As the biggest football tourney in Africa kicks off, we take a look at the biggest stars to keep an eye out for across all 16 teams.
Senegalese pocket rocket Sadie Mane’s performances for Southampton were so good that Liverpool were persuaded to splurge £35m on him in the summer. The rest as they say is history. They will surely miss him while he is away in Gabon as he has been directly involved in 14 goals in 19 appearances for the Reds.
Country: DR Congo
In the absence of talisman Yannick Bolasie, the onus might well fall on the 25 year old Villarreal striker who has scored 3 times in 9 appearances since his International switch in 2015. After 22 goals in 50 games across all competitions last season, he has found game time a bit difficult to come by this season due to an injury at the start of the season. Coming home to Africa could see him in the thick of things again.
Country: Cote d’Ivoire
Zaha follows in the footsteps of players like Bakambu, Bolasie, Henri Saivet, and Leon Balogun in choosing to represent the country of his ancestors instead of the country he was bred. He abandoned all hopes of playing for England and pitched his tent with the Elephants. In the absence of former National team heroes and legends of Africa, Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, as well as the injury to Gervinho, it could be Zaha that fires the Elephants to glory.
Facing certain relegation, Sunderland turned to Khazri in the January transfer window and he helped them stay up with several important performances and 2 crucial goals in wins against Manchester United and Chelsea. Tunisia will be hoping he can replicate such form and add to his 10 goals in 27 appearances for the Carthage Eagles.
The hopes of the host country lie squarely on the shoulders of the Borussia Dortmund hitman. The former African Player of the Year will be hoping to reclaim his crown (and luggage) and a shock win for the host nation could go a long way in seeing him becoming the Number 1 footballer in Africa again.
Player of the tournament at the 2015 U-20 World Cup with 4 goals and 3 assists, he helped Mali to a 3rd place finish. The Monaco playmaker will be looking to put on his big boy pants and impress on a senior level.
The former Chelsea forward was Egypt’s highest goal scorer during qualification. He comes into the tournament in fine form having had a hand in 13 goals in 16 Serie A games. If the Roma forward continues in this vein, Egypt might just extend their record run of ruling Africa in Gabon.
Former BBC African Footballer of the Year and son of the legendary Abedi “Pele” Ayew, he will want to exorcise the ghosts of the 2015 tournament where despite being joint top on the scorers’ chart he was left in tears as Ghana lost the final on penalties. Perhaps this could be the year that he finally goes all the way.
Cameroon’s attacking fortunes hinge on the powerful forward who has amassed a healthy 14 international goals (the highest of any current international). He seems to have a penchant for the big stage as his 9 goals in 16 UCL matches suggests so perhaps this is one more stage for him to shine on. The Indomitable Lions will be looking to use Aboubakar as the the weapon.
Currently with Lekwhiya in Qatar where he has already scored 17 goals in 13 games, he was Morocco’s highest goal scorer in qualifying and would be expected to lead the line for the Atlas Lions as they seek to claim their first African title since 1976.
The reigning English PFA Player of the Year who is also the CAF Player of the Year might be having a modest season compared to his awe inspiring 2015/2016 season. He however still has some magic in those boots as his 4 goals in 5 UCL appearances have proven. Write him off at your own peril, one blink and the ball could already be in the back of the net. The best player in Africa is certainly one to watch in Gabon.
Written by Ayoola Kelechi (@ayoola_kelechi)