Zambia failed to qualify this time, but the Ivorians will be among the favourites again when the competition returns to the central African state with the first fixtures scheduled for Saturday.
AFP Sport rates the chances of the 16 challengers for the $4 million (3.8 million euros) first prize (last three competitive results in brackets with W denoting a win, D a draw and L a loss):
Back among the elite and in good form. After winning three consecutive Cup of Nations titles, they failed to qualify for the past three tournaments. At 43, Essam El Hadary remains among the best African goalkeepers while Mohamed Salah is the star player.
A work-in-progress team after time caught up with the ‘golden generation’ of Kolo and Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora and Didier Drogba. Doggedness as much as anything else won the title two years ago and they will need even more of that quality to remain champions.
Being coached by French wizard Herve Renard automatically places them among the favourites as he has won the title twice in three attempts with Zambia and the Ivory Coast. A Mehdi Benatia-marshalled defence is among the best, but Youssef El Arabi must recapture his scoring form.
African pundits insist they are among the likeliest title winners despite only one win from six matches in their past two tournament appearances. Their attack appears potent with Sadio Mane and Keita Balde, but many of the victories last year were against weak opposition.
A slump during World Cup qualifiers has cast doubts over the ‘Desert Foxes’ with a home draw against Cameroon followed by an away loss to Nigeria. New African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez is less threatening than six months ago and coaching changes have not helped.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Looked strong as they walloped a resurgent Central African Republic to seal Cup of Nations qualification, then trounced Libya and won a tricky challenge in Guinea in World Cup ties. They have plenty of potential match-winners and a constantly improving coach in Florent Ibenge.
Cup of Nations hosts regularly box above their weight — most recently in 2015 when star-less Equatorial Guinea reached the semi-finals despite hiring a coach just a couple of weeks before the kick-off. Gabon boast a star striker in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and that gives them a chance.
Midfielder Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew says they are among the favourites, and Ghana must hope his return from injury will end a rotten run with home draws against Rwanda and Uganda followed by a beating in Egypt. Skipper-cum-striker Asamoah Gyan has been a shadow of his former self.
Among the great Cup of Nations unpredictables. Reached 2013 final having started as no-hopers, then exited after first round two years ago without a win. The brute force of Aristide Bance and dribbling of Jonathan Pitroipa could spell trouble for defences.
Liverpool defender Joel Matip was among seven of the preliminary squad who opted out, saying their club careers across Europe were more important than the Cup of Nations. An erratic side with a good draw away to Algeria followed by a poor draw at home against Zambia.
Would be among the ‘no-hopers’ but for one man, veteran French coach Claude Le Roy. He has gone to the Cup of Nations eight times and reached the knockout phase on all but one occasion. Clubless striker Emmanuel Adebayor desperate to prove that he is not a spent force.
Making unparallelled 13th consecutive appearance at the tournament, but have only one set of gold medals to show for it. Could win the tournament, or be out after first round. Coach Henryk Kasperczak took them to second place 21 years ago during a previous spell in charge.
Coach Baciro Cande insists they are more shocks to come from a team captained by midfielder Bocundji Ca that topped a group they were widely expected to prop up as the opposition included former champions Congo Brazzaville and Zambia, and Kenya.
After years relying considerably on the stealth of midfielder Seydou Keita and the strength of striker Cheik Diabate, both have passed their sell-by date and the cupboard looks bare. A goalless home draw with Gabon in their last competitive match does not inspire confidence.
Back at the Cup of Nations 39 years after finishing runners-up to hosts Ghana in a then eight-team competition. Another bunch of silver medals is a highly unlikely scenario, though, even if they boast the new Africa-based Footballer of the Year in goalkeeper Denis Onyango.
A couple of first-round exits was the fate of Zimbabwe during two previous appearances and it is hard to see them avoiding another early flight home despite a powerful attack starring Khama Billiat and Belgium-based Knowledge Musona.