Postponed from last year the Africa Cup of Nations gets under way in Cameroon on Sunday. It’s been worth the wait. Yuri Mutei assesses the talent and chances of seven of the best players in the competition.
CAMEROON: ANDRE ONANA
Andre Onana comes into AFCON 2021 with little football under his belt. The Cameroon shot-stopper had a global ban slapped on him following a failed drugs test. Nonetheless he should be the obvious starter between the sticks. According to Opta’s Expected Goals on Target data, across 2019-20 and 2020-21 the Ajax goalkeeper prevented 10 goals with his saves. Onana will be playing in his second Africa Cup of Nations tournament this time around, following his appearance in 2019. In that tournament, Onana and Cameroon kept a clean sheet in all three group-stage matches but were eventually undone by Nigeria (3-2) in the Last 16. Being one of the best goalkeepers in the Dutch Eredivisie before his suspension, Onana is a player truly worth watching.
SENEGAL: SADIO MANE
Expectations are high for Sadio Mane and Senegal to go all the way in the Africa Cup of Nations. Mane is the one to unlock defenses with his strength and dribbling prowess. With 26 international goals under his belt, it seems only a matter of time before Mané breaks Henri Camara’s record tally of 29 goals for Senegal, while he’s now in the top five for appearances for his country. His stats are impressive as well. His underlying numbers are more impressive than last season for both expected goals and expected assists. He’s averaged 0.48 xG per 90 (up from 0.43 in 2020-21) and 0.16 xA (up from 0.15 in 2020-21) in competitive action for Liverpool.
GHANA: KAMALDEEN SULEMANA
With four goals and two assists for his club Stade Rennais (Ligue 1) in his first five months at only 19 years old, Kamaldeen seems set to burst on to the international football stage. His dribbling and eye for goal, especially with long shots, are where his strengths lie. His love for taking a man on and dribble past him have been a key feature of his game. His take on stats are incredible at 246 attempts with Lionel Messi coming first at 261 within the top five leagues in Europe.
MOROCCO: ILIAS CHAIR
With six goals and five assists in 24 appearances in all competitions for QPR this term, Chair has matched his assist total from 2020-21, despite playing 23 fewer games for. His stock in England is slowly rising. With seven caps to his name he has slowly staked his claim to the first 11 of his country. With an array of technical ability in his locker, he is a danger man if left unchecked. He can cross with pinpoint accuracy and has an eye for goal from range. He also possesses a good key-pass average. Much of QPR’s play runs through Chair, with the Moroccan involved in more open-play attacking sequences in the Championship this season than any player at the club (109). One thing is certain, if Chair can replicate his club form on the international stage, he will be a huge asset for Morocco.
EGYPT : MOHAMED SALAH
The Egyptian attacker needs no introduction, unless you have been sleeping in a cave. Salah goes into the tournament as the most in form player. Having scored 16 goals and having nine assists, the Liverpool star has 25 goal involvements in the Premier League already in 2021-22, having played just 20 games. Across all competitions, Salah has 23 goals in 26 appearances this season for Liverpool. His ability to ball carry is what has given Salah the edge in scoring. His agile dribbling has made defending a nightmare for the opposition. The Egyptian’s non-penalty xG of 12.1 is the highest in the Premier League this season. With 10 appearances in the last two tournaments Egypt will hope that he can replicate his Liverpool form and be red hot for his country.
ALGERIA: RIYAD MAHREZ
Mahrez has six goals and four assists in the Premier League for Manchester City so far this season at a rate of one every 84 minutes. Out of 800 minutes only Trent Alexander-Arnold comes above him when it comes to attacking sense. For the duration of the Africa Cup of Nations Manchester City will be without their top goal scorer (13) and their top player in terms of goal involvements 18 out of 25. As captain of his side, Mahrez is one of a group of very talented players at the tournament. He will be driven to have his team win the trophy if Algeria are to become the first reigning champions to seal back-to-back AFCON titles since Egypt in 2010. If Alegria are to achieve the double Mahrez will undoubtedly be a key driver towards that success.
IVORY COAST: SÉBASTIEN HALLER
Having a 28 goal involvement in which he has scored 22 goals and assisted 6 goals, all in just 24 appearances for Ajax this season, Sebastien Haller is another forward in the form of their life at the moment. With (10) of his goals in the UEFA Champions League, his doubters can’t say that his goals tally were from the “relatively easy” Dutch Eredivisie. Aerial duels and his finishing are what stand out. Haller is not the fastest of forwards but he makes up for it in his positioning and strength. Haller’s feats have led to him to score 10 Champions League goals in fewer appearances than any other player in the competition history (six appearances), while he became only the second player in UEFA Champions League history to score in all six matches of a single group stage, after Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017-18. In his six competitive appearances for the Ivory Coast he’s scored three times. Haller’s good form will be needed to push the Ivorians for the title.