Debutants Niger braced for Cup baptism of fire
Niger's reward for finishing top of their qualifying group was a tricky first round draw which pitted the Africa Cup of Nations debutants against past winners Tunisia, Morocco, and co-hosts Gabon.
Trailing in their wake on their remarkable qualifying journey to the 2012 continental showpiece were 2010 World Cup hosts South Africa, and Egypt, winners of the last three editions.
Harouna Doula's men proved impregnable at home in Niamey where they took maximum points from their rivals.
On the road it was a different story, their three away days resulting in three defeats, yet that didn't prevent them from topping the table.
The Mena's French technical advisor, former Marseille and Lens coach Rolland Courbis, is wary of the team's inclination to succumb to travel sickness.
"What worries me, and I've already talked about this with the players, is that we've taken all our (qualifying) points at home - and we're away for the Nations Cup. It's a different context, and also we're up against the host nation.
"But we are in the competition to do ourselves justice. We have to become accomplished at not losing away from Niamey.
"We've got a good squad that conducts itself well. I've reassured them that we're not going to finish last of our group."
Niger's emergence as a serious Nations Cup side earned coach Doula, who has brought renewed discipline and motivation to the side, the accolade of Africa's manager of the year.
Reflecting on his team's improvement Doula said: "Our management has been strengthened with improved expertise on the training side, in physical preparation and in the medical department - all this has helped to contribute to raising the standard of play of our team, a team that can continue to surprise."
Only seven of Doula's squad, including captain Idrissa Laouali, play for locally-based clubs.
The 28-year-old midfielder (who goes by the nickname 'Pele') has been central to Niger's fortunes ever since earning his first international cap back in 2002.
Niger's attack is focused on Ouwo Moussa Maazou, one of only three European-based players who is attached to Belgian outfit SV Zulte Waregem where he is on a loan deal from CSKA Moscow.
His goals in Niamey earned Niger wins over Egypt and South Africa.
The free-scoring Seidou Idrissa, who plays for Cameroon side Cotonsport Garoua, has emerged as a key player too since appearing on the scene in 2005.
His club teammate, Kassaly Daouda, represents a reassuring presence in goal.
Niger open their Cup campaign against Gabon on January 23, followed by 2004 champions Tunisia on Jan 27 and
1976 winners Morocco four days later.
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