By Harvey Stevens
Much of the press coverage in the run-up to the upcoming African Cup of Nations has been around the notable absentees from the Premier League when the competition kicks off in the next few weeks.
Jurgen Klopp had a run-in with an African journalist following the Liverpool boss’s remarks that it was a ‘little competition’, whilst more recently Senegal and Nigeria accused Watford of blocking forwards Ismaila Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis from participating in the tournament.
It is no surprise that the British media has focused on the repercussions for the Premier League, but in doing so it has silenced the hype around what will be a high-class tournament involving some of the worlds best players. So Palatinate has rounded up what to look out for, which teams will expect to compete for the title as well as some of the players to look out for.
This year’s tournament, hosted in Cameroon, has been rescheduled twice now. It was originally supposed to take place in June and July of 2021, but was then moved to January of the same year due to climatic conditions. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it got changed again to January 2022.
The last time the tournament took place in the summer of 2019, Algeria took the crown following a 1-0 final victory over Senegal. Both sides this year will fancy themselves to go all the way again.
The reigning champions boast Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez as their star man, but are not short on squad depth. AC Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer and in-form West Ham attacker Saïd Benrahma will most likely play behind Lyon and ex-Leicester man Islam Slimani up front.
Senegal are looking to go one further than their runners-up medal in 2019 and are similarly not short on star-men. They are bolstered by the inclusion of Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, and boast an impressive spine to their team. Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy and fellow Premier League star Cheikhou Kouyate are joined by Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly in defence, whilst PSG’s Idrissa Gana Gueye will feature in midfield.
Eyes will no doubt be on arguably the most in-form player in the world at the moment, Mohamed Salah. He’s joining up with his Egyptian teammates who include Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny and Aston Villa winger Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ Hassan. They have a relatively tough group, though, with Nigeria, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau as they look to win their record eighth AFCON title.
Two teams to look out for are Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Morocco who will be fancying themselves to make a mark this year. The Ivory Coast will be spearheaded by Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe whilst Morocco will look to Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri and Munir El Haddadi for their attacking threat.
Much has been made about Nigeria’s preparation for the tournament. The Super Eagles sacked their head coach Gernot Rohr and replaced him with Augustine Eguavoen just weeks before the tournament. Furthermore, they will be without star-men Victor Osimhen and Emmanuel Dennis, as well as Rangers defenders Calvin Bassey and Leon Balogun.
It will be a struggle for Nigeria to compete with the likes of Algeria, Senegal and The Ivory Coast, but as with any major international competition, expect upsets, surprises, thrills and spills as the tournament progresses.
The competition kicks off on Sunday, 9th January, when hosts Cameroon will face Burkina Faso in Yaoundé. Sky Sports will be showing all 52 games, with ten games, including two of the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and the final being shown on BBC.
Image: Ai Kagou via Flickr