The African Cup of Nations gets under way in Johannesburg on Saturday as South Africa play host to debutants Cape Verde, the smallest nation ever to make it to the finals. Teams across Europe will be hoping their stars experience short and disappointing tournaments, so that the likes of Yaya Toure, Kwadwo Asamoah and Younes Belhanda return back to club duty as quickly as possible. Stars of Senegal, Egypt and Cameroon are spared the trip to South Africa due their respective failures to qualify for the tournament.
Here Inside Futbol look at some of the potential stars of the 2012 tournament, aside from the usual big names, with an apologetic nod towards the stars of the continent, such as Asamoah, Belhanda, Victor Moses, John Obi Mikel, Emmanuel Adebayor and Seydou Keita. And most of the Ivorian team, in particular Didier Drogba.
If this tournament is about whether the Ivorians can at last taste continental success, then it is equally about Drogba. It will be fascinating to see how his game has been affected by dropping down a level in quality since moving to China. Still one of the most talented players in Africa, he should have a big impact. The former Chelsea man has scores to settle at international level. Missed penalties and golden chances have come and gone for Drogba to win the Ivory Coast the African Cup of Nations. Having put Chelsea’s Champions League penalty ghosts to bed in Munich last May, this could be Drogba’s big international moment.
There is sadly not enough room to do justice to all of the numerous up and coming talents on the African continent. Among those who could easily have been included in this list is Udinese’s defensive midfielder Emmanuel Agyemang Badu, scorer of the winning penalty against Brazil in the 2009 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, who will star for Ghana. And if Tunisia have a good tournament, then in all likelihood so will their goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi, one of the finest between the sticks on the continent; Marseille’s Charles Kabore is another who could star, in midfield for Burkina Faso.
Abdelaziz Barrada – Morocco (Getafe, Spain) – Midfielder
Barrada is still young but is already a fine forward-thinking midfielder with a keen eye for goal. He developed with Paris Saint-Germain and having starred for Morocco’s youth teams, and made an encouraging start to his career in La Liga with Getafe, Barrada has the potential to go far. This African Cup of Nations provides him with an opportunity to cement a growing reputation. His knack for scoring important goals will be vital for Morocco.
Emmanuel Mbola – Zambia (FC Porto, Portugal) – Defender
19-year-old Mbola is the second youngest player to have played a game in the African Cup of Nations, although interestingly that was back at the 2010 event. He was not present in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon last year so will have more to prove than most of his team-mates. The fast defender made his international debut at the age of just 14, and was also the first Zambian to appear in the Champions League when he featured for Armenian side Pyunik Yerevan against Dinamo Zagreb. Mbola always looks to break forward and join the attack, but he is also a strong tackler, although his technique and passing could do with some improvement.
Thulani Serero – South Africa (Ajax, Holland) – Midfielder
Coach Gordon Igesund has placed significant faith in Serero, selecting him in his squad despite the player lacking match fitness. He hopes he will be fit and sharp enough to play against Cape Verde in the tournament opener, and he believes Serero has the quality to fill the void left by the retirement of Everton’s Steven Pienaar from the international game. Having developed with Ajax Cape Town, Serero is now in Holland with Ajax. Fast, skilful and able to go past players, Igesund has already dubbed him the ‘Messi of South African football’. No pressure then, Thulani.
Christian Atsu Twasam – Ghana (FC Porto, Portugal) – Winger
From the ‘South African Messi’ to the Ghanaian version, as Atsu Twasam has been described by some. The comparison may mean little yet, but the Porto winger has shown plenty of promise in his brief career so far, which is why teams such as Borussia Dortmund have shown interest in him. Voted Porto’s best young player in the 2010/11 season, he went on to star at the 2011 FIFA Youth Cup and impressed on loan at Rio Ave last season. Atsu Twasam scored on his debut for the Black Stars against Lesotho and is full of tricks and no little pace. With Andre Ayew absent due to a dispute with coach Kwesi Appiah, there is a vacancy for a wide player to come into the side and so Atsu Twasam could play a big role in his country’s African Cup of Nations campaign.
Oussama Assaidi – Morocco (Liverpool, England) – Winger
Assaidi has had a few chances for Liverpool since signing from Heerenveen in the summer. He has shown good quality on the ball and intelligence. The 24-year-old could form a brilliant partnership with fellow schemer Younes Belhanda if given the chance,and can be a star of this year’s event if Morocco progress to the latter stages.
Heldon Ramos – Cape Verde (Maritimo, Portugal) – Forward
Ramos has played his entire career in Portugal, with Canical, Fatima and now Maritimo. The top scorer in qualifying for the Islanders as they stunned Cameroon, he netted the opening goal in the second leg of the tie which ended any hopes of the Indomitable Lions making a comeback. Ramos will be the man Cape Verde look to as they attempt to shock more regional heavyweights during the weeks to come.
Dieumerci Mbokani – DR Congo (Anderlecht, Belgium) – Forward
Mbokani, whose first name translates as ‘thank god’, was one of the top scorers of the qualifying campaign for this tournament and at 26 is coming into his peak years. The Anderlecht frontman’s European experience will be crucial as the Congolese look to make an impact on this tournament. Mbokani’s off the ball intelligence and ability to drift out wide before making purposeful, pacey runs inside could cause havoc for opposition defenders.
Medhi Lacen – Algeria (Getafe, Spain) – Midfield
Algeria are one team who should have a good tournament if they are playing at their best in South Africa. No one is more important to them than Lacen, who has enjoyed an impressive, if unremarkable, career in Spain. Born in Paris, Lacen has been important for Getafe as the Madrid-based outfit have performed beyond expectations in La Liga this season. The holding midfielder has had to shackle some of the best playmakers in the world game in Spain and is capable of being a star of this tournament for Africa’s second ranked side. He can form a superb partnership with Sofiane Feghouli, the creative Valencia midfielder.
Emmanuel Emenike – Nigeria (Spartak Moscow, Russia) – Forward
Emenike has his career back on track after a troubled spell in Turkey with Fenerbahce, during which he was mixed up in a corruption scandal over his transfer from Karabukspor. His time in Russia has not been smooth either – he was a victim of racial abuse last year but found himself fined for reacting to supporters. Blessed with technique to match his imposing frame, Emenike is a true modern centre forward, good both with his back and front to goal. If he plays well, Nigeria could have a very good tournament.
Alain Traore – Burkina Faso (Lorient, France) – Midfielder/Forward
Traore possesses a brilliant left foot, which has been causing havoc against the best teams the French league has to offer this year. He is not just the star of the Burkina Faso side, but one of the most underrated and impressive players to have come out of the African continent. His tendency to score goals from midfield makes him a particular danger, and his team-mates will look to him to inspire them past the group stage.
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