African Cup of Nations: Counting Down 10 Potential Stars of the Tournament
With Africa’s premiere continental competition less than two months away, Bleacher Report turns its focus to the Afcon and potential stars that may emerge in the tournament.
Chronicling the famous and the infamous, the bold and the brave, the fast and the furious, BR’s African expert Ed Dove gives the rundown of ten Potential Stars of the Cup of Nations.
Keep an eye out for these talented Africans as the continent’s finest do battle in South Africa.
1. Christian Atsu
When young players are saddled with a moniker likening them to a superstar of the game, it can prove to be a crippling weight; even worse, it might derail a nascent career or undermine a potential phenomenon. The same cannot be said about ‘the Ghanaian Leo Messi’ Christian Atsu—at least not yet.
One of the game’s genuine prodigies, Atsu has been fashioning an impressive career for himself in Portugal, where locals are enthralled by the youngster’s abilities. A Player of the Year award winner at Rio Ave, where the left-sided attacker was on loan from parent club Porto, Atsu combined speed, tactical awareness, and delightful technical ability to steal the show on a regular basis. A beautiful finish against Benfica demonstrated the player’s panache and eye for goal.
Writing for Goal Ghana, I once listed Atsu as one of four Black Stars who could easily find a home for themselves in the EPL.
In a Ghanaian side with aspirations to win the tournament, Atsu may well prove to be the difference between success and another disappointment akin to last year’s Semi-Final exit.
African defences may not realise what has hit them when ‘Messi’ takes to the field in South Africa.
2. Tresor Mputu
After seven years away from the continental stage, the Leopards finally return. As one of Africa’s historic footballing nations, and with one of the world’s twenty most-populous countries, this is surely where they belong. Whilst much of the commentary and analysis surrounding Congo’s attacking threats will focus on Dieumerci Mbokani, the glorious talents of Tresor Mputu will also be hard to ignore.
Once regarded as ‘the next Samuel Eto’o' by Claude Le Roy, the current Congo boss, Mputu has long been considered Europe-ready. This Afcon may well give the player a chance to step up his career by impressing an international audience.
Dazzling performances seem to come naturally to this lethal leopard, and the versatile frontman has been a crucial component of the recent continental and domestic success of TP Mazembe. At times, Les Corbeaux have conquered all before them, and the diminutive creator has defied defences and wowed the public with his attacking displays.
Watch for Mputu to make a big impression.
3. Cheick Diabate
Group B features four nations stacked with firepower. While DR Congo can offer Dieumerci Mbokani, Niger can present Moussa Maazou, and Ghana promise the often-devastating talents of Asamoah Gyan, the Malian, Cheick Diabate, may be the most tantalising talent of all.
The faults and fortunes of this Bamako-born striker will certainly go a long way to determining the outworking of Mali’s campaign.
After several frustrating years at Bordeaux where time frequently spent as a substitute was only broken up by loan moves, the 6'4" hitman has finally established himself as the ‘go-to guy’ at the Stade Chaban Delmas.
Malians are also enamoured with their towering forward, and few could forget his impact at the last Afcon, where Diabaté’s 85th minute equaliser against hosts Gabon was one of the tournament’s truly jaw-dropping moments. The former Ajaccio man was also one of the scorers as Les Aigles bested the hosts to seal their spot in the Semi-Final.
4. Afriyie Acquah
When a correspondent from Football.com approached me last week to comment on Ghanaian midfielder Afriyie Acquah, I delivered a fairly restrained critique on the youngster’s progress. However, with the prerequisite raw materials and a sterling attitude, Acquah may have the potential to make a splash at Afcon 2013.
Having made his Black Stars debut back in February, the Italian-based talent has taken some time to establish himself among his international peers. One reason for this is the hefty stock of central midfielders that Ghana boasts—whilst he replaced the mourning Asamoah Gyan in the squad last week, he is also competing with the likes of Anthony Annan, Sulley Muntari and Kwadwo Asamoah for an Afcon squad.
Once identified by Walter Sabatini as the ‘Great Hope’ of Ghanaian football, that prognostic has appeared a little hasty of late. After struggling to assert himself in the Palermo midfield, Acquah has found himself loaned out to Parma. Despite Gli Emiliani’s impressive opening months of the season, it’s a fairly bad sign for ‘Great Hopes’ to be cast off, especially with an option to buy included.
Noted for his exemplary passing and an impressive touch and technique, Acquah marries these skills to a terrific work ethic and tremendous physical attributes.
Whilst any commendation must merit a caveat, Acquah certainly has the potential to be a big asset to the Black Stars midfield.
5. Vic Moses
Victor Moses appears primed and ready to take the Afcon by storm.
After making his Nigeria debut in February, Moses has emerged as a crucial component in Super Eagles boss Stephen Keshi’s fluid attacking trident.
This was no more evident than in Nigeria’s entertaining 6-1 romp against Liberia—the match that sealed their Afcon qualification. Whilst goals were shared across the team, Moses proved what a threat he could be with his blistering pace, direct running, and impulsive finishing. He even demonstrated what a threat he can be in the air, with a deft header from a John Obi Mikel cross-Nigeria’s sixth, and the gateway to euphoria.
Whilst previous Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo had demonstrated a preference for introducing Moses as a substitute rather than as a starter, Moses has still shown this season why the West London club were so keen to poach him from Wigan. Some argue that Moses may be overrated by the English media, but performances such as that against United in the Capital One Cup suggest that the player has the talent to back up the words.
Reviewing that game for Goal Nigeria, I maintained that Moses’ ‘direct running and ferocious rapidity’ had been constant devils for United. I imagine Afcon defences may be sharing their fears.
6. Abdou Razak Traore
In the eyes of many, Abdou Razak Traore has not developed as had been hoped. Many consider him a disappointment, even one of football’s failures. In principle, he may be a strange suggestion for this list, but I want to put my neck out and argue that it’s not over for A.R.T.
In his early career back in Morocco with Raja Casablanca, it was clear that Abdou Traore was something special.
With a vast array of nifty skills and tantalising moves as well as an admirable team ethnic, Traore was set for a career of not just decorating teams but actively driving them on: the energetic winger with a low centre of gravity, as well as decent pace, a valuable asset for Burkina Faso.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way. A move to Rosenborg was a massive failure, and the Ivorian- born midfielder was released on a free after several years of great controversy off the field but little end product on it.
At 23, it is not the end of the road for Traore, and the Afcon may prove to be the environment for him to leap back onto his previous pathway to stardom.
Not considered one of the tournament favourites, Burkina Faso will be requiring a player of Traore’s quality to step up to the plate just for them to escape the group.
Maybe in February we will be talking about the player Abdou Razak has become, and not the player he might have been.
7. Wilfried Bony
Some weeks ago I wrote my shortlist of the Top Ten Hottest Africans on the Planet Today. Whilst both title and content prompted enormous debate and exchange, I was particularly pleased to see contributors listing the players they had expected, or had wanted to see among the names chosen. Some of these names I disagreed with, and some of these names had been ignored for good reason, but there were others that could certainly lay claim to being among the hottest players on the continent right now.
Wilfried Bony certainly fits into this category.
As Cote d’Ivoire gently begin to usher out the zimmer-framed ‘Golden Generation’, a new crop of Elephants are emerging as the nation's standard bearers. It’s possible that Wilfried Bony and young Ivorian striker Lacina Traore may even attain greater success than their venerated elders.
With 30 goals in under 50 games for Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem to date, Bony has been drowning in goals in Holland. Whilst the odd cynical observer may roll out the oft-quoted adage ‘anyone can score in the Dutch league’, this is not a Mateja Kezman we are talking about here. You get the feeling Bony would score wherever he travelled.
Reports suggest that Chelsea may well be his imminent destination, providing a delicate symmetry to the incipient career of the man: as he succeeds Drogba with the Cote d’Ivoire, so he may succeed him at the Bridge.
8. Ryad Boudebouz
A product of Sochaux’s fabled youth academy, Boudebouz is a player capable of making a huge impact at next year’s African centrepiece. Comfortable playing behind the striker or down the right flank, the Algerian has been enjoying steady progress in Ligue 1 ever since his breakthrough year as a teenager. Here is a talent with electric capabilities—the kinds that could flourish in the environment of the Afcon.
Like Youssef Msakni and Younés Belhanda, Boudebouz is one of the new breed of North African talents capable of reaching the upper echelons of the sport. Being linked with a move to Liverpool may not be the same sign of stardom that it once was, but it still demonstrates that the Colmar native is on the radar of clubs across Europe.
Expect a successful Afcon to send many more suitors flocking to Montbeliard.
9. Moussa Maazou
Another player who has traipsed around various European outposts—including a stint in Russia following a €4.8m transfer from Belgium—it has taken time for Moussa Maazou to find his feet. Failing to adapt north of the Mediterranean hasn’t finished the Nigerien off, however, and Maazou’s electric form has been rediscovered in Tunisia with Etoile du Sahel. Here, the striker has finally managed to reinvent himself after some bleak and beleaguered years.
Players who have endured the troughs of fortune tend to emerge primed to seize their opportunity and to capitalise on their talents, and the imposing Maazou could certainly fall into this category.
Whilst Niger boss Gernot Rohr radiated positivity and confidence as his side were drawn into a taxing Group B, many Mena fans failed to share his optimism. Progression from this group must surely rest on the assured touch and clinical finishing of Double M.
Still only 24, the nomadic frontman is, remarkably, with his eighth club, but the time may have come for him to deliver on his immense potential.
10. Adel Taarabt
Genius or Jester?
Premier League supporters are yet to be convinced by Adel Taarabt, and despite his twinkling toes and often outrageous moments of skill and audacity, the jury remains undecided on this mercurial talent.
Joey Barton, who took the QPR captaincy from Taarabt back in 2011, perhaps summed up the pervading mood on arriving in West London. "Football’s Philosopher" suggested that whilst he had heard the rumours and reports surrounding Taarabt’s supposed genius, he was yet to actually see what all the fuss was about.
To some extent, Barton may have a point—whilst Taarabt took the Championship to pieces as QPR claimed promotion, he has been unable, perhaps inevitably, to influence the Prem in the same way.
Nevertheless, those flashes of brilliance remain—and as a crucial component of Morocco’s attacking line, Taarabt can be hoping to terrorise some defences and bamboozle some markers come the Afcon. It will be fascinating to see how much respect Angola’s players afford Taarabt during their opening Group A clash. Regardless, the new year may prove to be the prime time for ‘the boy they called Adel’ to finally live up to that ‘genius’ tag.
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