African Cup of Nations 2012: 10 Players Who Will Be Missed
The 2012 African Cup of Nations (ACN) kicks off on January 21st when co-host Equatorial Guinea take on Libya. The action for Premier League-based players begins immediately however, as coaches have called in their squads to begin a two-week training camp.
For the first time in recent history, continental powerhouses Egypt have joined Cameroon and Nigeria on the sidelines as they failed to qualify for this year's tournament. Arsene Wenger would have been more interested than most as he will retain the services of influential midfielder Alex Song over this winter period.
Other teams, however, are not so lucky, as a disproportionate amount of key players from Manchester City, Chelsea and especially Newcastle will be absent for a swath of critical games. Tyneside boss Alan Pardew may very well hope for an early exit for Côte d'Ivoire, but considering their squad they may very well go all the way to the final on February 12th, he''ll have to suffer in silence.
Cover will be vigorously sought in the form of short-term loans this month, as these players are all valuable first-teamers for their respective clubs. In order of least to most influential, here are 10 players who will be greatly missed by their clubs for the duration of the tournament.
Mohamed Diamé (Senegal): Wigan Athletic
Unfortunately for Wigan boss Roberto Martínez, his relegation battle against fellow struggling clubs Bolton and Blackburn is about to get a little bit tougher. Although Mohamed Diamé was born in France he is eligible for the Senegal national side through his father.
It sure isn't easy being a Lactics fan, with recent draws against Liverpool and Chelsea the highlights of another tough season. Martínez is a likable character and owner Dave Whelan has shown no small amount of loyalty to the amiable Spaniard although relegation can sour even the strongest of bonds.
Diamé has been an ever-present in Wigan's midfield this season with two goals to his name. The defensive midfielder has been tasked with putting a muzzle on the dazzling attacking talent the Premier League has to offer, not a small request by any means.
Victor Moses has been one of the few positives in this Wigan side, and it is the likes of Diamé that lets the winger attack with menace. Upcoming matches against Manchester United, Tottenham and fellow stragglers QPR will be that much more difficult without Diamé.
At the end of the day, it will likely make little difference to Wigan's survival hopes that the Senegalese is unavailable.
Maroune Chamahk (Morocco): Arsenal FC
Arsene Wenger acquired the services of Marouane Chamakh from Bordeaux in the summer of 2010 on a free transfer. His thinking was likely parallel in some ways to Pep Guardiola's intention of using Zlatan Ibrahimović as a "Plan B" when Barcelona's slick passing broke down. Chamakh has shown himself to be quite handy in the air, and looked to be a quality addition to the Gunners' attacking options.
The blistering form of Robin van Persie has limited the lanky striker's opportunities this season to late cameos and cup appearances. The Dutchman has thrived as the focal point of the club's attacks flanked on either side by Gervinho and Theo Walcott.
Wenger has seen no reason to change a winning formula and rightly so. Unfortunately history has a tendency to repeat itself and Arsenal fans could be forgiven for steeling themselves for van Persie's inevitable injury.
Chamakh has Champions League and title-winning experience from his time in France, but as long as the scintillating Dutchman remains injury-free this month there should be little reason to dread the African striker's absence. Thierry Henry was brought in on loan likely to help cover this exact eventuality, as Park Chu-Young has played a grand total of zero Premier League minutes this season.
If van Persie stays fit there will be no problems, and this will be especially true if Henry can build on a fairy-tale start after his winner against Leeds in the FA Cup.
Adel Taarabt (Morocco): Queens Park Rangers
Before the most recent round of FA Cup ties, Neil Warnock's QPR simply hadn't cultivated enough points to satisfy majority shareholder Tony Fernandes. Considering the amount of money spent in the summer to strengthen the squad compared with fellow graduates Norwich and Swansea, the London club are a stone's throw off the relegation zone.
After setting the Championship alight last season, much was expected of Adel Taarabt's considerable talents. Unfortunately for QPR fans, the Moroccan failed to replicate his form of last season and was even dropped for a period of five matches back in November and the beginning of December. There was clearly a clash between the midfielder and Warnock earlier in the year, with new recruit Joey Barton handed the armband and leadership responsibility.
A new manager is always a new opportunity for change to sweep through the dressing room and shake up the old order. By the time this is published it's likely that Mark Hughes has been confirmed as the new manager and it is unfortunate that he will not be able to call on Taarabt and give the mercurial talent a fresh start to see what he can do.
Compared with the clubs around them QPR certainly have the resources to stay afloat without Taarabt, and if he excels at the tournament he very well may slot right back into the first team on his return. Hughes will want all of his available talent as soon as possible in order to manufacture some sort of synergy and keep the club in the Premier League.
Kolo Touré (Côte d'Ivoire): Manchester City
The departure of Kolo Touré for the African Cup of Nations shouldn't have been an issue at all, merely a footnote considering Jolean Lescott has been first choice for most of the season. That all changed when Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany flew into Nani with two feet in the FA Cup this past weekend, earning a red card and four-match ban.
Micah Richards is the likely replacement considering the inexperience of Stefan Savic, but this could pose a significant problem in three ways. First of all, City host Tottenham Hotspur January 22nd. Richards will be sorely needed at right-back to try and collar Gareth Bale, but experience and tenacity will be required in the middle to deal with Emmanuel Adebayor's quick feet and Rafael van der Vaart's trickery.
Assuming Richards moves into the center this offsets the balance of Roberto Mancini's midfield, depriving the right flank of much-needed width. Similar to how Dani Alves is Barcelona's outlet on the right, Richards provides that outside pass option when the only natural winger in the side (Adam Johnson) is left on the bench.
Additionally, Kompany will be unavailable for both Carling Cup semifinal legs against Liverpool and after City's exit from the FA Cup, Mancini will be targeting any silverware he can get his hands on.
This is far from a crisis but dropping points to Tottenham would allow Manchester United back into touching distance, something Mancini would be loath to do. Barring further suspension to Kompany or else an injury to the Belgian or Lescott, Mancini should have little to worry about in his back line.
Salomon Kalou (Côte d'Ivoire): Chelsea FC
Salomon Kalou has been a victim of Andre Villas-Boas' Chelsea regime, resulting in limited playing time this season with only four instances of Premier League action. He's been knocking on the door of the first team for a few years now, but the big-money arrival of Fernando Torres coupled with the emergence of Daniel Sturridge has seen Kalou slip to fourth-choice striker.
Similar to Chamakh at Arsenal, unless Villas-Boas loses Torres or Sturridge does not fully recover from his current injury, there will be little problem with the Ivorian being unavailable for selection.
Kalou is still only 26 years old and this is already his sixth season at Stamford Bridge. Typically deployed to the flanks at Chelsea, he has been unable to cement a starting spot and play consistently for a run of games. With Didier Drogba getting on and Torres firing blanks it's unfortunate that Kalou will be unavailable, as there will never be a better time to make a claim for first choice at the club.
In all likelihood Roman Abramovich will sanction more spending this month which could mean another striker. Kalou will hope for a goal-filled tournament this month so that he can come back to London in some semblance of form to convince AVB that he deserves more minutes on the pitch.
Didier Drogba (Côte d'Ivoire): Chelsea FC
Chelsea managed to win the 2009/2010 Premier League despite losing Didier Drogba to the African Cup of Nations that January. This time around the Manchester clubs may very well be out of reach already, but you can be sure that Drogba still has a lot to give this side before the summer comes around.
For the first time in his career at Stamford Bridge, the Ivorian is no longer the first striker. So far the Drogba/Fernando Torres partnership has failed to produce, and when he has played he has only scored three goals in the Premier League so far, in almost 1,000 minutes of football.
Perhaps his enforced absence will turn out to be Chelsea's salvation, as it may give Torres a consistent run in the side and allow him to rebuild that confidence and rediscover his form. Perhaps things will continue as they are and Chelsea will slip out of the top four and by the time Drogba returns the Blues will be fighting with Newcastle for a Europa League berth. Only time will tell.
Andre Villas-Boas will certainly miss the option of fielding Drogba, and certainly considering the injury to Daniel Sturridge we could see a raw and unpolished Romely Lukaku forced into the side at a critical junction in the season. Chelsea certainly have enough options and firepower not to miss the big man too much, but if Côte d'Ivoire perform as expected Drogba will be unavailable for the February 5th showdown with Manchester United.
Drogba may be getting up there but he is still an integral figure in this Chelsea side.
Gervinho (Côte d'Ivoire): Arsenal FC
It certainly has been an interesting season for Arsenal, taking into account the highs, lows and recent return of club legend Thierry Henry. Regardless of whether you agree with Arsene Wenger in his decision to bring back his former captain, Gervinho's departure this month coupled with Andrei Arshavin's loss of any sort of football skill whatsoever has left the club searching for options.
Gervinho's first season in the Premier League hasn't been electrifying by any means but his abilities have allowed van Persie to flourish as the lone frontman. A constant criticism of the Gunners for so long has been their tendency to overplay opportunities and the Ivorian's direct style from the left flank has only yielded four goals but opened up the pitch for van Persie to do what he does best.
He is a great example of the modern "outside attacker," neither winger nor striker but deployed on the flank to cut inside and exchange passes more than hug the byline and fire in crosses. Theo Walcott may have the pace and Arshavin the trickery (at times) but the Ivorian is more of a complete footballer and was another shrewd signing by Wenger.
Looking at Arsenal's squad there are other options available in terms of replacements, and it would certainly be interesting to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain get some Premier League minutes under his belt. Considering the fact that Wenger has allowed his former captain and talisman to return, it seems that Gervinho is highly valued by his manager and we'll see how van Persie copes without him.
Cheick Tioté (Côte d'Ivoire): Newcastle United
For every Zinedine Zidane there's a Claude Makélélé, and Demba Ba likely wouldn't be able to lead Newcastle's line without the snarling presence of Cheick Tioté in Newcastle's center. When he missed six matches in and around November his absence was keenly felt, and Alan Pardew will have to dig deep to compensate for one of the better holding midfielders in the Premier League.
Tioté doesn't score many goals, however his solitary strike in Newcastle colors was a screaming volley from the top of the 18-yard box to secure a 4-4 tie against Arsenal late last season. Against Manchester United the Ivorian was the ying to Yohan Cabaye's yang in the center of the park and they combined perfectly to simultaneously stifle Alex Ferguson's side and cut them open with incisive balls forward.
Without Tioté, Newcastle will likely be restricted to fielding a solitary frontman, and try as he might, the likes of Alan Smith would fall short in acting as sole cover for Cabaye. His distribution enables the midfield to position themselves farther apart, and without him Jonás Gutiérrez and Gabriel Obertan will have to track back more to collect the ball.
The big hole in Newcastle's side occupies the No. 1 spot on this list but the unavailability of Tioté will cause Pardew no end of frustration, although he may well have returned before the club travels to White Hart Lane on February 11th.
Yaya Touré (Côte d'Ivoire): Manchester City
Manchester City's 2011 African Footballer of the Year was half-expected to play against Manchester United in the FA Cup but ended up joining the rest of the Côte d'Ivoire squad for pre-tournament training. Despite the embarrassment of riches in the striking department Yaya Touré is one of Roberto Mancini's first names on the team-sheet each match and has played a prominent role in the club's success this season.
Looking at the club's alternatives there is no like-for-like replacement for the former Barcelona player, and I expect City to field a slightly more defensive midfield in his absence. Touré's powerful, surging runs from deep as well as his menacing aerial threat on set pieces will be sorely missed. He is not a classic holding player, but the pressure on Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong will be exponentially increased with him unavailable.
Touré's inclusion enables Mancini to field the likes of David Silva, Sergio Agüero and Edin Dzeko/Mario Balotelli in the same side without worrying too much about losing control of the midfield. Barry's lack of pace will be of special concern to Mancini, especially when City commit men and leave themselves open to counterattack, as Napoli's Edinson Cavani so ruthlessly demonstrated in the Champions League.
A club of City's resources really can't be pitied when an influential player is out of contention, but with United breathing down their necks it will be interesting to see how Mancini adapts. Will he continue to allow his players to attack with abandon or will we see a return to the watertight 1-0 Manchester City of last season?
The beneficiary of this situation may very well be utility-man James Milner who could be called in to deputise in the center of the park.
Demba Ba (Senegal): Newcastle United
If you think that Robin van Persie is the Premier League's most prized asset, Alan Pardew would vehemently disagree with you. Demba Ba has plundered an astonishing 15 goals in 19 Premier League matches after joining Newcastle for all of £0 this summer from West Ham.
Stoke City boss Tony Pulis had the opportunity to sign the French-born Senegalese striker in January 2011, but the £9 million price tag was too much, especially considering chronic knee issues discovered during his medical. Ba subsequently signed for West Ham but was released by the London club in the summer following their relegation after having scored seven goals in 12 matches.
Despite the aforementioned medical problems, Newcastle snapped up Ba for nothing this summer, and he has more than repaid Pardew's faith with goals, goals and more goals. He is the focal point of every Newcastle attack and looking across the league, only the likes of van Persie or Wayne Rooney would be a suitable replacement in terms of predatory goal scoring on current form.
Stoke's loss has been Newcastle's gain and there will be no keener-felt loss this month than Ba's departure for the African Cup of Nations. In-form goal-scorers are worth double their weight in gold and despite Hatem Ben Arfa's "Messi-esque" goal against Blackburn in the FA Cup, you can be certain that Magpie fans will be praying for an early exit for Senegal this month.