Favorite Algeria to open campaign against South Africa
EBEBIYIN, Equatorial Guinea (AP) Tournament favorite Algeria faces a tricky challenge at the start of its African Cup of Nations campaign against an up-and-coming South Africa in the heat and humidity of the jungle in eastern Equatorial Guinea on Monday.
The Algerians are tipped by many as the team with the best chance of winning the title after their impressive World Cup performance in Brazil last year. But the unpredictable African Cup is a different proposition to FIFA's slick showpiece tournament, even more so for Algeria after it was drawn to play in Mongomo, one of two small and remote host towns in Equatorial Guinea's far east.
Also, coach Christian Gourcuff's Algeria is pitted against tough West African opposition in Ghana and Senegal as well as the South Africans in Group C, probably the hardest group.
''We mustn't be complacent,'' midfielder Medhi Lacen said. ''We have a team of great quality, great players, but we must remember the African Cup is not the World Cup. It's much more physical and we have to be ready for that.''
Algeria is based way out on the Gabonese border. Its many Europe-based players, just out of winter there, face heat, dripping humidity and other logistical challenges - like an hour-plus drive to their training base in Oyala, a city being built in the middle of the rainforest and planned as the future capital city of Equatorial Guinea.
''It's going to be difficult for sure,'' Riyad Mahrez said of the group stage.
South Africa - the host of the last Cup of Nations - has come through a qualifying campaign for the first time since 2008, and is rejuvenated under new coach Ephraim Mashaba.
''The squad that we have now has got fire in their eyes and the energy they have is unbelievable,'' defender Anele Ngcongca said. ''We are all looking forward to this tournament and I think we can surprise a lot of teams.''
Group C's other two teams also have lots to prove.
Ghana had a disastrous World Cup last year, failing to win a game as a wrangle between players and officials over team bonuses destroyed squad morale. And Senegal failed to qualify for the African Cup two years ago, and got knocked out in the first-round the time before that.
Ghana and Senegal open the group at the little-known Mongomo Stadium on Monday before Algeria plays South Africa.
The remote conditions have already affected Ghana's buildup, with captain Asamoah Gyan diagnosed with mild malaria on Sunday, the Ghana Football Association said. The striker has been released from the hospital in Mongomo and is being monitored by doctors, but is doubtful to face Senegal.