When the African Cup of Nations kicks off in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, a number of the traditional favourites will be at home, including Egypt, winners of the last three version of the tournament. Also absent are Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa, with the latter missing out after their coach misunderstood the rules in the final qualifier against Sierra Leone, and played for a draw when Bafana Bafana needed to win.
France’s Ligue 1 as usual has been hit particularly hard, with a number of teams having to do without their star players for a month. Heavyweight performers such as Kevin Prince-Boateng, Yaya Toure and Demba Ba are also in West Africa now ahead of the start of the tournament this weekend.
Here Inside Futbol look at some of the potential stars of the 2012 African Cup of Nations, with an apologetic nod towards Senegal, whose forward quartet of Dame N’Doye, Papiss Cisse, Ba and Moussa Sow all merit a mention. Who coach Amare Traore selects up front is anyone’s guess.
Samir Aboud – Libya (Al-Ittihad, Libya) – Goalkeeper
Libya’s team are unlikely to lack fighting spirit; many of them picked up guns and drove Colonel Gaddafi from power last year in the civil war that caught the world’s attention. On the pitch Aboud conceded just one goal in Libya’s memorable qualification campaign for the African Cup of Nations, and at the age of 39 was named in the 2011 African Team of the Year. He has been a key figure for his country for a decade and a group including Equatorial Guinea and Zambia could give Libya the chance to surprise once more if Aboud is at his best.
Kwadwo Asamoah – Ghana (Udinese, Italy) – Midfielder
Udinese have a habit of unearthing talented youngsters and turning them into top class talents and Asamoah is certainly in that mould. A central midfielder with the drive and thrust to become a key player for club and country, the Ghana star has been a key cog for the Italian side this season as they push for the Serie A title. He also helped Udinese to qualify for the Champions League last season, and his composure and touch are not to be dismissed either. Just 23, Asamoah has already appeared 36 times for his country, including playing in every match during their run to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup; he looks set to become a leading player for the Black Stars in the years ahead.
Jordan Ayew – Ghana (France, Marseille) – Forward
Ayew is one of the new stars on the African continent and has made his impact felt at club level with Marseille alongside his older brother Andre. The son of Ghana legend Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew, Jordan comes to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea on a high after impressing in recent weeks at the Stade Velodrome as Marseille steadily climb the Ligue 1 table. Quick and technical, Ayew also has the ability to net important goals. It has been suggested that the 20-year-old is too young for the Black Stars, but those calls could be a thing of the past if Ghana, one of the favourites, go far this month.
Younes Belhanda – Morocco (Montpellier, France) – Midfielder
Montpellier are the surprise package in France this season and are pushing Paris Saint-Germain hardest for the Ligue 1 title. Though this is largely down to the goals of Olivier Giroud, Belhanda’s role should not be ignored, and he has chipped in with five goals this season so far. A key maker as well as taker of goalscoring chances, the youngster has been pivotal for La Pallaide in their surge up the table. Continuing his impressive form at the African Cup of Nations will do his chances of earning a lucrative transfer no harm, and a Morocco side with a good defence and a talented attack have the potential to go far. A wide midfielder, Belhanda has been compared by club manager Rene Girard to Robert Pires and his ability to create chances for the likes of Marouane Chamakh will be tested in the weeks to come.
Cheick Diabate – Mali (Bordeaux, France) – Forward
The star of the Mali side will undoubtedly be Barcelona’s Seydou Keita, but Diabate’s goals will also be a major factor for the country in their African Cup of Nations campaign. Playing in an underperforming Bordeaux team has not been the easiest of educations for Diabate, but the 23-year-old has still contributed with four goals this season, though his return could perhaps be better still. At 6”5 the striker will prove a handful for most defences he faces. Mali are in a tricky group, with Ghana, Guinea and Botswana, and they will look to their star forward to provide the goals to fire them into the next round.
Seydou Doumbia – Ivory Coast (CSKA Moscow, Russia) – Forward
Ivory Coast have arguably the most talented squad in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, with Gervinho, the Toure brothers and Romaric just a handful of their well-known stars. But with Didier Drogba’s powers on the wane, the country which has come so close in the past will need a consistent clinical finisher if they are to seal a maiden African Cup of Nations title. Doumbia was been in superb form for CSKA Moscow during the first half of the elongated Russian Premier League season which concluded last year. Refreshed by a break since then, that may give the 24-year-old the extra freshness to fire his country to the continental crown.
Kader Mangane – Senegal (Rennes, France) – Defender
Mangane is a rock at the heart of the defence for both club and country. Last year he was a key player as the northern side qualified for Europe, and he will be vital to Senegal if they are to compete for the African Cup of Nations title. With possibly the most talented selection of strikers on the continent, Senegal will hope that Mangane can marshal his team-mates at the back to ensure that their potency going forward is not wasted. The captain of his club, Mangrane’s leadership skills will be tested and could be pivotal for Senegal over the next month.
Andre Biyogo Poko – Gabon (Bordeaux, France) – Midfielder
Poko is one of the rising stars of African football and starred for Gabon at the recent qualifying tournament for the London 2012 Olympic Games, helping his country surprise observers in winning the competition. A typical all-round midfielder, the 18-year-old is energetic, able to press the opposition, and is good on the ball and able to join in the attack too. Yet to make the breakthrough with Bordeaux in Ligue 1, he is nevertheless a potential star of the future and could get his chance in the African Cup of Nations for the hosts.
Jerome Ramatlhkwane – Botswana (Unattached) – Forward
Ramatlhkwanewill causes many a commentator a miserable time during the tournament if he continues his remarkable goalscoring form from the qualifiers. He struck five times during qualifying, and considering Botswana only scored seven, his influence is clear. This form led to the 26-year-old being nominated for the 2011 Confederation of African Football Player of the Year award. Botswana are appearing in the African Cup of Nations for the first time in their history and having only conceded three times during the qualifiers, have a sturdy foundation on which to build. A remarkable 2011 led to the Zebras being named as the African Team of the Year, and Ramatlhkwane has played a big a role in that success as anyone else. Despite all that, he is currently out of contract after being involved in a contract dispute with his South African club Santos – a repeat of his form from qualifying would see suitors beating a path to his door.
Alain Traore – Burkina Faso (Auxerre, France) – Midfielder
Traore had a trial with Manchester United as a teenager, but problems obtaining a work permit meant he did not stay at Old Trafford for long. This year though, Traore has proven crucial for his club as they battle valiantly against the drop in Ligue 1. A fine start to the season was largely thanks to Traore’s goals, possessing as he does a fierce shot with his left foot, though he is a midfielder by trade. Burkina Faso are in a group with Ivory Coast, Angola and Sudan, and will be hopeful that they can spring a surprise to qualify. To do so, the 22-year-old will be key for a team with few stars.
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