Less than four months have passed since Baghdad Bounedjah’s bizarre, looping second-minute effort secured the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations title for Algeria, yet the continent’s major sides are resuming hostilities.
In October, the eight lowest-ranked nations in Africa played off for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the big boys, but Wednesday’s group stage openers mark the proper kickoff for the Cameroon 2021 campaign.
Uganda is set to feature a largely unchanged squad except that they will now be under the command of a new coach Jonathan McKinstry.
Defending champs get tricky start
Algeria begin their title defence against Zambia in Blida, with the Chipolopolo one of several heavyweights who will be desperate to bounce back after missing out on the 2019 tournament.
Djamel Belmadi has largely stuck with the players who served him so well in Egypt, but with retired Rafik Halliche, unattached Mehdi Zeffane and Yacine Brahimi among the few absentees from the Afcon-winning squad.
Dual-nationality Italo-Algerian centre-back Maxime Spano has been introduced, following a fine start to the season with Ligue 2 Valenciennes, while El-Arbi Hillel Soudani returns after hitting five goals for Olympiakos.
Amusingly, Haris Belkebla, who was axed from the Afcon squad on the eve of the tournament after unknowingly revealing his buttocks to the watching world during a live Fortnite stream, has been handed a recall.
Zambia, now under Aggrey Chiyangi following the disastrous tenure of Sven Vandenbroeck, have nothing to lose away at the champions, but can ill afford to drop points at home against Zimbabwe (who meet Botswana on Thursday) in their second group game next Monday.
The Warriors will be without Charlton Athletic striker Macauley Bonne despite procuring a Zimbabwean passport for him after “unforeseen medical grounds” prevented him from joining up with the team.
“I’ve been working extremely hard at club level,” he wrote in a statement on his @MBonne9 Twitter handle, “and to receive [the passport] is something I dreamed of as a boy.”
Senegal return to fortuitous venue
In Group I, Afcon finalists Senegal begin their campaign against Congo-Brazzaville at the Stade Lat-Dior in Thies, where they won the WAFU Cup of Nations a month ago.
Coach Aliou Cisse has opted not to recruit from that squad, although a team containing Sadio Mane, Idriss Gueye and Kalidou Koulibaly again looks to be among the strongest on the continent.
While Mane will feature for the Teranga Lions, his Liverpool teammate Mohamed Salah will not, after withdrawing from the Egypt squad on Tuesday after picking up an ankle injury in Sunday’s Premier League victory over Manchester City.