The 24 teams to compete in the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations learned their group stage opponents in a glitzy draw in Yaounde on Tuesday.
Two years and one month after Algeria defeated Senegal to win the 2019 title, there was palpable excitement in the Yaounde Conference Centre as a host of African football legends and national team coaches witnessed sides from the four pots being drawn into six groups.
Cameroon President Paul Biya talked about the 2022 event being a "party of surprises" but the group draw itself lacked some of the tension and drama of previous years.
The expanded tournament format -- debuted at the 2019 event in Egypt -- allows four of the six third-placed teams to reach the knockouts, making it difficult for Africa's giants to fall at the first hurdle.
This represents opportunity lower down the pecking order -- look at what Madagascar and Benin achieved in 2019 -- but should ensure safe passage to the Last 16 for the title contenders.
Here are ESPN's far-too-early predictions and a group-by-group rundown after the draw.
- AFCON 2021: Holders Algeria to face Ivory Coast, Cameroon vs. Burkina Faso
- Bracket and fixtures schedule
The favourites: Hosts Cameroon are arguably the weakest of the seeds but they can be delighted with their draw. Burkina Faso aren't as strong as they were during their 2013-17 cycle, while Ethiopia and Cape Verde Islands were among the weaker teams in their pots.
Recent meetings: Cameroon and Cape Verde have had recent showdowns, with the latter taking a win and a draw from their meetings since 2019.
Historical edge: Ethiopia are one of African football's true fallen giants. Nations Cup winners on home soil in 1962, they're approaching half-a-century since their latest victory in the tournament.
Match of the round: It's got to be the tournament opener in Yaounde, where Cameroon host Burkina Faso. Expect great pageantry, theatre and nerves; anything less than victory for the hosts won't go down well.
The Box Office: Cameroon are five-time winners, have been to seven World Cups, and are former Olympic champions. They're sure to generate headlines -- for good or bad reasons -- and captain Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will be the face (or fall guy) of their campaign.
Things for Cameroon under coach Toni Conceicao are more staid than during Clarence Seedorf's brief and troubled tenure, but could the allure of a tournament on home soil rope back some of the high-profile players who have taken premature international retirement?
Prediction: Burkina Faso to top the group, Cameroon to advance with five unconvincing points, and Cape Verde to progress with a draw against the hosts and victory over Ethiopia. The Walias may have the (distant) pedigree, but they're a much reduced force away from Addis Ababa.
The favourites: Senegal have reached two finals -- losing in 2002 and 2019 -- and are determined to claim their first ever title this time. A group containing Guinea, Zimbabwe and Malawi shouldn't pose too many problems, and the two Southern African sides, in particular, look vulnerable.
Recent meetings: Senegal's home-based Lions were guests in the recent COSAFA Cup -- in which they defeated Zimbabwe -- but the same side was eliminated from the African Nations Championship qualifying campaign by Guinea in late 2019. Expect a different outcome this time around.
Historical edge: Only once before -- Cameroon in 1988 -- has a team bounced back from losing the Africa Cup of Nations final to win the next edition so Senegal will have to succeed where many have failed before if this much fancied generation are to break their duck.
Match of the round: Matches between COSAFA teams used to be a rarity in the Africa Cup of Nations, but the expanded format led to South Africa and Namibia meeting in the group stage in 2019 and now fans will be treated to another derby when Malawi and Zimbabwe meet in Bafoussam on Jan. 14. The pair only have three AFCON wins between them -- and none since 2010 -- but both will be aware that victory here could secure passage to the Last 16.
The Box Office: Edouard Mendy missed the 2017 Nations Cup and the 2018 World Cup, but he will head into this tournament as Africa's No. 1 goalkeeper. Then there's Sadio Mane, of course, and his all-Liverpool showdown with Naby Keita on matchday two should be a fascinating watch.
Prediction: Senegal to win the group, Guinea in second, with Zimbabwe boosting their hopes of progression with victory over regional rivals Malawi at the Kouekong Stadium.
The favourites: Neither Morocco nor Ghana, the two heavyweights in this group, are as strong as they have been in recent years, with both still struggling for identity and consistency under new management. Morocco's quality should see them through, but will Ghana be found wanting?
Recent meetings: Morocco and Comoros Islands were pitted together in AFCON 2019 qualification, with the Atlas Lions defeating the islanders in Casablanca only with a 97th-minute winner from Faycal Fajr.
The North Africans also played Gabon in a double-header during World Cup 2018 qualifying, with Khalid Boutaib memorably netting a hat-trick as Morocco thumped the Panthers 3-0 at the Stade Mohammed V.
Historical edge: Comoros are one of two debutants at this year's edition of the tournament, and with a land mass of just 2235 sq km they are the smallest African nation to feature since Mauritius in 1974. After several years of steady progress, they ought not be underestimated.
Match of the round: The group opener -- Ghana vs. Morocco in Yaounde -- has the feeling of a genuine African blockbuster, even though a cagy affair is on the cards. These two are arguably Africa's biggest underachievers in recent decades -- they're without AFCON success since 1982 and 1976 respectively -- and the opener will provide an ideal opportunity to set the tone for a strong campaign.
The Box Office: Achraf Hakimi is only 22 but has already played for Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Internazionale and Paris Saint-Germain, winning the UEFA Champions League and Serie A in the process. He's Africa's best player in his position, and was second among right-backs in the 2020 ESPN 100; since then, he's surely surpassed No.1 Trent Alexander-Arnold. Then, of course, there's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, battling still against the dying of the light.
Prediction: Morocco's quality should ensure they top the group, and a strong start could put Ghana under serious pressure heading into their matchday two meeting with Auba and Gabon. Comoros have got competitive results against Egypt, Morocco and Cameroon in the past three years, and they will fancy their chances of being this year's fairytale.
The favourites: It's a bit of a toss up between Nigeria and Egypt, two of the most successful nations in African football history, and both will have designs on the gold. Sudan and Guinea-Bissau appear primed to compete for third.
Recent meetings: Paul Onuachu scored the only goal of the game as the Super Eagles won the last meeting between the two giants in an international friendly in Mar. 2019.
They met in the group stage at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, and the Pharaohs overcame Chinedu Obasi's opener to win 3-1 as they launched the third of their trio of consecutive title campaigns.
Historical edge: Egypt and Nigeria have won a combined 10 AFCON crowns between them, with the North Africans having won seven to the Eagles' three. With 15 semifinal appearances each, no country has reached the final four more often. This is the only group with three previous winners in as well, with Sudan winning their only crown in 1970.
Match of the round: Nigeria vs. Egypt in Garoua on Jan. 11 has the potential to be the standout fixture of the entire group stage.
The Box Office: While the Super Eagles have stars of their own -- not least Victor Osimhen, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi -- none comes close to matching Mohamed Salah's global profile or achievements within the game.
Prediction: Nigeria have their failings, but they're more vibrant than Egypt at the present time and have more ways of hurting their opponents. A strong performance and convincing victory for the Eagles at the Roumde Adjia Stadium could propel the West Africans to a successful campaign.
The favourites: Algeria are tournament favourites enjoying a 27-game unbeaten run. Even the presence of an ominous-looking Ivory Coast side is unlikely to faze them. Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea complete the group.
Recent meetings: Algeria eliminated the Elephants on penalties in the quarterfinal of the 2019 event en route to the title, with Wilfried Bony and Serey Die missing their spot-kicks for the West Africans.
Historical edge: Ghana, Egypt and Cameroon are the only sides to have retained the AFCON title. Can Algeria, who were already an aging side in 2019, repeat the trick this time around?
Match of the round: It has to be Algeria vs. Ivory Coast, and, who knows; the Fennecs met Senegal in the group stage in 2019 before the pair faced off again in the final. Could the 2019 and 2015 champions follow similar pathways this time around?
The Box Office: Riyad Mahrez won many admirers with his disciplined, selfless and tenacious performances two years ago, and his star has risen even further since. Rarely has an African star proved so decisive in such a major fixture as he did for Manchester City against Paris Saint-Germain in last year's UEFA Champions League semifinal.
Prediction: Algeria and Ivory Coast will both have qualification wrapped up before they meet in Douala in matchday three. Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea look particularly vulnerable -- when goal difference is taken into account -- and must find a way to neutralise the heavyweights' firepower.
The favourites: Tunisia and Mali topped their groups in qualifying, and will expect to do the same here.
Recent meetings: Tunisia, Mali and Mauritania were all in the same group at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations as well, with the Eagles winning the three-way mini league between the trio -- including a 4-1 rout of the Mourabitouns -- to top the group.
Historical edge: No team has reached as many AFCON semifinals as Mali (six) without ever winning the title. They've only once reached the final -- in 1972 -- but a blossoming generation could be tournament dark horses.
Match of the round: Gambia's strategy of holding teams at bay, preserving energy and striking late, has seen them make great strides in recent years, leading to their first AFCON appearance. They may never have a better chance of winning an AFCON game than in their tournament opener against Mauritania.
The Box Office: Limited star power, although Brighton & Hove Albion midfielder Yves Bissouma continues to be linked heavily with Arsenal.
Prediction: Tunisia, Mali and Gambia to progress, although the group winners could be at a disadvantage knowing they will have to face Algeria or Ivory Coast in the Last 16.