JOHANNESBURG: Hosts Egypt are favoured to not only to win Group A at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations this June, but to go on and lift the trophy a record-extending eighth time.
They possess in serial Liverpool scorer Mohamed Salah an African superstar and can expect passionate support as they seek a first title since edging Ghana in the 2010 final.
Egypt have faced all their group rivals, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Zimbabwe, before at the Cup of Nations, winning seven matches and losing only one.
While the hosts are poised to top the standings, there is little to choose between the other three teams with the top two finishers guaranteed round-of-16 places.
Here, AFP Sport assesses the prospects of the Group A sides ahead of the June 21 tournament opener between Egypt and Zimbabwe in Cairo.
The two-time champions struggled to qualify with a nervous 1-0 last-match win over modest Liberia in Kinshasa squeezing them through as runners-up beneath Zimbabwe.
An experienced squad, the Congolese are extremely unpredictable when it comes to the Cup of Nations as their last two appearances demonstrated.
Outsiders in 2015, they finished third behind the Ivory Coast and Ghana in Equatorial Guinea, then made a timid last-eight exit two years ago in Gabon when more was expected of them.
Cedric Bakambu brings stealth and Yannick Bolasie and Elia Meschak pace to the attack while the defence is likely to include Arthur Masuaku from Premier League club West Ham United.
Verdict: Could be heading home after first round, or reach the quarter-finals
As Egypt prepare to stage the Cup of Nations a record fifth time, they can draw confidence from an outstanding record when they play host to the best African national teams.
They won in 1959, 1986 and 2006 and finished third in 1974 after coming up short in a five-goal semi-final thriller against World Cup-bound Zaire (now DR Congo).
Fanatical support has always been a key factor with numerous visiting coaches complaining that the endless noise from the stands prevents their touchline instructions being heard.
While Salah is the talisman, he will be surrounded by vastly experienced internationals like Tarek Hamed, a tireless midfield enforcer and often an unsung hero.
Verdict: Salah, home advantage and history makes them favourites
After going 39 years without qualifying since finishing 1978 runners-up to hosts Ghana, Uganda will make back-to-back appearances in the Cup of Nations.
They had a comfortable qualifying passage under French coach Sebastien Desabre, not losing nor conceding in five matches before a dead-rubber defeat in Tanzania.
Winless in Gabon two years ago, the Cranes are banking on veteran South Africa-based goalkeeper Denis Onyango to inspire a better showing this time.
“Denis is utterly dependable and his experience will hopefully rub off on the other players,” says Desabre. “Our target is decent results, especially in our opener against DR Congo.”
Verdict: Will do well to reach knockout phase
The lowest ranked of the four teams will rely heavily on stars based in South Africa as they aim to progress beyond the group stage for the first time in four attempts.
But the reliance of coach and former national team captain Sunday Chidzambwa on those operating in their neighbouring country has drawn criticism from a former star.
“The coach should have cast his net wider and found places for the best local talent,” said ex-national team defender David Kutyauripo of a squad lacking any home-based stars.
Coaches emphasise the importance of not losing their first match in a tournament, but it is the probable back luck of Zimbabwe that they must face Egypt and Salah on opening night.
Verdict: Capable of making second round for first time