It’s that time of year again. With January rapidly approaching, it means the African Cup of Nations is right around the corner and ready to interrupt domestic football – a silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding of the season for clubs to chip their teeth on.
That’s an uncharitable and Anglocentric view of a tournament that has, in recent editions, provided some of the best stories and biggest shocks in the international game (far more than, say, the enthusiasm-eroding tedium of recent European Championships).
Nowhere was this more evident than in the 2012 competition which saw Zambia overcome overwhelming odds to beat Ivory Coast, comfortable pre-tournament favourites, in a penalty shootout to claim their first AFCON title.
That defeat for Les Elephants was part of a trophyless period for the West African nation that stretched back to 1993. To make matters worse, they were in the midst of a golden generation of players had failed to crown their abundant talent with some silverware. With the knees of the brothers Touré starting to creak and the retired Didier Drogba an expectant cheerleader back home, this was the last opportunity they’d get to make the most of group who had also lost the 2006 final against Egypt. By the time of the 2015 AFCON, they were eight pints deep and about to hear the bell for last orders at the last chance saloon.
Côte d’Ivoire did the sensible thing and appointed their conqueror as manager, turning to Hervé Renard, the man who had orcestrated Zambia’s Goliath-slaying. It was a shrewd move as their new manager finally got them over the line, beating a Ghana side managed by Avram Grant on penalties after a 0-0 draw in the final. Grant will be looking to avenge that loss and take Ghana one step further at the start of next year.
Hervé Renard, meanwhile, is bidding to become the Clarence Seedorf of the AFCON as he seeks to win the competition with a third different team. He’s at the helm of Morocco, who will have to negotiate a tough group alongside one of Renard’s former teams, Côte d’Ivoire, as well as DR Congo and Togo. With the creative triumvirate of Younés Belhanda, Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal at his disposal, former Cambridge United boss Renard has every chance of claiming a hat-trick of trophies.
Elsewhere, a pair of minnows will be looking to make an outsized splash. Guinea-Bissau could find points hard to come by as they have been drawn in group A with hosts Gabon, Cameroon and 2013 finalists Burkina Faso.
Uganda have a taxing draw as they’re contending with seven times champions Egypt, Grant’s Ghana and Mali. This is the Cranes’ first AFCON appearance since 1978 so qualification in itself represents a big step forward for the East Africans. Any further progress would be a phenomenal achievement.
Group B rounds out the tournament and features the highest ranked African nation, according to FIFA. Senegal will have to see off a resurgent Tunisia and an Algeria side looking to build on an impressive performance at the 2014 World Cup. In fact, the two North African sides are the second and fourth highest rated teams so, if you’re going by the FIFA World Rankings – admittedly a system with chocolate teapot levels of reliability – then this is our Group of Death™. Zimbabwe are the fourth team and their defenders look set to be a busy bunch of lads.
One nation conspicuous by its absence is Nigeria. The Super Eagles were the filling in the Renard AFCON sandwich as they won the 2013 edition against surprise package Burkina Faso in a campaign that saw the glorious homecoming of Victor Moses. Nigeria can probably feel rightly aggrieved that they aren’t appearing at this tournament after being stitched up by Chad, who withdrew from qualifying for financial reasons after three rounds of games. This meant that their results (including a 2-0 loss to Nigeria) were annulled, preventing the runners-up of their group from making it to the tournament as a second placed team with the most points. Nigeria finished behind Egypt and therefore failed to qualify. The disappointment of this campaign, and the death of their 2013 AFCON winning coach Stephen Keshi at the age of 54, has made 2016 a difficult year for Nigerian football.
Their absence has notably reduced the number of Engand-based players appearing at the tournament. Regardless, here’s a club-by-club run down of the Premier League players who are eligible for this year’s AFCON and the impact it’ll likely have. The tournament is scheduled to run from 14th January to 5th February so any club who has their shit together should be aiming to use the transfer window to compensate for any losses:
Mohamed Elneny – Egypt
Ismaël Bennacer – Algeria
Bennacer has yet to make a first team appearance for Arsenal so his selection is neither here nor there. Besides, Algeria are well-equipped in midfield so, despite making his international debut during qualifying, he’s unlikely to be picked in the final squad. Meanwhile Elneny has largely been a rotation option for Wenger in games where he wants to be defensively compact and as such is an eminently replaceable cog in the Arsenal machine. Xhaka, Coquelin and Ramsey will all be able to cover adequately.
Verdict: All guns blazing. They should make it through a generous run of fixtures (Swansea (A), Burnley (H), Watford (H), Chelsea (A)) with their title challenge in tact.
Max Gradel – Ivory Coast
Benik Afobe – DR Congo
A series of injuries have meant that Gradel has fallen behind King, Stanislas, Ibe and probably Ryan Fraser too after Sunday’s performance so, if he goes, it won’t be too much of a hardship for the Cherries. He’s by no means guaranteed to make the Ivory Coast squad either even though he’s previously been a favourite. Providing that the FA pull their collective finger out and send the paperwork to the right Congo this time, Afobe’s absence will have a bit more impact as it leaves them a slightly short of central strikers, with only Lewis Grabban and Josh King capable of filling in for Callum Wilson.
Verdict: A minor inconvenience. Might have to dip into the transfer market for a centre forward.
Sean Dyche has no time for African footballers in his squad comprised almost exclusively of Proper Football Men.
Verdict: Won’t be losing any players in January but they’ll still be bang in trouble.
Gone are the days where an AFCON would deprive the Blues of Essien, Drogba, Kalou and Mikel for a whole month. A few of their loan rangers are likely to be there (Bertrand Traore for Burkina Faso and Christian Atsu for Ghana) but that won’t have any effect on the first team.
Verdict: Nigeria’s failure to qualify has done them a solid as it means they can keep hold of integral first team player Victor Moses (imagine saying that sentence sincerely last season). Oh, and Mikel John Obi too. A fully stocked squad bodes well for their title challenge.
Wilfried Zaha – Ivory Coast
Bakary Sako – Mali
Kwesi Appiah – Ghana
A slightly grainy pose-with-the-shirt-in-the-living-room pic aside, Zaha’s defection to the country of his birth has yet to be confirmed. It seems like a sensible decision for him, given the competition for places and the way he’s been consistently overlooked by England since making his debut. Seeing Jesse Lingard picked ahead of him must have been a real kick in the teeth.
Palace will be tearing their hair out though. Wilf’s been comfortably their best player this season and he’ll leave an enormous hole to be filled. Sako has been in and out of the team but with him gone, that leaves Andros Townsend and Lee Chung-Yong as the only available wingers. Competent replacements but, given that attacking from wide positions has been Palace’s main threat going forward so far this season, competent might not be good enough. With a run of games where they’ll be desperate to pick up some points (West Ham, Everton, Bournemouth, Sunderland) Zaha will be sorely missed and losing him for a few weeks could wreck their season.
Appiah is a squad player at best for Palace, but his inclusion in Ghana’s 2015 AFCON squad was one of those bizarre, heartwarming stories football throws up sometimes. Here’s hoping for an unlikely repeat of that.
Verdict: Hard times for Pards. Results are going to have to pick up significantly between now and then for him to convince Palace’s investors to spend in January. If they don’t, the drop zone beckons.
Yannick Bolasie – DR Congo
Idrissa Gueye – Senegal
Bolasie was the marquee signing for Everton this summer, but Gueye has been the better, more effective acquisition by a long shot. Gueye has been quietly going about his business in the middle of the park, averaging roughly 5 tackles a game (with a 77% success rate) as well as making just over 2 interceptions a game. Lukaku and Bolasie’s Lingala-based relationship has been showing promising signs, but Everton can call on Mirallas, Deulofeu, Valencia and Lennon to fill in for their new winger, whereas their options look worryingly thin without Idrissa Gueye in the team.
Verdict: A mixed bag. Bolasie has blown hot and cold so they can adapt to life without him fairly easily. Losing Gueye could put a real dent in their ambitions though. Koeman should thank his lucky stars that Lukaku didn’t choose to play for Congo as well.
Dieumerci Mbokani – DR Congo
Ahmed Elmohamady – Egypt
Mbokani has yet to score a goal for Hull and has only really been a bit-part player, so not a huge problem there. Elmohamady has been one of their few consistent performers and, at this stage, is part of the furniture at the KC. Any sustained period without him is going to cause issues as they have no real alternatives.
Verdict: Not huge losses in terms of numbers, but certainly in terms of influence. Besides, with their wafer thin squad, they can hardly afford to be missing two first team players for any length of time. Won’t end well.
Riyad Mahrez – Algeria
Islam Slimani – Algeria
Jeffrey Schlupp – Ghana
Daniel Amartey – Ghana
Yohan Benalouane – Tunisia (not registered in Premier League squad)
Joël Matip – Cameroon
Sadio Mané – Senegal
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Matip is the glue that holds Liverpool’s ramshackle defence together. With the central defender in the side they’re unbeaten in 11 games and have conceded 9 goals; without him they’ve played 3, lost 2 and conceded 9 goals. Unless Klopp addresses this obvious deficiency, they’ll continue to struggle in Matip’s absence. Mané has been a revelation and can lay a strong claim to being signing of the season thus far. He’s contributed 7 goals and 3 assists since moving from Southampton. Liverpool are better equipped to deal with life without him compared to Matip, but they’ll miss his end product.
Verdict: Potentially season-damaging. They’ve got to play against both Manchester United and Chelsea – two sides who will barely be affected by players going to Gabon – at the end of January/ start of February. It’ll be a real test of their credentials to see if they can cope without two of their most influential players.
Eric Bailly – Ivory Coast
The big Ivorian opened the season with some intelligent, commanding displays and had been United’s best player before a knee injury against Chelsea curtailed his impressive start. United initially struggled but have managed to deal without the former Villarreal defender’s formidable presence recently. He’s due back before Christmas so chances are José will get him for about a month before he shoots off.
Verdict: They’ve already been (sort of) coping without Bailly so this won’t be a monumental loss. It does mean they’ll have to rely on Phil Jones though.
Yaya’s hung up his international boots and Nigeria’s failure to qualify means that City can keep hold of Kelechi Iheanacho for the whole season. Pep’s gotta be a happy chap about that.
Verdict: No worries for the blue half of Manchester either. As you were, lads.
With teams around them losing a few key players and having to deal with weakened squads, Aitor Karanka will be glad of the lack of disruption to his team. After a mildly rocky start, the Spaniard has a settled side in a settled system and they’re ticking along nicely. Things are looking up for the ‘Boro.
Verdict: Happy campers
Sofiane Boufal – Morocco
Southampton’s unequivocal Goal of the Month winner for October has been used sparingly by Claude Puel so far but in recent weeks he has started to pick up a few more minutes here and there. Not a hugely significant loss yet but, let’s face it, you’re going to miss any player who can do this:
Verdict: Saints will be disappointed to lose a player who is starting to find his groove and they’ll miss the creativity he brings to their squad, but they’ll survive without him.
Mame Biram Diouf – Senegal
Ramadan Sobhi – Egypt
Wilfried Bony – Ivory Coast
Stoke started dismally but were brave enough to stick with Mark Hughes who has managed to turn things around. Part of that was down to Wilfried Bony flickering into life and beginning to get back to his brutish best before picking up an injury. Jon Walters has filled in and in the last two games has performed well, in typically unselfish and effective fashion, so they can cope without the Ivorian leading the line. Sobhi has looked bright in fits and starts but has essentially been on the fringes of the first XI whereas Diouf is much admired for his work rate but he plays in a position where Stoke have a few different options, even if they do look a better side with him in it. They could possibly do with one or two additions just to make sure, but things won’t be awful.
Verdict: Not as bad as it first looks.
Didier Ndong – Gabon
Lamine Koné – Ivory Coast
Papy Djilobodji – Senegal
Wahbi Khazri – Tunisia
Three wins on the spin have loosened a noose that was slowly tightening around Moyes’ neck after he oversaw the joint-worst start to a Premier League season ever. This revival has been founded on the defensive stability provided by their centre backs and their central midfield; a core consisting of… Koné, Djilobodji and NDong. Oh.
Sunderland are going to have the heart of their team ripped out come January and it could well undo all of their recent hardwork.Khazri has been deemed too much of a luxury player for Moyes, finding himself on the bench as his manager selects players more willing or able to defend from the front. Last season proved he’s a good creative option, for his set piece delivery if nothing else, and would at least offer some variety to their attack. Without that African spine though, disaster looms on the horizon.
Verdict: Potentially catastrophic.
And a good job, too. With the prospect of Arsenal (H), Liverpool (A), Southampton (H) and Man City (A) coming between 14th January and 4th February, Swansea are going to need everything they have in their locker if they want to come away with some points from that run.
Verdict: Big Bob has his work cut out whichever way you slice it, so thank god he’s not missing any of his biggest players.
The last thing a lot of Spurs’ players need is more game time so Pochettino will most likely be glad he doesn’t have to ship any of his boys off to Gabon at the start of 2017.
Verdict: No effect whatsoever.
Nordin Amrabat – Morocco
Adlène Guedioura – Algeria
Brice Dja Djédjé – Ivory Coast (Not in registered Premier League squad)
Amrabat continues to look lively, and his pace is a threat, but he needs to add more end product to his game before he’s considered irreplaceable. Guedioura is neat and tidy but rarely anything more than that, while Dja Djédjé didn’t even make their 25-man squad. They’ll be fine without them and chances are that January will see a raft of ins and outs anyway. Such is life under the Pozzos. Their best African players – Ighalo and Success – won’t be going anywhere.
Verdict: Watford are undoubtedly the club best equipped to deal with losing a few players. Would have had cause for concern if Nigeria had qualified.
Allan Nyom – Cameroon
Seventh placed (?!) West Brom have started excellently. As always, it stems from Pulis’ fetishisation of cleansheets and his unabashed penchant for set pieces. However, they’ve added an extra dimension to their play this year and have, at the time of writing, scored more goals than Manchester United this season. Allan Nyom hasn’t troubled the goalscorers but he has wormed his way into the starting eleven as a first choice left back. Steady and unspectacular, he’s adjusted to life at the Hawthorns well. Pulis will be loathe to change a settled back four, but his system is well-organised enough to endure a change of personnel. He might hold Nyom’s absence against him when he comes home.
Verdict: PulisBall is bigger than any one man.
Sofiane Feghouli – Algeria
Cheikhou Kouyaté – Senegal
Diafra Sakho – Senegal
Andre Ayew – Ghana
On paper this looks bad. However, it’s perhaps not as devastating as it might seem. Sofiane Feghouli has been completely fucking useless so that’s not a problem. Ayew, while unfortunate to have his season interrupted by injury 20 mins into his debut, has offered next to nothing in his handful of appearances so far. Diafra Sakho made an immediate difference to West Ham’s blunt strikeforce, but pulled up with a hamstring injury in the second game of his comeback that’ll keep him out of action until the middle of January. He’s therefore unlikely to figure in any Senegalese squad given the wealth of attacking options at their disposal and that might work out well for the Irons.
Unfortunately that’s not the case with Kouyaté who, as captain of his international team, is a lock to make the plane. His loss cannot be understated for West Ham. He’s comfortably been their best central defender this season and would undoubtedly be their best performer in his preferred central midfield role if he’d been played there. Without him, it leaves their squad with just three senior centre halves – an obvious problem if Bilic persists with a 3-man defensive shape – and deprives the team of their only player with any semblance of dynamism.
Verdict: There’s a big, Kouyaté-shaped void they’re going to have to fill or things are going to get sticky.
There we go then. Of the teams likely to be in the hunt for the title/Champions League places, only Liverpool will have any degree of difficulty navigating the month or so that the African Cup of Nations lasts. The rest of a putative top six (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham) are virtually untouched by the competition, possibly indicating the dearth of quality African footballers right now, or perhaps simply suggesting that top end Premier League recruitment policy has changed in the last few seasons.
At the other end of the table, there are a number of sides (Leicester, Hull City, West Ham, Sunderland and Crystal Palace) who are heavily reliant on players who are going to be absent for upto five weeks. These clubs are going to have to either invest in replacements during the transfer window or find internal solutions, including the prospect of a complete tactical reshuffle in some cases. It’s quite easy to see these five teams, along with Swansea City, being cut adrift from the rest of the league and left to scuffle between themselves to avoid the drop. Even if they manage to amass enough points between now and then to give themselves a bit of a cushion, a bad January could see them sucked back into the mire.