|With no Egypt in contention the pressure falls on Dider Drogba's Ivory Coast to take advantage [GETTY]
“Any team finishing ahead of Egypt will probably be going home with the trophy.”
Historically, that has been my standard and fairly predictable opening thought on an Africa Cup of Nations, but this time everything will be different.
This is the fourth time Al Jazeera have enlivened my January schedule with a trip to Africa and on each previous occasion I have seen Egypt triumph. A team that normally revels rather than shrivels in the heat of tournament battle, this year failed to even qualify.
Egypt's absence is just one of the factors making this 28th gathering of Africa's finest so intriguing. Three sides have made it for the first time, including co-hosts and rank outsiders Equatorial Guinea.
Long-term planning has not been a feature of their build up. The side's latest coach, Gilson Paulo, was installed all of three weeks ago. A long term pension plan was apparently not included in his two month contract.
Also entering stage right are Botswana and a fearless Niger team that came through a qualifying group ahead of the supposedly more illustrious pairing of Egypt and South Africa.
South Africa were at least involved in one of the more comical moments of a highly unpredictable qualifying campaign.
After a draw against Sierra Leone in their final group game, the players thought they had done enough to make it to the finals and duly set off on a celebratory lap of honour.
A belated tap at a calculator and an overdue glance at the rule book brought a swift and unhappy end to that particular victory party. Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria are just some of the other big sides that are not here.
It means, more than ever, the pressure is on the Ivory Coast to win.
A generation of superstar players led by Chelsea's Didier Drogba have found new and interesting ways to fall short in recent years. They will be determined to overcome the charge that this prized collection of individuals does not have the temperament to co-operate as a world class team.
It is 20 years now since the country last won Africa's top footballing prize.
Ghana will also fancy their chances of ending three decades of Cup of Nations' frustration, while Senegal now have arguably the most exciting strike force in both the North-East of England and Africa.
Newcastle United's Demba Ba will be playing up front with his club's new signing Papiss Demba Cisse.
"It all hints at a continent in some sort of footballing transition. Have the old guard collapsed or have they really been overtaken by others? "
- Andy Richardson
It all hints at a continent in some sort of footballing transition. Have the old guard collapsed or have they really been overtaken by others?
It has to be said the quality of football at the 2010 Cup of Nations in Angola was not up to the standard many had hoped for.
And with the exception of Ghana, African sides disappointed at the last World Cup.
Three weeks of action in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea should provide a clearer picture as to just where African international football is and in which direction it is heading.
Source: Al Jazeera