BY DAN PLAMER
Egypt are hoping that star striker Mohamed Salah will guide them to Africa Cup of Nations glory on home soil with this year’s tournament kicking off later this evening.
The Liverpool striker, regarded as one of the world’s best players and hero-worshiped throughout Egypt, goes into the event having won the UEFA Champions League with his club this month.
He will be expected to get the goals to help the Egyptians earn an eighth continental title and a first since 2010 with the hosts installed as the bookmakers’ favourites.
They will open the tournament in Group A against Zimbabwe at the Cairo International Stadium.
This is the first edition of the Africa Cup of Nations to feature 24 countries with the tournament expanded from its usual 16 by organisers the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 2017.
CAF also opted to host the event in June and July instead of the normal January slot, which caused conflict with clubs who did not want to release their African players during the middle of the season.
Build-up to the tournament has been chaotic with Egypt only installed as hosts in January after Cameroon lost the rights due to delays to infrastructure and security concerns.
The CAF itself is in a state of turmoil with FIFA appointing their secretary general Fatma Samoura as the head of a group which will run the continental body due to a series of corruption scandals.
This includes CAF President Ahmad facing allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct.
Egypt’s challengers include Senegal who will look to be inspired by Liverpool winger Sadio Mané and three-time winners Nigeria who return to the tournament for the first time since lifting the trophy in 2013.
Defending champions Cameroon are aiming for a sixth title while fellow west-African powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana can also not be counted out as they chase their third and fifth wins respectively.
Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia join Egypt in making up a strong North African contingent.
The Egyptians and Zimbabwe are joined in Group A by Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
Group B features Nigeria, Guinea, Madagascar and Burundi with Senegal, Algeria, Kenya and Tanzania colliding in Group C.
Morocco, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Namibia have been placed in Group D with Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Angola in Group E.
Group F features Cameroon, Ghana, Benin and Guinea-Bissau.
The top two sides in each group and the best four third-placed teams will reach the last 16.
As well as the Cairo International Stadium, two more venues will be used in the capital − the 30 June Stadium and the Al Salam Stadium.
There are four host cities in all with Alexandria Stadium, Suez Stadium and Ismailia Stadium also staging matches.