The Cranes will be expected to progress past the group stages and probably make significant strides in the knock-out rounds of the tournament. Unlike in the past, where the top two teams were guaranteed a place in the knock-out stage, this year’s revised format will also have the four best third-placed teams advance.
And there within the best third-placed avenue could be Uganda’s only and best possible shot for a place in the next round. But do Cranes have it in them to defy the odds and progress to the knock-out round? May be, maybe not.
First things first. Cranes must win their opening game against DR Congo to preserve any hopes of progressing in the tournament. If Cranes falter on Day One Uganda’s interests in the tournament will be over. As of now, DR Congo are the highest placed team in Group A as per the latest FIFA/CAF rankings at 46th in the world and fifth in Africa‚ Egypt are 57th and 8th‚ Uganda 79th and 17th‚ and Zimbabwe 110th and 26th.
Then in terms of quality, the Leopards are still a class above the Cranes. With top stars Dieumerci Mbokani, who currently plays for Belgian club Royal Antwerp, Gael Kakuta (Rayo Valencano, Neeskens Kebano (Fulham, and Yannick Bolasie (currently on loan to Belgian side Anderlecht from Everton) and China-based Cedric Bakambu, at his disposal, Leopards coach Florent Ibenge has been given the ultimatum to win the title in Cairo or have his contract terminated.
This means, Cranes’ most experienced guns such as Denis Onyango, will have to lead from the front if Uganda are to master a decent result from this first tie. And this, especially because the game against Zimbabwe will prove even stiffer.
Zimbabwe beat DR Congo away before sharing the spoils at home during the qualification phase of the competition. The Warriors, who qualified as Group G leaders, will count on their usual architects Knowledge Musona, Khama Billiat and Mathew Rusike —names that are familiar to Cranes captain and South Africa–based Onyango. A dossier on each would help Cranes’ match strategy here before the decisive game against Egypt.
But despite the threat from the first two games, Egypt are expected to top Group A. The Pharaohs reached the final two years ago in Gabon and led Cameroon before losing 2-1 to an 88th-minute goal. That was the first time Egypt had qualified since winning a record-extending seventh title in 2010.
Although a passionate home crowd brings added pressure, Egypt will rather build on that, and thrive on the precious qualities that come with Mohamed Salah. True, fixtures involving Cranes and the Pharaohs have been close affairs in recent years.
The Cranes beat the Pharaohs 1-0 in a 2018 World Cup qualifier before losing by a similar margin in the return game. Egypt had earlier beaten Uganda 1-0 in their first 2017 Nations Cup group match in Gabon. But if Uganda’s third and final game against Egypt turns out to be decisive, will the Cranes have it in them to deal with the Pharaohs in-front of a 75,000 capacity crowd?
Those that watched them catapult 3-0 at the hands of Tanzania last month will highly doubt. Cranes coach Sebastien Desabre should feel privileged to manage a side with a potent mixture of youth and experience. Half of the current squad were part of the side that made that historic appearance in Gabon and should form the backbone of Uganda’s campaign at the finals