking order, with group rivals Burkina Faso among those nations that can now match up with them evenly.

They reached the final in 2013, only to lose to Nigeria, although they then failed to win a game in the 2015 tournament.

Veterans of the squad like Aristide Bancé and Jonathan Pitroipa are still in the squad for 2017.

Guinea Bissau, meanwhile, is the country of origin of the Portugal player Eder who scored the winning goal at Euro 2016. 

However, as a footballing nation, the tiny west African nation has never tasted tangible success at international level - until now that is.

For the first time in the country's history, the ex-Portuguese colony has qualified for the Nations Cup with a squad of mostly Portugal based players.

Algeria's Riyad Mahrez, foreground, fouls Belgium's Toby Alderweireld, rear falling, during the group H World Cup soccer match between Belgium and Algeria at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Group B

Teams: Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Zimbabwe

It's a toss up between Groups B, C and D for the title of Group of Death.  

B has an Algeria team that were heavily fancied two years ago but ultimately fell short. And the Desert Foxes arrive with talents across the squad including Leicester City duo Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez, who could do damage to opposition defences if fully unleashed.

The 2014 World Cup knockout stage qualifiers also have FC Porto winger Yacine Brahimi as well as Napoli left-back Faouzi Ghoulam to call upon.

They start off against Zimbabwe which gives them a real chance to get off to a good start and momentum.

The Zimbabweans, meanwhile, rarely qualify for the Nations Cup so face a tough task to get off a group which also features a Senegal side with talent to match the Algerians.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane is the main attraction for the 2002 World Cup quarter-finalists, but the Premier League is also represented by West Ham's Cheikou Kouyate and Everton's Idrissa Gana Gueye in midfield. Mame Biram Diouf is Senegal's current top scorer within the 2017 squad although he has not been prolific at Stoke.

Napoli defender Kalidou Kouliably is highly rated at the back for his club however.

Tunisia won the tournament in 2004 on home soil and at one time used to be regular World Cup qualifiers. 

They have been doing well in the qualifiers for 2018 and in the current squad, Sunderland's Wahbi Khazri is the most recognisable name to our ears.

Group C

Teams: Ivory Coast, DR Congo, Morocco, Togo

Funnily enough, Ivory Coast kept falling short - often agonisingly - when Didier Drogba led their golden generation of talent from the mid-2000s to the early 2010s. 

But in their first Nations Cup without the Chelsea legend, Yaya Toure and co finally got their hands on the trophy in 2015 in dramatic fashion after a comeback in a penalty shootout against Ghana.

Toure has since retired on 100 caps and one Nations Cup, but there is still talent in the squad. Wilfried Zaha's switch of allegiance gives them pace and trickery out wide, while Wilfried Bony will hope to recover his best form up front.

Atalanta midfielder Franck Kessie (20) has been getting plenty of attention and Manchester United fans have taken to combative centre-back Eric Bailly very quickly.

The team to beat? Well, they haven't lost competitive matches or friendlies since January 2015.

DR Congo will give them a tough battle having finished third in 2015 and have a nice sprinkle of recognisable and experienced names in the team from Newcastle's Chancel Mbemba to Norwich's Youssouff Mulumbu and Villarreal forward Cédric Bakambu.

The Leopards have been doing well in the World Cup qualifiers, sitting joint top of their group with Tunisia.

Morocco were due to host the 2015 tournament but withdrew due to fears over the Ebola virus. Initially banned by CAF, that suspension was lifted and they have made it to 2017 and centre back Mehdi Benatia has been the most celebrated individal player at club level. Southampton attacking midfielder Sofiane Boufal was also part of the country's plans in Gabon until injury ruled him out.

As for Togo, Emmanuel Adebayor remains part of what they do despite being without a club. His 30 goals for his country is more than the 22 other members of the squad put together - which possibly says something about their chances in Gabon. 

Tunisia's Wahbi Khazri, left, and Egypt's Mohamed Salah compete for the ball during their Africa Cup of Nations group G qualifying soccer match in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. The two other teams in group G are Senegal and Botswana. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Group D

Teams: Ghana, Mali, Egypt, Uganda

Group D will see one decent side go out as Ghana, Mali and Egypt all have players to watch out for and in Ghana and Egypt's case, 11 trophies between them.

Two years ago, Ghana reached the final and were unlucky to lose on penalties and still have veterans of past successful World Cup campaigns like vice captain Andre Ayew and captain Asamoah Gyan.

There are other experienced names in the squad as well as the young talent from the underage ranks that the west African nation has long produced.

As Ghana went far in 2015, Mali failed to reach the group stage. But their recent pedigree before that has been decent, finishing third in 2012 and 2013.

Seven-time champions Egypt have endured plenty of upheaval politically as a nation but there is standout talent in this squad with Arsenal's Mohamed Elneny and Roma winger Mohamed Salah particularly well known.

Salah is almost at the 30-goal mark for his country despite playing fewer than 50 times at international level.

On paper, Uganda are the weakest team in the group, with their last appearance coming all the way back in 1978 when they reached the final of the tournament. 

Only four of the squad are European based and not in major leagues either.