The chances of co-favourites Ghana or Ivory Coast winning the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations rose Saturday after a kind first-round draw for both countries.
Former champions Ivory Coast got Angola, Burkina Faso and Sudan in Malabo-based Group B while four-time winners Ghana tackle Guinea, Malawi and surprise qualifiers Botswana in Franceville-based Group D.
Co-hosts Gabon were out of luck in Group C as they were lumped with potentially powerful North African contenders Morocco and Tunisia plus Niger, shock winners of an elimination group that included defending champions Egypt.
Equatorial Guinea, at 41 in Africa by far the lowest ranked team but among the top seeds as co-hosts, come up against two former runners-up in Zambia and Senegal plus sentimental favourites Libya.
The Libyans reached the tournament despite a civil war raging in the country which compelled them to play two of their three home matches in Mali and Egypt, but they squeezed through as one of the best two runners-up.
Equatorial Guinea and Libya will kick off the three-week tournament on January 21 in the mainland city of Bata followed by a late-evening showdown between Senegal and Zambia.
Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa were notable absentees from the draw made by Confederation of African Football secretary-general Hicham El Amrani for the first time.
All failed to qualify despite being ranked among the top 10 football nations on tne continent, all bar the Pharaohs qualified for the World Cup last year, and between them the quintet have won 15 of the 27 previous tournaments.
Although the tournament is almost three months away, many African pundits have already decided that the February 12 Libreville final will pit Ivory Coast against Ghana in a West African showdown.
The Ivorian Elephants top the African rankings and the Ghanaian Black Stars are third and they boast line-ups packed with Europe-based stars like Didier Drogba and Andre Ayew.
Both nations have come close in the past decade with Ivory Coast losing on penalties to hosts Egypt in 2006 and Ghana conceding a late winner to the Pharaohs in the 2010 Luanda climax.
Ghana lifted the Cup of Nations four times, but the last triumph was in Tripoli 29 years ago, while the lone Ivory Coast success came 19 years ago in Dakar after a marathon penalty shoot-out with the Black Stars.
2012 Africa Cup of Nations draw
Group A (Bata)
Equatorial Guinea, Zambia, Senegal, Libya
Group B (Malabo)
Ivory Coast, Angola, Burkina Faso, Sudan
Group C (Libreville)
Gabon, Tunisia, Morocco, Niger
Group D (Franceville)
Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Botswana
Note: Group winners and runners-up after single-round mini-leagues qualify for quarter-finals