Egypt is set to host Africa’s biggest football event, the Total Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2019. Senegal are heavy favourites for the tittle but they are expected to face stiff competition from Egypt, Morroco and Nigeria.
Guest writer Kenechukwu Nnaemeka takes a look at some of the stars you should keep an eye on once the tournament commences this Friday in Cairo.
Mohamed Salah – Egypt
The current African footballer of the year is the name on the lips of everyone in his home country as the tournament gets underway. The 2019 Champions League winner is expected to lead Egypt’s charge for her 8th continental title after the disappointment of losing to Cameroun in the final of the last edition in Gabon.
The 26 year old will be hoping to add to his prolific tally of 39 goals in 62 appearances for Egypt.
Hakim Ziyech – Morocco
The Ajax Player of the Season will be coming to the AFCON on the back of a terrific season for Ajax. Ziyech scored 19 goals and provided 16 assists in the just concluded season for Ajax.
This will be his maiden appearance at the continental showpiece after being left out of the squad for Gabon 2017. The 26 year old who has 12 goals in 23 games for Morocco; has the ability to unlock defence with incisive passes and is expected to make an impression as one of Africa’s finest when the tournament gets underway.
Wilfred Zaha – Ivory Coast
Ever since Zaha switched allegiance to Ivory Coast in 2016, he has struggled to make an impression whenever he dons the Ivorian jersey. Zaha will be hoping to finally prove his worth in Egypt on the back of a strong season for his club Crystal Palace.
The winger’s pace and ability to put defenders on the back foot with his trick will be crucial as Ivory Coast will look to put up an impressive showing at the showpiece.
Kalidou Koulibaly – Senegal
The 27 year old defender is one of the most sought after defenders in world football. He won the Senegal Player of the year award in 2018. Koulibaly was born in France to Senegalese parents but made the decision to switch allegiance to Senegal in 2015 having played for the French Under 20s.
Koulibaly has 32 caps for the Teranga lions. He is aggressive, quick and can also play the ball out from the back. He is an important cog in the Teranga Lion’s team that will attempt to lift its first continental title.
Thomas Partey – Ghana
The Ghanaian is arguably Africa’s best midfielder in Europe. Partey is a strong defensive shield at the middle of the park who is adept with his tackling and interceptions.
Partey’s work-rate, long-range shooting and quality on the ball means he can also be effective in the box to box midfield role. The 25 year old also has goals in him; he has scored 7 times in 17 international appearances for the Black Stars. Partey’s tenacity and drive means he is one of the stars to watch in Egypt.
Wilfred Ndidi – Nigeria
The 22-year old will be at the AFCON ono the back of a hugely successful season that saw him become the first player to top Premier League tackle charts for two consecutive seasons. Ndidi’s tackling and grit means that he is one of the mainstays of the Super Eagles; he is the fulcrum of the team and head coach Gernot Rohr will hope he replicates his club form for the Super Eagles
His importance to the Super Eagles is underlined by the that fact he has made 24 appearances for the Super Eagles at the age of 22. Ndidi will be keen to impress at the tournament
Victor Wanyama – Kenya
The Harambee Stars captain will be hoping to put his recent injury woes behind him. Wanyama led Kenya to her first AFCON appearance in 15 years and he is expected to be the shinning light in a team that has most of the players playing in the Kenyan league.
Wanyama made his debut for the Harambee stars in 2007 at the age of 15 and his ability to marshal the midfield will come to the fore as he leads his team to face the rest of Africa.
Saido Mane – Senegal
The Champions League winner is expected to lead Senegal’s AFCON title charge. Mane is one of the most in-form players heading to Egypt. The 27-year old finished top of the EPL scorers’ chart alongside Emerick Aubameyang and Salah.
He also played a pivotal role in Liverpool’s UCL triumph. Mane earned his first cap for the Teranga Lions in 2012 and his form and experience will be vital as Senegal seek their first continental title in Egypt.
Wahbi Khazri – Tunisia
The French born Tunisia international is one name that comes to mind once the Carthage Eagles comes to the spotlight. Khazri scored two goals and assisted another two in Carthage Eagles disappointing outing in Russia. The 28 year old attacking midfielder proved to be an important team player for St Etienne last season as he scored 14 goals and provided 8 assists in all competitions. Khaziri is also known for his work ethic especially off the ball. Khaziri is one of the stars to watch out for in Egypt.
Khama Billiat – Zimbabwe
The 28 year old Zimbabwean midfielder currently plays for Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa. Billiat is relatively unknown, but the CAF 2016 African player of the year nominee has proved himself as one of the best foreign players to grace the Premier soccer League in South Africa. Billiat is an important player for the Warriors of Zimbabwe as he contributed three goals during the qualifiers. Billiat heads to AFCON carrying the weight of his country on his shoulders.
Kwadowo Asamoah – Ghana
The 30 year old made a return to the national team in September 2018 after four years of self imposed exile from the Black Stars set up. Asamoah’s versatility means he can play as a midfielder; as a left back, his work rate is top notch and his stamina and agility is also a huge asset. The 2010 CAF most promising player is Ghana’s assistant captain and he heads to Egypt as one of the key players for the Black stars
Yacine Brahimi – Algeria
The French born Algerian international is a technically gifted that is famed for his dribbling ability. The 2014 BBC African footballer of the year can also play on the wings. The 29 year old brilliance and unpredictability means he can unsettle defenders. Brahimi is one of the key players for the Desert foxes as they seek to win their second continental title.
Fiston Abdul Razak – Burundi
The JS Kabylie forward is relatively unknown but he has made much progress off the radar. The 25 year old finished as the second highest goalscorer in AFCON qualifiers behind Odion Ighalo; a scoring run that ensured the Swallows will feature for the first time in the continental showpiece. Abdul Razak has scored an impressive 17 goals in 38 appearances for the Swallows and he will be desperate to assert himself as one of the continent’s potent goal poachers.
Mikel Obi – Nigeria
The Super Eagles has been recalled to the team for the first time since Nigeria exited the group stage of the World Cup in Russia. His absence from the team had generated a lot of controversy and uncertainty.The 32 year old is poised to make his fifth appearance for the Super Eagles. Since Rohr was appointed coach of the team; Super Eagles have never lost any match against any African opposition with Mikel on the pitch. Mikel is expected to orchestrate play in the middle of the park. Mikel leadership skills and quality will come to the fur as Super Eagles aim for their fourth continental titlewith a relatively young squad.
Riyad Mahrez – Algeria
The Algerian winger will be in Egypt off the back a treble winning campaign in his first season for Manchester City. The 2016 African footballer of the year will be hoping to help the Desert Foxes put behind their recent failings behind them in Egypt. Desert Foxes exited the last edition of the tournament in Gabon in the group stage and afterwards they failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. The Algerian famed for his fleet footed left foot will be looking to make his mark in Egypt when the tournament gets underway.
Frank Kessie – Ivory Coast
The 22 year old box to box midfielder has made tremendous progress since his breakthrough season for Cesana in loan from Atlanta in 2015. Kessie has featured for The Elephants since he made his debut in 2014 at the age of 17. The Ivorien provides a strong presence in the middle of the park and is also a decent tackler. Kessie will be the creative hub of the Ivorien team that will aim to win their 3rd AFCON title.
Nicolas Pepe – Ivory coast
The 24 year old winger is arguably one of the most sought after talent in European football. Pepe won the African best player in France award and was named the second best player in French league only behind Mbappe. Pepe scored 22 goals and provided 12 assists for his club Lille in the previous campaign.Pepe has pace; his direct style of football means he is not afraid to take on defenders. Pepe made his debut for Ivory Coast in a friendly against his birth nation France in 2016; and since then has gone on to make 11 appearances for Ivory Coast scoring 4 goals. The pacy winger was an unused substitute in the entirety of Ivory Coast disastrous campaign in Gabon two years ago. Pepe is one player to watch in Egypt.
Andre Onana – Cameroun
The Ajax shot stopper is the only goalkeeper on the list. Onana a product of the Samuel Eto’o academy is quiet saving shots with his feet; starting counters with his quick throws although he is prone to mistakes once in a blue moon.
Onana will be making his first appearance at a major tournament for Cameroun and he will be hoping to replicate his club form that saw him keep 20 clean sheets in all competitions in Egypt.
Theinboski Lorch – South Africa
The Bloemfontein born attacker starred for Orlando Pirates as they narrowly missed on the ABSA premiership title to Mamelodi Sundowns. Lorch won the ABSA Premiership player of the year and the player’s player of the year. The attacker nicknamed “Nyoso” can play in variety of attacking positions which makes him an invaluable addition to Stuart Baxter’s squad. Lorch only made his Banfana Banfana squad in March 2018 and has made one appearance since then,but his performance in recent times means Lorch is back in reckoning and he is one to watch out for.
Mehdi Benatia – Morroco
The 32 year old captain is one of key players for Atlas Lion. Benatia is strong athletic defender that has a good ball playing ability; he is also good in the air and can anticipate play nicely.
Benatia made his debut for Morroco in 2008 and has gone on to make 58 appearances for the Atlas Lion. Benatia scored the second goal in Morocco’s 2-0 win away over Ivory Coast a victory that ensured that the Atlas Lions qualified for the World Cup without conceding in a group containing Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali.Benatia will be hoping to inspire the Atlas Lions to what will be their second AFCON title.
Written by :Kenechukwu Nnaemeka @Kenennaemeka on Twitter.