March means spring, and spring means the beginning of the ‘business end’ of the Premier League season. Now is the time when the end appears in sight like an aqua pool in the Western Desert. Hope springs eternal, but to some of these stars those great aspirations will prove to be the cruelest of mirages.
As the season draws to a close, harsh realities set in, dreams of the Premier League title, or of European qualification, might be replaced by the darkest despair, whilst three teams will see their stints in the EPL come to an end as relegation beckons.
In this article, Bleacher Report’s African Expert Ed Dove profiles five of the continent’s stars, a handful of men set to have a major impact at both ends of the table as the season gathers momentum. Which of these men will be celebrating and who will be commiserating as the season’s narratives draw to a close?
To overcome the insurmountable once was a monumental achievement, but to do it twice would be breathtaking. To all but the most starry-eyed of Premier League fans, the contest is all but over, Manchester United lead Manchester City by 12 points, and with superior goal difference, it would take a stretch of the imagination to see Roberto Mancini overhauling Sir Alex Ferguson once again.
However, given City’s recent demolition of Barnsley in the FA Cup demonstrated the hunger and ability that exists within the squad, they are unlikely to give up the fight to defend their title, even with only 10 games remaining.
One man that the Citizens will turn to for inspiration will be midfield dynamo Yaya Toure. Last season the Ivorian demonstrated his ability to influence proceedings, both as an attacking and a defensive unit, and he, more than anyone, was emblematic of City’s title-winning campaign.
The younger Toure is a player for the big occasion, and with major matches still to come, he will be crucial to any aspirations City have. United, Everton and Spurs are still to compete against City in the league, whilst either the Red Devils or Chelsea await in the FA Cup semifinal. Expect Yaya to steal the show on at least one of these occasions.
Tottenham’s defeat to Liverpool on Sunday was their first failure in the league since their last trip to Merseyside, and a cruel late submission to Everton back in early December. A lot has changed since then; the Toffees are now no longer a genuine threat for the top four, Sandro is no longer a bustling, marauding presence in the middle of Tottenham’s midfield, and Lewis Holtby has arrived to add spunk and endeavour to Spurs’ hunt for the top four.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the drought afflicting Emmanuel Adebayor, one of their two recognised strikers.
Many among the White Hart Lane faithful were anxious about signing the Togolese striker on a permanent deal in the summer; his loan stint last season had proved fruitful with the forward finding the net 18 times, but this term the goals have been far less forthcoming. Fears that the frontman would struggle to find his motivation once the ink had dried look to be well-founded, and ‘Ade’ has stoked the ire of Spurs fans with some lacklustre performances.
Despite the dissatisfaction, and the malaise that appears to be setting in, there is still time for Adebayor to rekindle the affection he received last season. The North London giants still have it all to play for, and the Togo captain will get the chance, before the season ends, to write his name into White Hart Lane folklore—let’s just pray he takes it.
Arouna Kone has been the focus of several of my recent articles. His sharp recent form for Wigan had me speculating that the Ivorian may be the difference between the Latics dropping down to the Championship and retaining (once again) their Premier League status, whilst the club’s run to the FA Cup semifinal may see the former Sevilla man light up England’s premier domestic knock-out competition.
A steady stream of goals can be like gold to a team struggling down at the bottom of the Premier League, and with Franco Di Santo unlikely to provide the firepower to keep Wigan up, it may well fall to Kone, and his dynamic forward play, to keep the North-West side in the top flight.
The relegation battle comes into greater focus at this time of the year, as clubs begin eyeing up their rivals’ remaining fixtures. The atmosphere in the infamous ‘six pointers’ that occur between relegation-threatened sides can affect players of weaker character, but having performed in a World Cup, in three Africa Cup of Nations and the Valencia derby—Kone is no stranger to the intense and the demanding.
With Norwich, QPR and Aston Villa still to come, as well as an FA Cup semi against either Millwall or Blackburn, Kone will have ample opportunity to demonstrate just how important his goals can be.
Earlier in this season, on this very website, I couldn’t stop praising Sebastien Bassong. I rarely profiled the ‘Best of Africa in the Premier League weekend’ without stopping to pay my regards to the Cameroonian centreback and comment on all of the sterling work he was undertaking over in East Anglia.
Norwich’s impressive start to the season was founded upon a defensive bedrock that numerous teams had great difficulty in bypassing. I remember the triad of John Ruddy, Michael Turner and Sebastien Bassong standing strong as Manchester United were thwarted at Carrow Road in November.
The Canaries have struggled to find consistency since then, however, and an injury to Bassong left the defender on the shelf and saw the side slip down the league. Spring has brought his return, but despite enjoying three clean sheets in February and March, the holes were there for all to see last weekend, as United put four past Chris Hughton’s men.
Currently nine points off the relegation zone, Norwich should have there wherewithal not to get dragged into a scrappy season finale. Should Bassong rediscover his early season form, the Canaries should have no cause for concern.
One defender likely to have a much more stressful end to his season is Christopher Samba. The Congolese defender is in a relegation battle whether he likes it or not, and to even begin to justify the immense generosity and faith afforded him by QPR boss Tony Fernandes, Samba needs to begin demonstrating that he is a supreme master in the art of defending.
The West Londoners have found themselves at the foot of the table for almost the entirety of their Premier League campaign. Mark Hughes departed without a win, and with the team regularly criticised for lacking shape and organisation. Incoming boss Harry Redknapp has at least introduced these two things, as well as imbuing his charges with the belief that they can escape the clutches of relegation.
The departure of Ryan Nelsen threatened to leave a gaping hole in the backline, but his former Blackburn teammate Samba was brought back to the Prem from Russia with a remit to solidify the Hoops’ backline.
Back-to-back victories against Southampton and Sunderland have given Rangers fans belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and while the clean sheets haven’t yet been forthcoming, Samba will have all the opportunity in the world to demonstrate that he is every bit the £100,000-a-week defender Fernandes imagines him to be.