FRANCEVILLE, Gabon // Ghana, the four-time African Cup of Nations champions, are the overwhelming favourites to beat first-timers Botswana in the opening round of matches in Group D tonight, even if the country's vice-president is worried about an upset.
John Dramani Mahama warned Ghana's players at their training camp in Gabon that they should avoid complacency against Botswana, a team which are also weakened by injury on their debut in the competition.
Ghana have to do without the suspended defender Isaac Vorsah in Franceville, but the inexperienced Botswana squad will seriously miss Joel Mogorosi after the forward broke his arm at training last week just before the team travelled to the tournament.
Injury problems were also mounting for the Mali coach Alain Giresse before the Eagles face Guinea in the second match at Stade de Franceville on Tuesday night, with doubts over the Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita and the striker Cheick Diabate.
"We will do whatever it takes to get the best performance," said Giresse, who had already been forced to alter his plans after the Toulouse defender Mohamed Fofana and the midfielder Kalilou Traore were withdrawn from Mali's squad with injury.
Even without Vorsah, Ghana are expected to still be too good for a Botswana team that surprised many by qualifying for their first Cup of Nations.
The Black Stars were visited at training on Sunday by Mahama, Ghana's football association said, with the team attempting to end a 30-year title drought at the continental competition.
"Every country came to this tournament on merit, so you should avoid complacency," Mahama told the players.
Ghana said every squad member apart from Vorsah was available for their opening game, including the Al Ain striker, Asamoah Gyan, who had been in a race to recover from a hamstring injury in time for the start of the tournament.
Goran Stevanovic, the coach, may still choose to rest Gyan against Botswana, however, with the brothers Andre and Jordan Ayew of Marseille, and Prince Tagoe all capable of filling in up front.
After Senegal fell to Zambia in their opening game and Ivory Coast were pushed hard by Sudan, the tournament has already seen strong performances from underdogs following a qualifying competition that produced a string of upsets. Botswana may be at their first major competition but they managed to qualify ahead of the former champions Tunisia and Togo, while Ghana are under pressure to deliver a long-awaited success. "The expectation is high and we know it won't be easy but we're hopeful and believe we can win it," John Mensah, the Ghana captain, said.
Keita's absence against Guinea after reported knee and ankle problems would be a blow to Mali's hopes of making a strong start and challenging Ghana as Group D's top team. The experienced midfielder is to guide a new generation of Mali players at the tournament in the absence of former stars such as the striker Frederic Kanoute and the midfielders Mahamadou Diarra and Mohamed Sissoko, who no longer play international football.