Moses, Gervinho & the 10 Best African Cup of Nations Players of the Group Stage
With the Group Stage coming to a close and the quarterfinals just around the corner, Bleacher Report's African Expert Ed Dove takes a look at the top ten players to have impressed him in the 24 matches to this point.
All but two of these players are still alive in the competition, so keep an eye out for their efforts as they attempt to guide their respective nations to Afcon glory.
Often misrepresented as a holding or purely defensive midfielder during his time at Barcelona, Keita has long been the fulcrum of anything attacking and creative about this Mali team. Without the likes of Fredi Kanoute up front to lead the time, the onus perhaps falls on Keita now, more than ever, to capitalise on an exciting generation of Malian talent.
So far this tournament, he hasn’t failed, and whilst the West Africans haven’t yet found their stride—they qualified from a potentially problematic group. Keita’s late winner against Niger was the catalyst for all that has followed, and the veteran skipper has been at his all-action best during the qualification-securing draw with Congo, and the narrow defeat to Ghana.
The experienced midfielder will need to be at his absolute best when the Eagles encounter South Africa and a doubtless partisan home ground in their Quarter Final on Saturday.
For a defender to score a decisive goal with the confident aplomb and bold assurance of a centre-forward is one thing, but for a defender to do it twice, in the cauldron of the Afcon, with unrelenting domestic pressure, is surely an astonishing feat.
The late equaliser against Morocco was a stunning example of ultimate opportunism. It was a finish that confirmed South Africa’s progress, but at the same time condemning the North Africans to an early exit. His opener against Angola was also crucial for Bafana Bafana, it was their first goal at the tournament, and both went some way to eradicating memories of their dismal opening showing against Cape Verde, whilst also setting the hosts up for a crucial victory.
Sangweni may well have to focus on the defensive side of his game as South Africa come up against Mali in the quarterfinals. However, if Keita and co. do begin to flourish, don’t bet against Sangweni rescuing his team with a late, glorious goal!
Despite exiting the competition at the first hurdle, Ethiopia can return to their homeland with their heads held high after giving a fine account of themselves over three games. Back in the competition after a 31 year absence, little was expected of the fallen giants of central Africa, a continental powerhouse that had once been so prominent in Africa’s sporting competition.
The fact that the vast majority of the squad play their football in the nation’s domestic league also gave them a mysterious, potentially naïve quality, allowing them to perhaps be underestimated by the majority of Afcon pundits.
A nervy start against the holders Zambia seemed to suggest that Ethiopia would be the tournament’s whipping boys, but despite being a goal and a man down, the team rallied and ended up stealing a point after a terrific attacking display. It was one of the halves of the tournament, and whilst results against Burkina Faso and Nigeria didn’t go their way, Ethiopia’s attacking endeavour and creative ambitions were admirable.
Their most impressive player was arguably Egypian-based Said Saladin. The 24-year-old is a national symbol, and his displays in the Afcon, against three of the continent’s finest teams, may well take him to the next level.
The competition’s standout performer thus far, playing for the breakout team and currently the top scorer—it’s fair to say that it’s been an unforgettable 2013 for Alain Traore. A player who has been highly regarded for years, some had suggested that his career had stalled at Auxerre, where years of tantalising performances had begun to slow down. A fresh start at Lorient has proved fruitful so far this term, but it has been with the national side that Traore has really hit headline-making form.
It was a late, late winner of his to secure the Stallions’ place in the tournament, and the momentum has continued in South Africa.
First of all, it was that glorious late equaliser against Nigeria, then it was the inspired demolition of Ethiopia where he chipped in with two goals. The first ignited the Burkinabe campaign, whilst the second shaped it and all but thrust the West Africans into the knockout stages. They sealed their progression with a draw against the holders, Zambia.
Injury sustained in this match has seemingly ended the young man’s tournament, but even if it is curtailed at this early stage, it has been an impact that has sent shockwaves across the continent.
Many Ivorians are conspicuous in their absence from this list. In truth, many of the squad have failed to find their stride in the tournament so far. I have written extensively about the enormous backing the West Africans received heading into the cup, but realistically, it’s hard to say that they’ve been overwhelmingly good during their group stage fixtures.
One player for whom this slight criticism doesn’t apply, however, is Gervinho. Maligned in the Premier League, where his performances for Arsenal have often been insipid and anonymous, he has appeared, at times, to be on a near one-man mission to bring the Afcon trophy back to Abidjan.
A late winner against Togo was one of the moments of the tournament thus far, whilst the forward also opened the scoring against Tunisia in Rustenburg—the match that sealed the Elephants’ progress.
Another who has flourished in the famous orange of the Ivorians has been Yaya Toure. The midfielder is one of the leaders in the national side and a driving force from the heart of the park. Despite not dominating games as he can, and perhaps not being as influential in the competition as he has been for Manchester City on occasion over the last 18 months, Toure’s contributions have been pertinent and priceless.
His impact was instant against Togo, where he opened the Ivorians’ account after only 8 minutes. Against Tunisia he took a little longer to find his goalscoring boots, but once they were laced up, the poor North African goalkeeper had no chance—Toure’s late belter ended the match as a contest, and confirmed the Elephants’ progress from the group.
Nigeria will be next to feel the Ivorians’ might, and a continent of football fans will tune in to watch the battle between Toure and his Premier League rival, John Obi Mikel.
While Alain Traore has stolen most of the plaudits in Burkina Faso’s terrific escape from Group C, a not-inconsiderable number of observers have also lauded the performances of his fellow-midfielder, Jonathan Pitroipa. The winger has dovetailed beautifully with his compatriot, and it is due in no small part to the pair’s effort that Burkina Faso, once considered underdogs, were being hailed as group winners.
Despite allegedly being injury-ravaged before the tournament, Pitroipa, so long a player who has flattered to deceive at international level, has proved himself to be one of West Africa’s most effective midfielders. His speed and efforts have not gone unnoticed, and his late goal against Ethiopia was just desserts for a player who has contributed a great deal to the team effort this term.
Following Nigeria’s Group C victory over Ethiopia, the match that saw them through to the quarterfinals, I waxed lyrical about Vincent Enyeama, and the role the goalkeeper has played in the tournament thus far.
I was one of many that doubted Enyeama heading into the tournament—my memories of his brave, bold defensive play in the 2010 World Cup, where he so famously foxed Leo Messi, were beginning to fade into the distant memory. A horrible blunder against Liberia in Monrovia, a spillage that led to Sekou Oliseh scoring for the Lone Stars, could easily have been seen as the death knoll for a career that had lost its verve after a move to Western Europe, and to Lille.
Added pressure was heaped on the stopper by the very able Austin Ejide, who had deputised for Naija’s number one with such poise in some pre-tournament friendlies.
A late injury to Ejide removed any doubt over that particular selection choice though, and it has been Enyeama who has been Nigeria’s custodian for this tournament. He hasn’t disappointed.
A stunning late block against Said Saladin was pulled right from the top drawer, and he will need to be on 2010 form once again for the Super Eagles to stand any chance against Cote d’Ivoire in the next round.
Christian Atsu—the Ghanaian Messi—was seen by many as the potential breakout star of the tournament. Having only made his international debut within the last 12 months, it was suggested that this could be the stage to see the young and talented winger demonstrate his profound ability in a more exalted setting.
After starting Ghana’s opening fixture against Congo, Atsu was one of the casualties of the Black Stars’ capitulation, ultimately being dropped for their second group battle against Mali. The West Africans looked uninspired and short of ideas in this fixture, despite winning, and it was little surprise when the youngster was recalled to the starting XI for the final game against Niger.
Atsu proved himself to be one not to neglect a second chance, and was a near-constant menace to the Nigeriens throughout the bout—his direct running and intelligent creativity carving up an admittedly fragile defence. His goal in that match will have imbued him with confidence, and perhaps the Porto-man will have the inspiration and the nous to make the difference against Cape Verde in the Quarter Final.
I was as disappointed as anyone when the Democratic Republic of Congo crashed out of the competition after failing to beat Mali in Durban. I had advocated this side far and wide, and it was a real shame to see them fall at the first hurdle.
While many in the squad ought to take a look at themselves, and particularly their inability to beat Niger in the second league game, Mbokani has preserved his reputation as one of the continent’s most dynamic forward men.
Congo’s comeback against Ghana in their opening game was probably my tournament highlight thus far. The inspiration came from attacking talents Mbokani and Tresor Mputu, both of whom impressed and scored on the day. Performances like this suggest that the Belgian league may not be able to keep the star striker under wraps for long.