5 Players to Watch in AFCON Qualifiers on October 10-11
African international football returns this week with the first of a series of Cup of Nations qualification doubleheaders.
Following the shock results and the intense drama of the first two rounds of matches, the next two fixtures take on great importance and are highly anticipated across the continent.
Major sides such as Nigeria, Egypt and the Ivory Coast lost matches in early September, while Ghana also dropped points wastefully at home to Uganda.
Ahead of the next round of games, scheduled for October 10 and 11, I've profiled five players you should keep an eye on. Each player listed appears primed to make a big impact for his nation's contests.
I first profiled Hope Akpan as a potential Nigeria star in the spring of 2013. Following the Super Eagles’ Cup of Nations triumph in South Africa, the former Everton man acknowledged his desire to represent the West African giants.
Speaking to me in an interview with Goal Nigeria, the Reading midfielder said this of his early experiences watching the national side: "I remember watching the World Cup vividly when I was a kid, and being in awe of the Nigeria team—our house filled with shrieking aunties and uncles, just going crazy when the Super Eagles came to play."
After a long wait, the Liverpool-born star has finally received his maiden call-up and will join the Nigeria squad for their doubleheader against Sudan.
These aren’t ideal circumstances for Akpan’s debut; the Super Eagles were defeated by the Republic of Congo in Calabar and then played out a stalemate with South Africa in Cape Town. There is a very real chance the continental champions—devastated by managerial insecurity and federation turmoil—will not be present to defend their title in Morocco.
As discussed on Episode 2 of the African Football Weekly podcast, Akpan ought to bring bite and vitality to the Nigeria midfield; however, commentators such as James Ezimoha and Solace Chukwu of Goal Nigeria are split as to whether Akpan is an upgrade over discarded midfielder Ramon Azeez.
The major revelation of the opening rounds of AFCON 2015 qualifiers was Clinton N'Jie.
Following their World Cup debacle, Cameroon were looking for a fresh start in fixtures against the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
With Samuel Eto'o having hung up his Indomitable boots and the likes of Alex Song and Pierre Webo absent from the squad, it was expected that the Central Africans would take time to find their feet once again.
However, N’Jie appeared to be on a one-man mission to erase the devastating memories of Brazil.
The young Lyon forward scored 45 minutes into his international debut with the opener against Congo before bagging a brace as Volker Finke’s side pummelled the Elephants in Yaounde.
Having picked up six points from their opening two games, Cameroon can feasibly secure qualification in their doubleheader against Sierra Leone.
N’Jie is currently on three goals in two international matches. Could his ration improve even further against the beleaguered Leone Stars?
Now that Kwesi Appiah has vacated the Ghana hot seat, my hope is that the Black Stars can begin using their resources more effectively.
Too often during the Silent Killer’s reign, he saw fit to use Kwadwo Asamoah as a left-back, taking the midfielder’s creative and physical talents away from the heart of the team. While this may work at Juventus, where Antonio Conte (and latterly Max Allegri) can call upon various excellent central midfielders, no one in the Ghana setup can influence a game quite like Asamoah can.
Another reason the Black Stars’ new coach—whoever he may be—can feel comfortable using Kojo in the middle is the presence of Jeffrey Schlupp.
Leicester City have thrived since returning to the Premier League after an extended absence and currently sit in 12th place, having won two and drawn three of their opening seven matches.
Left-back Schlupp has taken to the EPL well, having impressed in the Championship last season. The international starred against Burnley at the weekend, scoring once and complementing Riyad Mahrez on the other flank.
With Schlupp taking one full-back berth, as he did against Uganda in September, the Black Stars can enjoy Asamoah’s myriad talents in the middle of the park.
September 6, 2014—the date when an outstanding record fell. Before the opening match of the 2015 Cup of Nations qualifying series, Nigeria hadn’t suffered a home defeat since 1981, a remarkable 33 years of impregnability on their own soil.
As the African champions lined up against Claude Le Roy’s Republic of Congo in Calabar, no one anticipated this would be the day history came tumbling down on the Eagles.
When Africa’s champions opened the scoring inside the first 15 minutes through Efe Ambrose, Stephen Keshi’s side appeared to be ambling toward another routine home win.
Thievy Bifouma had other ideas.
The former West Bromwich Albion forward bagged a brace, while Prince Oniangue opened the scoring for the Red Devils. Despite Gbolahan Salami’s late reply, the Super Eagles couldn't find an equaliser. Congo held on for a famous victory.
While Oniangue was an impressive presence in the middle of the park, Bifouma was a devastating force in attack—his trickery and his acceleration troubled the Super Eagles defence.
Next up for Le Roy and Co., a doubleheader with Shakes Mashaba’s South Africa.
As discussed by Solace Chukwu in Episode 2 of the African Football Weekly podcast, Bafana Bafana’s defence boasts power and presence but was occasionally found wanting for positioning and mobility. If Bifouma can deliver another explosive performance in Pointe-Noire on Saturday, then the Red Devils will feel confident of returning to the continental top table for the first time since 2000.
Senegal may well be my dark horses for the 2015 Cup of Nations. The Lions of Teranga have a strong spine of players thriving in Ligue 1, and any African nation would be delighted to boast Premier League pair Mohamed Diame and Cheikhou Kouyate.
It is in attack, however, that Alain Giresse’s team are blessed with an incredible array of riches.
Dame N’Doye is an experienced operator, Moussa Sow and Demba Ba have scored within the last week, Sadio Mane is an exciting talent who should thrive in the Premier League, and Mame Biram Diouf (although injured currently) brings pace and versatility.
21-year-old Moussa Konate, of Swiss side Sion, also waits in the wings.
However, none of the above are playing as well as Papiss Demba Cisse right now.
In his first season at Newcastle, the striker managed a remarkable 13 goals in 13 Premier League starts. That dropped to eight in 35 the season after before falling to a desperate two goals in 24 appearances last term.
This season, with the pressure increased upon the Magpies and manager Alan Pardew, Cisse has sprung to life.
With only one start to date, the striker has already beaten his tally for last term, managing a brace at home against Hull City and away against Swansea City this weekend.
Having won their opening two games, Senegal are well-placed to become one of the first names confirmed for the 2015 Cup of Nations. Ahead of them stands a taxing doubleheader against Tunisia, however, which is a major hurdle to overcome.
Nevertheless, with an on-fire Papiss Cisse in the team, Giresse will be confident of securing the result his team need.