analysisBy Brad Morgan
The countdown is on to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Group B sees Ghana, the darlings of Africa during the 2010 Fifa World Cup, lining up against Niger, DR Congo, and the continent's third-ranked team, Mali. Get primed for the action with quick team profiles.
AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS 2013: GROUP B
Ghana were the darlings of South Africa and Africa in the 2010 Fifa World Cup. They narrowly missed out on the semi-finals when they suffered a controversial loss to eventual third-place finishers Uruguay after Asamoah Gyan struck a penalty against the crossbar, which would have seen them into the final four. Ultimately they bowed out in a penalty shootout.
The Black Stars are four-time African champions, but their last victory came in 1992 and they desperately want to add a fifth victory. They are, by and large, a young team, but that's because their young players, who won the Fifa under-20 World Cup in 2009, are really good.
Ghana's patchy form in 2012 is a bit of a worry ahead of Afcon 2013, but the team will surely take a lot from their previous experience and success in South Africa.
Will Michael Essien be part of their challenge? The former Chelsea star, now with Real Madrid, stepped down from the national team as he struggled with injuries to concentrate on his club form in the English Premier League. Now in Spain, he is healthy again and has made himself available for the Black Stars.
Gyan was their top scorer in the Fifa World Cup and he is far and away their leading goal scorer. His form will be crucial to Ghana's success.
Andre Ayew, the son of Abedi Pele, led Ghana to under-20 World Cup glory and was named the BBC African Footballer of the Year for 2011. His class, too, will be needed for the Ghanaians to excel.
With experience and excellence provided by others, such as Anthony Annan, John Paintsil and Sulley Muntari, Ghana has an experienced backbone and youthful talent that could take them far in South Africa.
Highest Fifa ranking in 2012: 22
Previous Afcon appearances: 18
Best Afcon results: champions in 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982; second in 1968, 1970, 1992, 2008
Players to watch: defender John Paintsil, midfielders Anthony Annan, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien, striker Asamoah Gyan, winger André Ayew
Mali, as the third-ranked team on the African continent, should be in the running to lift a maiden Africa Cup of Nations title in South Africa. In the most recent edition of Afcon, they beat Ghana 2-0 in the playoff for third and fourth.
The most experienced player in the Mali squad is midfielder Seydou Keita, whose goal scoring proficiency is underlined by the fact that he is also the Eagles' leading goal scorer. Now with Chinese Super League club Dalian Aerbin, Keita has also played for leading clubs in France and Spain, including for Barcelona.
Cheick Diabaté netted three goals in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations finals, including both goals in Mali's 2-0 victory over Ghana for third place. He has, in recent times, become a regular goal scorer for the national team, netting nine goals for since August 2011.
Mahamadou Diara made his senior national debut way back in 2001 and brings a load of experience and class to the Malian engine room. He pulls the strings in the middle of the park as a defensive midfielder and also chips in with the occasional goal. While Diarra is currently with English Premier outfit Fulham, his former clubs include Monaco, Real Madid and Olympique Lyon, among others.
Mali's toughest opposition in Group B is likely to come from Ghana. It is a repeat of the 2012 Afcon finals, when both teams were in the same group.
In that tournament, the Black Stars topped the group standings ahead of the Eagles after scoring a 2-0 victory. Both teams advanced to the quarterfinals and, after Ghana beat Tunisia and Mali edged Gabon on penalties, they went on to the semi-finals, where both lost.
In a rematch, in the playoff for third and fourth place, Mali reversed the result from earlier in the tournament to win 2-0.
Expect it to be just as tight between the teams in South Africa. The lastest Fifa world rankings attest to this: Mali occupies 28th place and Ghana 29th.
Highest Fifa ranking in 2012: 27
Previous Afcon appearances: 7
Best Afcon results: runners-up in 1972, third in 2012
Players to watch: midfielders Seydou Keita and Mahamadou Diarra, striker Cheick Diabaté
Niger's first appearance in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations came in the last edition of the continental finals, when they qualified from a group that included 2012 hosts South Africa, Sierra Leone and Egypt, the three-time defending champions who finished bottom of the group.
The finals clearly revealed Niger's main shortcoming, which is a reliance on home ground advantage. In qualifying, the Ménas lost all three of their away matches without scoring a goal, going down 2-0 to South Africa, 1-0 to Sierra Leone and 3-0 to Egypt. In the finals, they managed a single goal in three matches, all of which they lost.
Niger relied on winning home games once again to qualify for Afcon 2013. Taking the point even further, Niger has failed to record a single win away from home in 2012. To make a mark in South Africa, they're going to have to change that tendency.
Striker Ouwo Moussa Maâzou will be the man Niger will need to lead the way in front of goal. The Étoile du Sahel marksman, aged 24, has been a professional since 2005 and has played for, among others, Lokeren and Zulten Waregem in Belgium, CSKA Moscow, and Monaco, Bordeaux, and Le Mans in France.
The Ménas have South African connections in Issa Modibo Sidibé, who previously played for Jomo Cosmos in the National First Division, and Chikoto Mohamed, who turned out for Platinum Stars. Kassaly Daouda, the most experienced Nigerien international, plays goalkeeper for Premier Soccer League club Chippa United.
It is possible that this experience of South Africa could be of value to Niger, but they would need to turn around a desperately poor away record to make an impact in Afcon 2013.
Highest Fifa ranking in 2012: 98
Previous Afcon appearances: 1
Best Afcon results: group stage in 2012
Players to watch: striker Ouwo Moussa Maâzou, goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda
It has been some time since the Democratic Republic of Congo made any noise at an Africa Cup of Nations finals. They failed to qualify for the three finals before South Africa 2013, but made the quarterfinals in 2006.
The country's most notable footballing achiever is not a player but a club, Tout Puissant (TP) Mazembe, which in 2010 became the first African team to make the final of the Fifa Club World Cup. The club, which has a strong Zambian presence, also won the Caf Champions League in 2009 and 2010.
Their striker Mabi Mputu is a proven goal scorer, not only in international club competitions, but also for the national side. He has attracted the interest of a number of European clubs, but has never made the move abroad.
Former TP Mazembe player Dieumerci Mbokani, after previous stints with VfL Wolfsburg, Monaco and Standard Liège, is now with Anderlecht and is a regular scorer in the Belgian Pro League. He possesses skill, pace and good finishing, making him an all-round handful for defenders.
Midfielder Tiko, who made his international debut way back in 2001, also plays in Belgium for Lokeren, and will be remembered by some South African football fans for having played for Ajax Cape Town from 2003 to 2007.
The form of the Congolese in 2012 was somewhat patchy, with four wins, three losses and three draws. What it showed is that they are clearly a better team at home - not to the extent that fellow Group B contenders Niger are, but they do need to lift their game away from the familiar confines of Kinshasa.
Highest Fifa ranking in 2012: 103
Previous Afcon appearances: 15
Best Afcon results: champions in 1968 and 1974; third in 1998
Players to watch: forwards Dieumerci Mbokani and Mabi Mputu
Ghana carried the hopes of the continent at the 2010 Fifa World Cup (Photo: 2010 Fifa World Cup South Africa Organising Committee)