Runners-up two years ago, Ghana start their latest bid to recapture the Africa Cup of Nations crown when they face Uganda in Port-Gentil in Group D on Tuesday.
The Black Stars are in Gabon looking to win a fifth Cup of Nations but a first since 1982, and Israeli Avram Grant remains at the helm after leading them to a defeat on penalties against the Ivory Coast in the 2015 final in Equatorial Guinea.
Ghana arrived in the port city of Port-Gentil, home of Gabon’s oil industry, on Saturday after the weather delayed their departure from a pre-tournament training camp in Dubai.
And Grant, whose team trained on a pitch just outside the new stadium in Port-Gentil on Sunday evening, will hope the late arrival has not set them back at all ahead of their opening match.
“It has been very good. The players have showed good spirit, the quality is good. We will be ready for the first game,” he told Ghana’s TV3 ahead of the tournament as he expressed his optimism about their chances.
“We came here to do something good. It’s ok to say we want to win but it would be unprofessional to think we will just get it.”
Ghana’s stars of tournaments past, such as Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew — who was mobbed by fans after training in Port-Gentil — are still there and it would be a seismic shock if they lost to Uganda.
After all, the Cranes are making their first appearance at the Cup of Nations since 1978, when the tournament was played in Ghana and they lost to the hosts in the final.
Much more recently, however, Uganda held Ghana to a 0-0 draw in Tamale in October in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Grant’s side will therefore certainly not underestimate their opponents, who are staying alongside them in the same Port-Gentil hotel.
– Giresse on familiar ground –
Later on Tuesday, Egypt make their long-awaited return to the Cup of Nations as they meet Mali at the brand-new 20,000-seat venue to the south of the city.
Egypt are the record seven-time winners of the competition but have not featured at the Cup of Nations since winning a third consecutive title in Angola in 2010, beating Ghana in the final.
Now with Argentine Hector Cuper in charge and Mohamed Salah as their star man, there is hardly anyone left from their last campaign.
One man who is still around is veteran goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, who celebrated his 44th birthday on Sunday as the Egyptian squad trained in the shadows of the city’s vast oil refinery.
The heavy security around the Egypt team was a reminder of their status as an African superpower, although they are likely to have the crowd against them on Tuesday.
A large Malian community in Port-Gentil will give their team enthusiastic backing as Alain Giresse’s side look to cause an upset.
Gabon is a happy hunting ground for Giresse, who coached their national team with some success for four years and then took Mali to the semi-finals of the last Cup of Nations to be held in the country in 2012.
Mali trained for the first time on Sunday morning after a disrupted journey from their pre-tournament base in Morocco.
“For us this was just about getting back to work after our somewhat interminable journey to get here, although we are not the only ones in that boat,” said Giresse.
“It can always be a little tricky adapting when you arrive at a major tournament.”
The France great admitted he has concerns regarding the fitness of several players, including Monaco starlet Adama Traore, who has not trained due to a knee knock.