Picking the Star Man in Every 2017 Africa Cup of Nations Side
The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off Saturday in Gabon. Borussia Dortmund star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will lead his nation out to take on Guinea-Bissau in the tournament's curtain-raiser.
Building up to the event, we've selected the star man in every AFCON side participating this year. Some selections picked themselves, but others were extremely difficult due to the sheer number of pre-tournament injury withdrawals we've seen.
For some, there's an opportunity to make history this year; for others, it's a case of reputation preservation.
Can the Ivory Coast's star-studded squad defend their title? Can Ghana go one further and avenge 2015's demons? Can Algeria utilise their golden generation to secure only a second-ever title?
It might all be decided by these key figures at the finals.
Gabon: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Forward
Gabon have never won the Africa Cup of Nations, but they'll feel 2017 is their best-ever chance. As hosts of the tournament, and with a world-class striker in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leading the team as captain, that belief is easy to justify.
Aubameyang is the Bundesliga's top scorer with 16 goals already—four ahead of Bayern Munich rival Robert Lewandowski—and he's on course to better his tally of 25 from 2015-16.
With talk of a Real Madrid move on the horizon, and with Borussia Dortmund topping their Champions League group thanks in part to Aubameyang's goals, his stock has never been higher, and his performances might well have peaked.
The entire population of Gabon will be praying he carries that form into this competition.
Burkina Faso: Jonathan Pitroipa, Forward
Jonathan Pitroipa has always been a lot of fun to watch, and although he's now 30 and playing in the Middle East, the excitement levels in his game haven't dipped.
He's still lightning-fast and will happily beat players one-on-one when given the chance, and his flicks and tricks—while occasionally frustrating—are easy on the eye. When his backheels come off, they flummox defences.
Pitroipa is key to Burkina Faso's hopes of progressing from a tough group. If he finds his groove, they have every chance.
Cameroon: Vincent Aboubakar, Forward
Cameroon are missing a host of players for this tournament, with Allan Nyom, Joel Matip and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting headlining a long list of regulars all opting out. It leaves what would have been a strong squad severely weakened.
At least coach Hugo Broos still has Vincent Aboubakar to call upon, though. The powerhouse striker has been in reasonable form for Besiktas this season, having swapped Portugal for Turkey in the summer, and will spearhead the side from the No. 9 position.
Admittedly, he might have to carry the entire goalscoring burden himself. Cameroon boast Edgar Salli, but he's a worker and a speedster, not a finisher.
Guinea-Bissau: Zezinho, Midfielder
Not one of the players in the 23-man Guinea-Bissau squad has more than 30 caps, making it an extremely inexperienced group. If you've got 20 to your name, you're a veritable veteran.
Baciro Cande's team are rank outsiders in this competition, with some bookmakers placing their chances of success as far out as 250-1, according to Oddschecker, but that means they've got nothing to lose. They play Gabon, the hosts, in the opening match and can walk out onto the pitch under no pressure.
That, hopefully, will bring some of their attacking players to life. Zezinho, who plies his trade with Levadiakos in Greece, has shown quickness, an ability to slink around markers and a good range of passing. Perhaps he is the key to any upsets on the opening day.
Algeria: Riyad Mahrez, Forward
You can't go in any other direction than Riyad Mahrez here. Algeria may have Islam Slimani, Yacine Brahimi, Faouzi Ghoulam and Nabil Bentaleb, but Mahrez's 2016 speaks for itself.
He scooped the African Player of the Year Award in Abuja, Nigeria, last week, and the Desert Foxes' hierarchy will hope that reminds him just how excellent he can be.
He's been a little off-colour over the past few months—Leicester City boss by Claudio Ranieri even dropped him at one stage in December—and a significant improvement must be made if he is to lead his nation to glory in Gabon.
If Mahrez rediscovers his 2015-16 Leicester form—the form that saw him decide several games on his own with terrific finishes and dazzling dribbles—Algeria's route to glory will open up.
Tunisia: Wahbi Khazri, Forward
While you can make the argument that every Sunderland player bar Jordan Pickford and Jermain Defoe has had a disappointing season thus far, the sentiment applies doubly to Wahbi Khazri.
David Moyes' team is one that lacks creativity or spark—it's moulded around Victor Anichebe's brutishness and Defoe's poaching ability—and yet Khazri continues to warm the bench. He's failed to impress when given the chance, seemingly giving the ball away at every opportunity, and his confidence looks low as a result.
What coach Henryk Kasperczak must do this month, then, is clear: revive Tunisia's foremost attacking talent and creative influencer, coaxing him back into the sort of form that can decide games with the stroke of his boot.
Senegal: Sadio Mane, Forward
Senegal boast one of the strongest squads in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, with plenty of Premier League experience and a couple of seriously good players.
One you'll be familiar with is Sadio Mane, who has been excelling for Liverpool this season and is a key part of their title challenge. His dynamic dribbling, remarkable quickness and goalscoring ability mean he'd walk into most national teams on the planet, and Senegal will be delighted he's heading to the tournament in blistering form.
As much as opposing teams would love to devote double resources to marking Mane, the presence of Keita Balde on the other flank makes that difficult. The stage is set for the former Southampton man to run riot.
Zimbabwe: Khama Billiat, Forward
The same bookies that rate Guinea-Bissau's chances of success at 250-1 are giving Zimbabwe a similarly low level of love. They're rated in the 200-1 range by Oddschecker, hammering home how weak their squad is in comparison to some of Africa's greats.
If they're to get anywhere, Mamelodi Sundowns attacker Khama Billiat will be key to their bid. A big influence in his club's recent African Champions League victory, the Warriors will hope he can be a talismanic presence for them in Gabon.
Strong in one-on-one situations, cool when finishing and hardworking off the ball, he has the traits to be a difference-maker. The only issue is when he holds onto the ball too long or overcomplicates things unnecessarily.
Ivory Coast: Serge Aurier, Defender
It's difficult to pick just one star player from such a star-studded squad; the Ivory Coast have a wealth of options at their disposal heading into the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
Their central midfield, including Jean Michael Seri and Franck Kessie, is probably the best in the competition; their attack, including Wilfried Zaha, Wilfried Bony and Jonathan Kodjia, is right up there, too.
But as we've seen in the past, this Ivory Coast team can look a little flat-footed when attempting to open up opposing teams, and their true "gamebreaker" is right-back Serge Aurier.
He's been in monstrous form for Paris Saint-Germain this season, dribbling long distances and firing in brilliant crosses, and the fact he has proved he can translate that form to the national stage makes this a natural pick.
DR Congo: Cedric Bakambu, Forward
This slot had been earmarked for Yannick Bolasie, but a bad, bad knee injury has all but ended his hopes of playing again in 2017—let alone as early as January.
Still, DR Congo have good players in each line, moving from Chancel Mbemba in defence, through Youssouf Mulumbu in midfield, and into a well-known attack.
Cedric Bakambu is the star name on paper, and while he hasn't enjoyed the smoothest 2016-17 to date—he spent portions of the summer and the early part of the season injured, meaning he's played a negligible part for Villarreal so far—coach Florent Ibenge will hope he can find his rhythm this month.
If DR Congo are to progress, they'll need Bakambu at his sniping best. Any front line reliant on Dieumerci Mbokani for goals is bound for disappointment.
Morocco: Medhi Benatia, Defender
Sofiane Boufal, Nordin Amrabat and Younes Belhanda—three of Morocco's finest playmaking talents—have been ruled out of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. That hurts coach Herve Renard's chances of achieving victory a lot.
Fortunately for him, the defensive bedrock upon which this Morocco team is built still stands. Medhi Benatia's absence from the Juventus squad this month might cause Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri headaches, but he'll cure a few of Renard's.
The 29-year-old has only played a modest number of minutes in Turin this season, acting as the fill-in when one of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci or Giorgio Chiellini is hurt, but with Bonucci going down in December, this would have been the ideal time for him to step in and play consistently.
On the plus side, he'll be fresh and ready to lead his team in Gabon.
Togo: Emmanuel Adebayor, Forward
Midfield runner Alaixys Romao, formerly of Marseille, was a serious consideration here, but the presence of Emmanuel Adebayor in the squad dictates that he be named their star man.
For an underdog nation, having a goalscorer is everything; it can change the course of an entire tournament. Any hopes Togo have of making a splash at the Africa Cup of Nations rests on Adebayor's shoulders.
Given he's a free agent, it could be argued he's doubly motivated—a good showing in Gabon could lead to a job—and a quick look at history reveals he's always at his most potent when this is the case. Loans to Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid have been fruitful for him, so perhaps he can summon that former mindset when taking to the pitch here.
Ghana: Asamoah Gyan, Forward
Ghana may possess two brothers in Jordan and Andre Ayew who are capable of deciding matches, but the team is still pretty reliant on Asamoah Gyan.
The striker, who seems to have been around forever, is a slightly limited player but still remains strong in key areas: timing of runs, ability to find space in the box and, of course, the ruthlessness of finishing.
Should the 31-year-old participate in the tournament—a mere formality, to be frank—he will equal Abedi Pele's record of appearing in six different Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. Legend.
Mali: Salif Coulibaly, Defender
Some will pinpoint Adama Traore of Monaco here, but he's a work in progress and, with just three senior caps to his name, can't be considered the key man in this side.
Instead, the focus Mali place on being resolute in the defensive phase brings the two centre-backs into the spotlight. Salif Coulibaly is the 2015-16 Wes Morgan of this Mali team, leading by example with no-nonsense defending.
Mali are tough to break down and work hard across the board, so picking a star man is tough, but Coulibaly is key to their stubborn nature.
Egypt: Mohamed Salah, Forward
File this one under obvious, alongside Aubameyang for Gabon.
Mohamed Salah is the second-most experienced non-defender in the Egypt side heading to Gabon, with his 47 caps bettered only by Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny's 50.
He's key to their slick, swish approach; his speed and dribbling ability force opponents to plan specifically for him and try to contain him—or else suffer the consequences.
He netted five in qualifying (including the game against Chad, which was retrospectively cancelled), so Egypt need to plug him in and let him play.
Uganda: Denis Onyango, Goalkeeper
The lay fan won't know much about Uganda's Africa Cup of Nations squad, but that's to be expected, as only two of the players play their club football in Europe's major leagues.
But between the sticks, The Cranes have a star who spent 2016 putting his name up in lights: Denis Onyango, who won the African Champions League with Mamelodi Sundowns last year and was honoured with the title of African Player of the Year (Based in Africa) in Abuja last week.
Being placed alongside Ghana, Egypt and Mali makes Uganda serious underdogs, but with a great goalkeeper in place, an upset in Group D is possible.