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The Gambia manager Tom Saintfiet has said his team has been handed the “group of death” at next year’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).

Africa’s smallest mainland country found themselves pitted against holders Senegal in Thursday’s draw for the tournament in Ivory Coast.

Five-time champions Cameroon and Guinea also feature in Group C.

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All four teams advanced from the group stage at the delayed Afcon 2021, with The Gambia reaching the quarter-finals.

“We are the clear underdog. I used that a lot in the last Afcon that we are small and they are big,” Saintfiet told BBC Sport Africa.

“It suited us but this group is much more difficult this time – we have the group of death.

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“We face the current African champions, the semi-finalists of the last Afcon in Cameroon, and Guinea, who reached the knockout round last time.”

The Gambia were eliminated by hosts Cameroon at the quarter-final stage in 2022.

It was a remarkable debut at the tournament, including a win over Tunisia to qualify from the group.

In the first knockout round they eliminated Guinea, who they must now face again.

The Gambia are ranked 98 places below group stage opponents Senegal, 80 beneath Cameroon and 37 behind Guinea

The real excitement, though, surrounds their meeting with Afcon holders and geographical rivals Senegal, whose squad includes reigning African Footballer of the Year Sadio Mane and Edouard Mendy, who finished third in the running for the award.

“It’s a very tough group but nice that we can play against the Africa champions and our neighbours from the Sene-Gambia region,” said Saintfiet.

“In my five years of coaching, and almost daily, it’s been: ‘When are we going to play against Senegal?’

“It’s such a big game for people and a game they’ve looked forward to for years. Now it’s our opening game. If we beat Senegal, history will be made.

“It will be amazing, but we will be prepared. We are an ambitious team and we are not happy just to be there.

“We want to go further. In that way I’m not happy, as it’s a very tough group.”

Saintfiet, 50, is not alone in having high expectations.

The Belgian, who has also coached Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi and Togo on the continent, has to temper the expectations for the second-lowest ranked group of players at the tournament.

“There’s a realistic want,” he continued. “But we are 118th in the world. Only Tanzania [122nd] are ranked worse [among teams in the tournament].

“After the last Afcon, our public expect the semi-finals, final or even becoming champions.

“That’s the vibe after the last Afcon – even by journalists. People think we can beat everyone.

“It’s a fantastic feeling, but the reality is that we have to play every game at 100% to gain points.

“It would be fantastic if we can reach the second round – that is the biggest task and then we take it from there.

“Getting out of this group with three giants in African football will be tough – but we are there to compete and want to stay for as long as possible in Ivory Coast.”

The finals – pushed back from summer of 2023 due to weather conditions – will feature 24 teams and run from 13 January until 11 February 2024.

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