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Co-hosts Gabon enter Cup fray
Published : 23 Jan 2012 09:24:58
Gabon will not want to be outdone by their neighbours and Africa Cup of Nations' co-hosts Equatorial Guinea when they tackle competition first-timers Niger here on Monday.
This opening Group C clash at the brand new L'Amitie stadium has been earmarked as a must win game by both teams hoping to upset the formbook and sneak into the quarter-finals.
With previous winners Morocco and Tunisia in the mix, a first or second place finish looks tricky, but by no means out of the question.
Gabon were given timely encouragement when their neighbours Equatorial Guinea got their campaign off to a dream start with Saturday's 1-0 defeat of Libya across the border in Malabo.
Niger cannot be underestimated after finishing top of their qualifying group, casting continental kings Egypt, winners in 2006, 2008 and 2010, aside.
But as Libya found out to their cost, home advantage is a major factor.
Gabon were quick out of the blocks in Angola two years ago, stunning one of the Cup favourites Cameroon 1-0 in their first game, with former Hull City striker Daniel Cousin the scorer.
Cousin, now attached to a locally-based side, commented: "Can we win the Cup? That's hard, but we'll go out and do our job. We've got a good mix of experienced players and youngsters who add power to the side.
"We started well in Angola and we have to do the same here, if we beat Niger and win our second match who knows what can happen."
Gabon's German coach Gernot Rohr showed no signs of the pressure piled on his shoulders by his team's number one fan, Gabon President Ali Bongo, who has identified the title as his team's target, at a training session on Friday.
"We're well prepared, solid both on the pitch and mentally, there is a slight lack of confidence but we are all motivated and want to exploit all the chances we have."
The 58-year-old is relishing his first taste of the Nations Cup, telling AFP: "My first Nations Cup - it's a beautiful adventure, I'm happy to live through it.
"It's like the first time with a woman, it makes your heart beat faster - that's what it's like.
"It's nice to experience that at my age!"
He is wary not only of underestimating Niger but also of his side's lack of competitive edge, the last time they kicked a ball in anger was two years ago in Angola.
"We haven't played a competitive match in two years so yes of course at last we have one coming up on Monday.
"Two years of friendly matches is never easy, but we're not the first team to do this, we're motivated to enter into competition."
And of Monday's opposition he observed: "Beware of predictions! We don't think Niger will be the easiest match, in fact it could well turn out to be the most difficult. We're approaching it with a little bit of apprehension."
Niger's 'reward' for finishing top of their qualifying group was being drawn in this tough group.
But their French technical adviser, former Marseille and Lens coach Rolland Courbis, dismissed any notion they were here simply to make up the numbers.
"We are in the competition to do ourselves justice. We've got a good squad that conducts itself well. I've reassured them that we're not going to finish last of our group."