Guinea: In sickness and in health
Guinea deserve major credit for overcoming the stigma, the upheaval and the animosity to claim a spot among the 16 participants at the 2015 Cup of Nations.
Cynics might say that even a tiny bit more ruthlessness on the part of either Uganda or Togo would have seen them drop out, but no other side have had to face the Ebola-derived hardship that the Syli Nationale have over the last six months.
Considering they didn’t truly play a single home match during qualification, their record of conceding four is admirable, while they managed six goals in their last two fixtures, both against sides with something to play for.
I’d argue that there are four main reasons for the West Africans’ success.
First of all, the siege mentality generated by the isolation and mistrust meant that Guinea didn’t believe in the pessimism even when qualification seemed beyond them.
A settled side has surely helped, five players started all six qualifiers, while another four started all but one.
Thirdly, a switch to a defensive 4-1-4-1 formation in October shored things up and gave the side more stability, particularly for the run in once they had adapted to the system. Boubacar Fofana dropped into the ‘anchor man’ role in front of the defence and his 6 ft.4 frame afforded those behind him some valuable protection.
Finally, the presence of two fine wingers, Ibrahima Traore on the left and Ibrahima Conte on the right, mean that even though Guinea approach games with a solid and more defensively-minded outlook, they can still cause trouble on the counterattack.
I can easily imagine, for example, Cote d’Ivoire’s two full-backs, Serge Aurier and Siaka Tiene, being caught out by these two after one too many forays forth.
In goal, Arles stopper Naby Yattara will hold the fort. He’s agile, but hasn’t played much first-team football recently, which may be a concern.
Captain Kamil Zayatte would be one of the first names on the teamsheet, but he has struggled with injury for much of the last 18 months. He’s only just returning to training after his latest setback, a hamstring problem which kept him out for two months, and there’s little guarantee that he’ll either be fully functioning or present in Equatorial Guinea.
Zayatte will either partner Fode Camara, or leave the Horoya man as the defensive leader. In Zayatte’s absence, Camara will be joined at the heart of defence by Florentin Pogba (brother of Paul), who plays for Saint-Etienne, although Mohammed Diarra or Abdoulaye Cisse, both young players still finding their way in the spot, can also step in.
Either way, the centre-back pairing will benefit from the protection and presence afforded by Boubacar, playing just ahead of them.
Issiaga Sylla is growing into an accomplished full-back at Toulouse, even if he’s struggled a little this season, and has nailed-down the left-back berth with the Syli Nationale. On the right, the aforementioned Cisse will contest the spot with Baissama Sankoh of Guingamp, another defender near the beginning of his career.
Boubacar, as discussed above, will anchor the midfield. He’s not a purely defensive player, but I will be intrigued to see how he manages to shackle the Cote d’Ivoire’s Yaya Toure in their Group D opener or Seydou Keita when Guinea meet Mali.
Kevin Constant has been named, despite falling out with the national-team selectors, and will be an option on the left flank or in the centre of the park.
Ahead of him, the teenage Naby Keita and the popular Seydouba Soumah make for a fine partnership. The former is a subtle talent, still slightly error-prone—although he has the faith of Michel Dussuyer—while Soumah hold the creative reigns of the team. Against the unorganised rabble of Togo, he was able to pick out passes and move the ball at well, he will need to demonstrate a different, more nuanced array of skills against the sterner tests of Cameroon and the Cote d’Ivoire.
Most importantly, however, Soumah contributes goals. He bagged a hat-trick as the Sparrow Hawks were leathered in Lome and finished second only to Jonathan Pitroipa in the Afcon qualification scoring charts.
I have discussed the wingers above, Lass Bangoura—who was the centre of an Ebola-dictated club vs. country row during qualifiers—might have been an option off the bench, but Dussuyer opted not to name him.
Instead, Francois Kamono, who typically plays as a central striker, can provide cover in wide areas after receiving a maiden invitation.
In attack, Idrissa Sylla, of Zulte Waregem, will lead the line. He scored twice during qualification—both against Togo—and, at over six foot, is an important point of reference for the team.
Mohamed Yattara, of Olympique Lyonnais, is another talented option with an encouraging international scoring record, although I can’t see him displacing Sylla.