Premier League fans may feel that this weekend’s International break is an unwelcome distraction to a fledgling season, but across the African continent games will be played that may have great ramifications for several clubs’ campaigns.
The African Cup of Nations has for years been a source of frustration for Premier League managers as it has the potential to remove key players from their teams at a crucial stage of the season. In England the Christmas/New Year period is particularly busy, with league games coming every few days. Successful sides usually look to build on any momentum gained during December to start a run of form into the new year that can propel them up the league or to the title. January is also a busy month for domestic cup competitions, with both FA Cup and League Cup ties scheduled to be played. This season players that go to the Cup of Nations will miss up to five league games, one round of the FA Cup and the semi-final second leg of the League Cup.
The Cup of Nations is generally a bi-annual competition which makes it more frequent than the European equivalent. However, for reasons best explained by Jonathan Wilson here, this year’s tournament is coming only twelve months after the last. As a result, the usual qualification tables have been replaced by a series of play-offs, which has thrown up a few heavyweight clashes and the greater possibility for upsets. Either way, Premier League managers will be watching anxiously in the hope that their players return to their clubs unsuccessful.
The biggest clash of the qualifying round is undoubtedly Ivory Coast vs Senegal. Ivory Coast take a 4-2 lead to Senegal in what promises to be a highly competitive match between two African giants. Not only could it go a long way in deciding the eventual winner of the African Cup of Nations, but it may also be pivotal in many Premier League clubs’ seasons.
No team has as much riding on the game as Newcastle, and Alan Pardew will be slightly puzzled as to who to support. Should Ivory Coast defend their advantage Newcastle would be without midfield enforcer Cheick Tiote, while a Senegal victory would deny Pardew his first choice strikers Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse. It is likely that Pardew will be cheering for Ivory Coast, seeing as Vernon Anita was signed from Ajax as a back-up to Tiote whereas Shola Ameobi would struggle to fill the sizeable hole left by the Senegalese pair. Sam Allardyce also has a dilemma at West Ham, where he stands to lose first choice right back Guy Demel (Ivory Coast) or Mohamed Diame (Senegal), but is again likely to prefer to lose the Ivorian over the dynamic Senegalese midfielder.
One manager who will be firmly in the Senegal camp will be Roberto Martinez, whose Wigan side risk losing Ivorian forward Arouna Kone. Wigan have survived in recent seasons by finding form in the new year, usually inspired by a star forward. Last season Victor Moses carried them to safety just as Charles N’Zogbia had done the season before. Kone appears to be the natural replacement to Moses and, having collected three goals and two assists in his first seven league games, the Ivorian seems well placed to pick up the responsibility of keeping his team in the Premier League. Should Ivory Coast qualify and Wigan lose him for a run of games in January it would be a major blow.
At the other end of the league two of the clubs expected to challenge for the title will be hoping Senegal can turn the tie around. Last season the loss of Yaya Toure caused Manchester City to stutter in the new year, and even once the influential midfielder returned in February City struggled to rediscover their pre-Christmas form. This season City’s midfield has been bolstered by the signings of Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell, but having stuttered thus far, Roberto Mancini will want to be hitting form in January, just as Toure would be due to leave. At Arsenal Arsene Wenger also stands to lose a player if Ivory Coast qualify. Gervinho has proved more important this season than was to be expected in a central striker’s role, but if Olivier Giroud builds on his first league goal last weekend and, as is now expected, Theo Walcott signs a contract extension and returns to the starting line-up, the Ivorian’s loss would probably be manageable.
Gervinho isn’t Arsenal’s only player at risk to the African Cup of Nations, but Emmanuel Frimpong (Ghana) and Marouane Chamakh (Morocco) wouldn’t represent great losses. Ghana will expect to qualify, taking a two goal lead to Malawi. In contrast Morocco, to the delight of numerous Premier League managers, are in danger of missing out, trailing 2-0 after the first leg to Mozambique. Morocco will still be heavy favourites to win their home leg, but should they fail to recover the deficit Aston Villa will get to keep midfielder Karim El Ahmadi, while Liverpool’s dearth of attacking options makes young forward Oussama Assaidi an important reserve. Meanwhile, Queens Park Rangers would be delighted to keep hold of star playmaker Adel Taarabt.
As expected considering their scattergun transfer policy, QPR have a number of African players. Following several dismal performances last season full back Armand Traore may not be greatly missed should he be called up to a victorious Senegalese side, but Mark Hughes would lose some much needed aggression from his midfield should Stephane Mbia (Cameroon) and Samba Diakite (Mali) both reach the finals. Mali hold a comfortable 3-0 lead against Botswana and should progress, but Cameroon trail Cape Verde by two goals going into their home leg.
Hughes will not be the only manager hoping Cape Verde can hang on. Sebastien Bassong would leave a large hole in the Norwich defence, although at Tottenham Jan Vertonghen’s form at left back may make the possible loss of Benoit Assou-Ekotto less problematic. Andre Villas-Boas is more likely to be concerned with Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo side taking on Gabon with the tie evenly poised at 1-1. Jermain Defoe has thus far kept Adebayor out of Tottenham’s starting XI, but with no other back-up available Villas-Boas will not want to face four weeks with only a single senior striker.
Finally we come to historically one of Africa’s strongest sides, and a nation that has provided numerous Premier League players through the years. Nigeria drew 2-2 away to Liberia in the first leg, and will want to secure the victory at home. Should Nigeria qualify Everton and West Brom would be denied striking options in Victor Anichebe and Peter Odemwingie, but it would be Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea who may feel the biggest impact. With the Italian manager showing little faith in Oriol Romeu, John Obi Mikel remains Chelsea’s first choice holding midfielder, even if a switch to a 4-2-3-1 system has given the Nigerian greater freedom. For all their attacking talent, including Nigerian winger Victor Moses, Chelsea lack depth in midfield, with only Ramires and Frank Lampard as alternative options, so the loss of Mikel would be damaging.
All of these ties will be settled this weekend. It may prove to be the most important weekend in some clubs’ seasons.
The African Cup of Nations is scheduled to run between 19th January – 10th February.
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