Premier League Stars Who Could Be Decisive in AFCON Qualifiers
African international football returns this weekend with a double series of qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations.
The AFCON kicks off in Morocco in January, and between now and then, the 28 remaining teams must be whittled down to 15 to join the hosts at the continent’s grandest stage in early 2015.
As ever, the Premier League will be well represented in the upcoming qualifiers—particularly high-profile clashes between the likes of Nigeria and South Africa, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast and Senegal and Egypt.
In this feature, we profile five EPL stars who could prove to be decisive in the AFCON qualifiers.
Of all the summer additions to the Premier League, there aren’t too many who have hit the ground running quite like Cheikhou Kouyate.
The Senegalese centre-back and defensive midfielder has slotted perfectly into Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United team and already looks like he is a seasoned EPL veteran.
The West African has a delightful aptitude for an effective tackle, and he has averaged five per match so far this campaign, putting him joint-fifth in the top flight, via WhoScored.com.
At 6'4", the former Anderlecht man brings presence and authority to the Senegal defence. Despite being in and around the squad since 2012, one feels that the best is still to come; here is a player who could well emerge as one of Africa’s premier players in his position.
Having missed out on the 2013 Cup of Nations, and having underwhelmed at the 2012 event, Senegal will be desperate to return to the tournament in 2015.
It is imperative they get off to a good start, and they will need Kouyate to impose himself on their mouth-watering opener against fellow continental heavyweights Egypt.
It has been hard to evaluate Nigeria’s World Cup performance. The Super Eagles equalled their best-ever World Cup record and escaped from the group stage for the first time since 1998, but there was a sense of a missed opportunity.
The Super Eagles were turgid against Iran, and Stephen Keshi’s decisions were questioned.
The Big Boss has regularly had issues with his squad selection. Nigeria have a massive pool of talent to choose from, but Keshi has proved far too prone to choosing his old favourites and ignoring candidates who may bring different skills to the table.
One such figure is Sone Aluko who, despite his injury concerns, could bring a lot to the national team as a versatile forward.
The Hull City man has returned to the national team for the fixtures against the Republic of Congo and South Africa. With Peter Odemwingie ruled out of the Cup of Nations and Victor Moses, Michael Babatunde and Shola Ameobi all overlooked by Keshi, these games represent a perfect opportunity for Aluko to make his mark with the national side.
Christian Atsu has had a slow start to the Premier League season. After a flurry of transfer rumours, he eventually moved to Everton, sealing a season-long loan move from Chelsea.
He made his debut as a second-half substitute against Arsenal. It was a curious move by Roberto Martinez, particularly as the Toffees were losing traction in the match, and Atsu was impotent as the Gunners salvaged a 2-2 draw.
He was ineligible as the Blues were subsequently battered by his parent club.
A return to national team duty ought to mean a return to form for Atsu, who looked impressive for the Black Stars at the World Cup.
Kwesi Appiah’s side are clear favourites to advance from Group E and will look to kick off their campaign with six points against Uganda (at home) and Togo (in Lome).
He will face a tough task in the opening match, however, up against Gor Mahia’s exceptionally reliable left-back Godfrey Walusimbi.
Eventually, the Ghanaian Messi’s class should tell.
Mohamed Salah, like Atsu, is another who has been tagged with the “Messi” moniker. However, like the Ghanaian, Salah is another who has had a slow start to the new campaign.
The winger is yet to feature for Chelsea this season and was an unused substitute against Everton. Perhaps the Egyptian envies Atsu’s opportunity for first-team football. It’s hard to see how the Basel man will get much playing time under Jose Mourinho this season considering the Pensioners’ wealth of resources.
Gianluca Di Marzio reported that the club offered Salah to Internazionale on a permanent deal this summer, which doesn’t bode well for his future at Stamford Bridge.
However, with Egypt, Salah is the key man, particularly following the retirement of national team legend Mohamed Aboutrika.
The Pharaohs will need him to be on top form this campaign. The North African giants will be keener than ever to return to the continental top table, having missed out on both the 2013 showpiece and the 2014 World Cup. However, a tricky group including Senegal and Tunisia means that Shawky Gharib’s men have their work cut out; they will need Salah to reaffirm his qualities immediately.
Leicester City have enjoyed an encouraging start to life back in the Premier League.
Admittedly, they were outclassed by Chelsea, but points against both Everton and Arsenal represent a positive return for the newly promoted side.
Key to their fine showings have been widemen Jeffrey Schlupp and Algerian Riyad Mahrez.
The versatile Algerian winger was called up to the Desert Foxes squad ahead of the 2015 World Cup, making his debut against Armenia in a pre-tournament friendly.
His contribution in Brazil was fairly limited—he only featured in the North African’s opening defeat to Belgium—but moving forward, expect him to become an important part of new boss Christian Gourcuff’s starting XI.
It could all start this weekend with an intriguing away game against Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.