JOHANNESBURG: Premier League trio Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez will be star attractions in Cameroon at the Africa Cup of Nations, which promises to be “exceptional” according to the top football official in the continent. The 36-match group phase kicks off on January 9 at the newly built Olembe Stadium in Yaounde and the tournament concludes at the same 60,000-seat venue on February 6 with the final. Champions Algeria top a 24-team cast that includes former title-holders Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan and Tunisia. While record seven-time winners Egypt will be making an unrivalled 25th appearance at the African football showpiece, Comoros and Gambia are debutants. It is a wide-open competition with Algeria, unbeaten in 33 matches since late 2018, the logical favourites, but there are at least seven other nations capable of conquering Africa. Cameroon, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia will believe they can go all the way while Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali should not be underestimated. Guinea, who rank among the outsiders, have been told by junta leader Mamady Doumbouya that they must repay state-funded preparation costs if they do not return to Conakry as champions. The build-up to the biennial tournament has been marred by rumours that it would be postponed or cancelled owing to a worldwide coronavirus surge. There have also been reports of Cameroon racing against the clock to complete preparations for the biggest African sporting event. This is the fourth attempt by the central African state to play hosts after failing to meet 2019 deadlines and being replaced by Egypt, then losing out to unfavourable weather conditions and Covid-19. But as Liverpool forwards Salah and Mane, Manchester City winger Mahrez and other Premier League stars prepare for action, Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Patrice Motsepe is upbeat. “We are going to host with the people of Cameroon an exceptional tournament. It will be the most successful AFCON (Cup of Nations),” he said during a visit to Yaounde. “The world will witness the best of African football and hospitality. We can host a football tournament as good as any in Europe.” Angry Eto’o: Motsepe and Cameroon football legend Samuel Eto’o, now head of the national football federation, have been stung by suggestions that the Cup of Nations should be delayed or scrapped over the pandemic. “If the Euros took place this year in the middle of a pandemic, with full stadiums in many cities, why would the Cup of Nations not be played in Cameroon?,” asked Eto’o in a Canal+ interview. “Or are people trying to say that, as always, Africans are not worth anything so we have to put up with it?” As Cup of Nations organisers applied finishing touches to the six venues, from Douala on the Atlantic coast to Garoua in the north west, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp stirred a verbal storm. Klopp referred to the Cup of Nations as a “little tournament” during a press conference only to later say “I did not mean it like that”. Senegal coach and former star Aliou Cisse was furious, asking reporters in Dakar “Who does Klopp think he is? “I respect Liverpool but not Klopp, who undermines African football. He is where he is today because of African footballers like Salah, Mane, (Naby) Keita and (Joel) Matip.” Having to free Africans during the European season is a sore point with managers and Napoli boss Luciano Spalletti labelled the Cup of Nations an “invisible monster”. The Serie A title challengers could lose Algerian Adam Ounas, Cameroonian Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Nigerian Victor Osimhen and Senegalese Kalidou Koulibaly for close to six weeks. Senegal-born Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira says the Cup of Nations “needs to be more respected because this tournament is as important as the Euros”. Another coach facing potential unhappiness is South Africa-born Pitso Mosimane from African and Egyptian club giants Al Ahly, nine of whose stars are in various Cameroon-bound squads. Ahly are scheduled to compete at the Club World Cup in the UAE between February 3 and 12, creating a headache if any nation with Ahly stars reaches the early February semi-finals in Cameroon.