While the Champions League may return and once more steal the limelight and headlines over the coming weeks, the Europa League Round of 32 gave us some stunning scenes and glorious moments as 16 teams went home and 16 advanced one step closer to the final at the Amsterdam Arena.
Of the sides still standing, 11 feature African players, and almost all of these teams rely heavily on at least one of the continent's stars.
This article highlights these players and identifies what they can bring to the coming rounds of the competition.
A 4-2 victory over Hannover saw Anzhi Makhachkala cruise into the round of 16. This is uncharted territory for the Dagestan club, who are enjoying a meteoric rise to prosperity following the generous financial backing of Suleyman Kerimov.
Anzhi’s crop of African players will be keen to make a sustained impact on the competition, and they offer a blend of youth and experience unrivalled among any other teams still standing in the competition.
Towering young Ivorian frontman Lacina Traore has the making of a world-class star, and I have recently identified him as the heir-apparent to Didier Drogba. He will be supported by two Moroccans, both of whom made their name in Belgium: Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez with Standard Liege and Mbark Boussoufa, initially with Gent and then with Anderlecht. Neither were involved in the Atlas Lions’ failed Afcon attempt, but could be crucial in Anzhi’s assault of their maiden continental honour.
The cream of the crop, however, is Cameroon frontman and African icon Samuel Eto’o. Playing a slightly deeper role in the Russian league and currently with four goals in the tournament, Eto’o is sure to be a key figure in Dikaya Divisiya’s battle with Newcastle.
The Magpie’s recent progress has been forged on a basis of Franco-African talent. The well-documented recruitment process of Alan Pardew and Graham Carr has borne fruit domestically, with the side enthralling spectators in finishing in fifth place last season.
While Demba Ba, the spearhead of that team, has departed for pastures new, signing for Chelsea in January, the remaining squad is laced with impressive attacking talent.
Nigeria’s recent debutant Shola Ameobi was the hero as his second-half penalty sealed progression, in the tightest of margins, against Metalist Kharkiv. The Zaria-born frontman may only be reserved for the special occasions, but don’t be surprised to see him brought into action against Anzhi.
Papiss Cisse will likely be the Magpies’ starting forward, and Newcastle fans will be confident in his ability to make an impact in the latter stages. He will be supported by a crop of Francophone midfielders, many of whom have African backgrounds: Burundian youngster Gael Bigirimana was blooded in the early phases of the cup but may not be employed on such a big occasion; Massadio Haidara is of Senegalese descent; French international Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was born in the Central African Republic; Hatem Ben Arfa was formerly eligible for Tunisia; Moussa Sissoko was born to Malian parents; Shola’s younger brother Sammy is also an option from the bench.
Cheick Tiote will also be a key player for the Toon Army, protecting the back line and providing the muscle in midfield.
The side from Baden-Wurttemberg have enjoyed recent success on the back of the steady involvement of African players.
After taking the well-trodden route from the ASEC Academy to Belgian side Beveren, Arthur Boka emerged at Strasbourg, where after two years of daring performances at left-back, he was snapped up by Die Roten. Once branded the 'African Roberto Carlos,' 7 years of sterling service in Germany have confirmed Boka’s reputation as one of the continent’s finest full-backs.
Another player who enjoyed some formative years at Strasbourg is Mamadou Bah, an old friend. I spent many a long evening enjoying 'Brah’s' often dominant displays at the cosy Stade de la Meinau in Alsace.
Bah’s countryman, Guinean winger Ibrahima Traore combines well with Boka down the left side, and is capable of causing major issues for opposition right-backs.
Youngsters Rani Khedira (younger brother of Sami) and Soufian Benyamina may only be beginning to break into the side, but introduce a North African aspect to the Stuttgart squad, although I am most excited about Beninese midfielder Daniel Didavi, who has represented Germany at youth level.
Having overcome Borussia Monchengladbach in the round of 32, Lazio will look to best another German side, Stuttgart, to move to the quarterfinal stage.
Attacking right-back Abdoulay Konko has enjoyed a career close to the upper echelons of European competition, having featured for Siena, Genoa, Sevilla and now Lazio. Having not yet been capped for France, he is eligible for both Morocco and Senegal.
Fellow defender Modibo Diakite may offer different qualities from Konko, but he too could build a future with either France or Senegal.
However, I advise anyone who has the pleasure of watching Lazio this season to keep a close eye on Nigerian midfielder Ogenyi Onazi. The youngster was a surprise addition to Stephen Keshi’s victorious Super Eagles squad for the recent Cup of Nations, but excelled when given the opportunity, and kept his place for the thrilling run-in.
The young midfielder excelled against Spurs in the group stage, and can be a valuable asset for the Italian side running forward.
Despite having a predominantly home-grown squad, Fenerbahce’s run to this stage has been built on the back of several talented, experienced African performers.
Forwards Pierre Webo and Moussa Sow may have endured heartache with their nations failing to qualify for the recent Africa Cup of Nations, but on their day, either are capable of firing the goals needed to see Sari Kanaryalar advance.
Firepower has been lacking in recent games, but the side’s defensive acumen is hard to fault, particularly in the Europa League, where the side overcame BATE Borisov in the first knock-out round without conceding.
Things weren’t as impressive in the group stage, where a lead was conceded against Marseille before Gladbach romped to victory in Turkey. Nigerian centre-back Joseph Yobo will need to use every ounce of his considerable experience to see the Istanbul side on their way to the final at the Amsterdam Arena.
January and February must have presented Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich with mixed emotions: As his domestic empire crumbled at the feet of Rafael Benitez, two of his club’s assets were instrumental in Nigeria claiming their first AFCON trophy since 1994.
Victor Moses enjoyed a coming of age as his goals against Ethiopia and his devastating artistry against Mali and the Ivory Coast saw his side soar to victory. John Obi Mikel was similarly influential, with the midfielder often dominating contests and providing stability, while simultaneously causing consternation for opposition defences.
Some of my colleagues and companions among the Stamford Bridge faithful are keen to make the most of the opportunity provided by the Europa League, and while they were only a whisker away from elimination, there may be further glory in the pipeline for West London’s Nigerian duo.
A fifth-place finish last season was relished in south-west France, but whilst that looks unlikely to be replicated this term, progress in Europe has gently appeased those at the Stade Chaban Delmas.
The squad is forged upon a raft of African stars, chief among these being Senegalese defender Ludovic Sane. Protecting the back line or marshalling the defence, Sane often relies upon excellent anticipation and delightful passing to break up opposition attacks before setting his team off on the assault.
Malian striker Cheick Diabate is capable of troubling any defence on his day, and it was his brace against Newcastle in the group stage that secured Bordeaux’s place at the top of the group, topping their English rivals. His goal against Dynamo Kyiv in the last leg was also of major importance.
Midfielders Landry N’Guemo, Fahid Ben Khalfallah and Andre Poko offer very different skills, but they can combine to forge an effective and well-polished outfit.
Could the glorious Lilywhites of North London be on the road to their third Europa League/UEFA Cup title, their first since 1984?
Anyone at White Hart Lane would tell you that this looks unlikely without an upturn in fortunes in the attacking department. Jermain Defoe has been a great loss after succumbing to injury, while the side’s only other out-and-out striker, Emmanuel Adebayor has looked out of sorts this season. Often appearing to be disinterested and unmotivated, he risks irking the Spurs supporters. A winner or two against Inter Milan would surely encourage forgiveness from the N17 faithful.
The return of left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto has improved both stability and creativity for Tottenham. While young Englishman Kyle Naughton performed admirably during the Cameroonian’s absence, ‘Disco Benny’ brings composure and panache, not to mention decent delivery.
Belgian-Malian midfielder Moussa Dembele was the hero in the previous round, securing progress with a late goal against Lyon. Heroics may be needed once again.
Few African players still alive in the competition excite me more than Inter Milan’s Nigerian midfielder Joel Obi. 2012 may have been the toughest year in the young man’s career, but what better way of putting it behind him than inspiring Inter to the Europa League crown?
The last 18 months may have been riddled with injury and ill-form, but I am convinced that Joel Obi has the pace, elegance, technique and creativity to emerge as one of the continent’s premier midfielders. His finest asset right now might be his versatility—with Inter’s squad looking every bit like a side in transition, a player who can perform impressively in a number of positions may be a godsend for head coach Andrea Stramaccioni.
A run in the side and a return to the impressive form that characterised his early showings in an Inter shirt may put the youngster back on track. A place in the Super Eagles squad for the Confederations Cups beckons, but only if he can rediscover his poise.
Despite enjoying the services of several African stars, including former Liverpool man Moroccan midfielder Nabil El Zhar and Cape Verdean winger Valdo, it is two West African players who hold the keys to Levante’s progress.
Senegalese defensive midfielder Pape Diop may have only cost the Spanish side 200,000 Euros when he was purchased from Racing Santander, but, as reported by Bleacher Report’s own Allan Jiang in February, his average 3.9 tackles per game and 3.0 interceptions in La Liga have meant the defensive guardian has been worth every penny.
Striker Obafemi Martins may have endured heartache in missing out on Nigeria’s AFCON squad, but he has rarely missed a step since swapping Rubin Kazan for Levante in the summer. He is currently on excellent form, having bagged the third goal in the home rout of Olympiacos on Valentine’s Day before scoring the sole goal early in Greece.
He will need to be on form to see the Spaniards overcome his old side back in Russia in March.
Basel impressed during the group stage, only being defeated by Fehervar in Hungary before overcoming a tricky-looking tie against Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. Whilst it was the goals of two Swiss players Valentin Stocker and Marco Streller that sealed progress, several African players have caught the eye in Basel’s rise to the last 16.
Ivorian midfielders Gilles Yapi Yapo and Serey Die offer experience and controversy, while Cameroonian frontman Jacques Zoua is yet to find the net as regularly in Switzerland as he did in his homeland with Cotonsport Garoua.
Egyptian duo Mohamed El-Nenny and Mohamed Salah are two of the most exciting young African players in Europe, with the latter particularly excelling since his move to Switzerland. Prolific for the national side, Salah was one of the most polished talents on show at the Olympics, whilst his performances in the Europa League have been encouraging—the winger-cum-striker currently stands joint third in the tournament’s assists charts.