• By bassey
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    Jan 09, 2017
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    A new-look Ivory Coast will defend their Africa Cup of Nations title while the hosts' lightning-quick striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leads the cast of superstar names as the 2017 tournament begins in Gabon on Saturday.

    As Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang prepares to carry the hopes of the small central African nation on his shoulders at the biennial African football showpiece, the fleet-footed Riyad Mahrez will aim to top a magnificent 12 months by taking Algeria to the February 5 final and the continental title.

    Mahrez heads for Gabon fresh from winning the Confederation of African Football player of the year prize for 2016, pipping last year's winner Aubameyang.

    "The next thing after this award is the Africa Cup of Nations. My team will try to do good things there," the French-born star of Leicester City's Premier League title triumph said after securing the Caf prize.

    Algeria and a Senegal side the top-ranked in Africa led by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane are the major contenders to succeed the Ivory Coast, who beat Ghana on penalties in the final in Equatorial Guinea two years ago.

    But they will face each other in a Group B that also contains Tunisia and outsiders Zimbabwe.

    "Our group is difficult, with some top African sides. It is not going to be easy with the conditions in Africa but we have to be prepared and we have a great team," Mahrez told beIN Sports recently.

    The Elephants of the Ivory Coast have seen inspirational playmaker Yaya Toure retire since their 2015 win while forward Gervinho is injured and Michel Dussuyer has succeeded fellow Frenchman Herve Renard as coach.

    "The objective is of course to defend the title that was proudly acquired in 2015," said Dussuyer, one of 12 men from Europe or South America coaching in the 16-team tournament.

    "It will not be easy. There are fine teams who aspire to win the trophy, but we have the weapons to go far."

    The Elephants will come up against their old coach Renard in Group C with his new side, Morocco, and they are the favourites to reach the quarterfinals ahead of DR Congo and the Togo of Emmanuel Adebayor.

    "I have made reaching the quarterfinals an objective that we absolutely must attain. If we get there then we will see what we can do," said the perennially bronzed and white-shirted Renard, who also coached Zambia to glory the last time the Cup of Nations was staged in Gabon jointly with Equatorial Guinea in 2012.

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