Continental football returned to our screens and our attention this week with a bang. The first batch of Champions League last 16 games produced some fine football and some dominant winners, while the Europa League returns on Thursday night with 16 last 32 ties.
Over the coming months, the battle for continental supremacy will sharpen while the imminent World Cup may inspire anyone hoping for a ticket to Brazil to up their game and make an impact in the high-profile matchups that continental competition provides.
This article profiles five African players who could well have a major influence in the continental cups—the Champions League and the Europa League—between now and the season’s end. A handful of the players considered here may also have a World Cup berth in their sights.
While the departure of a key player and leading goalscorer might derail many a title-seeking side, Greek giants Olympiacos have coped exceptionally well since the departure of Konstantinos Mitroglou. The Greece international joined Fulham during the January window, but the Piraeus-based club haven’t missed a beat since he left.
They are unbeaten in 2014, playing eight, winning seven and drawing one. They have scored 26 goals in their last nine games, including nine in their last two.
One of their chief inspirations has been forward Michael Olaitan. Since the middle of January, the Nigerian has scored six goals in six games.
Both player and club are hurtling toward their last 16 clash with Manchester United in great form.
The Red Devils may look like they have one of the easier second-round draws, but Olympiacos, and Olaitan in particular, have the capacity to make it a very tricky tie for David Moyes.
Overlooked by Nigeria boss Stephen Keshi to date, the prospect of a potential spot in the Super Eagles’ summer World Cup squad should be all the motivation Olaitan needs to make a splash on the European high table.
It has taken a long time for him to get here, but finally, Adel Taarabt is starring in the Champions League—a competition that he surely believes his magnificent natural abilities were destined for.
While the last 18 months in this talented Moroccan’s career haven’t been particularly encouraging, he had at least done enough to prompt incoming Milan boss Clarence Seedorf to acquire his services.
At the San Siro, the likes of Seedorf, Kaka and Keisuke Honda could well be inspiration and stimulus enough to help Taarabt finally realise his tremendous potential on a consistent basis.
The early signs have been auspicious. First of all, there was that sublime debut goal against Napoli, and then, there was his fine stint on the right side of midfield in the Champions League bout with Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night.
Taarabt linked well with Kaka, and he began to show the glimpses of magic that Milan may well need to call upon if they are to escape from their tricky predicament and advance to the quarter-finals.
At this point in time, the top scorers in the Europa League are Tottenham Hotspur forward Jermain Defoe and Trabzonspor midfielder Olcan Adin. Defoe, an England international, or erstwhile England international depending on who you read, has bagged five goals in 360 minutes so far in the tournament.
During the early part of the season, if you remember, it was Defoe that would sit out Premier League games and come to the fore in the European competition as Roberto Soldado took his breather. Now, though, it is Soldado who watches on from the sidelines while Emmanuel Adebayor leads the line for Tim Sherwood’s men.
Sherwood will be the key as to how Spurs approach their tie with Dnipro, and more broadly, how they approach the Europa League this season.
Will the young manager place value on a long run deep into Europe’s B List tournament? Or will the promise of Champions League qualification via the Premier League (Spurs are currently fifth, only three points behind fourth-placed Liverpool) tempt him to sacrifice the Europa League.
If he decides to go for it, then in-form Togolese frontman Adebayor—one of the men upon whom the Sherwood revolution has been built—will be key.
There will shortly be no more Defoe, the striker having agreed a deal with Toronto FC, but in Adebayor, Spurs have a player who could feasibly bring home the club’s first piece of continental silverware in 30 years.
Up until recently, few at Stamford Bridge would have even given second thought to the potential prospect of a second-round upset at the hands of Galatasaray.
However, the times, they are a-changing; Chelsea, despite their steady improvement under Jose Mourinho, aren’t the force they have been in seasons past. Galatasaray are a steadily improving continental competitor, as they demonstrated by dumping Schalke out of the Champions League last season before beating Real Madrid 3-2 on home soil.
The matchup between the Turkish giants and the Pensioners this campaign carries extra weight, as it will see the return of Blues icon Didier Drogba.
The Ivorian frontman will revisit the club with which he will be inextricably linked less than two years after he almost single-handedly sealed continental gold for Chelsea, making them the first London club to win the European Cup in the process.
It will be fascinating to see Drogba reunited with his former boss Mourinho once again, and the potential battle between the towering frontman and his ex-team-mate John Terry should be an intensely engaging contest.
Plus, who would truly bet against Drogba coming up with a moment of magic to eliminate his former employers? It’s in the script…isn’t it?!
Young Senegalese forward Keita Balde Diao is at a much earlier stage of his career progress than the other players on this list, but he has, in his early showings, begun to demonstrate that he is a talent who could rise to the very top.
A former La Masia starlet, Keita fell out with Barcelona after the club responded harshly to an attempted practical joke on the player’s behalf. He was sent out on loan to satellite side UE Cornella and after scoring 47 times for the club’s youth team, opted not to return to Barca.
Despite attention from the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid, the Catalonia-born forward opted to sign for Serie A side Lazio, moving in the summer of 2011.
Like other young African talents like Ogenyi Onazi, he found playing time in Lazio’s Europa League campaign last season and has steadily grown in influence with the Biancocelesti.
In the Europa League this season, he sits joint fourth in the assists charts and will be looking to add to his tally in the Rome club’s round of 32 clash with Ludogorets Razgrad.