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Africa Cup of Nations

2021 Africa Cup of Nations Preview: Squads & Key Players

Albeit a year late due to COVID-19 induced postponements, the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations is finally upon us.

This is just the second time that the tournament features 24 teams from the continent, including well-established sides such as Algeria, Senegal and Egypt, to debutants Gambia and Comoros.

With just eight teams set to be eliminated in the group stage, most fans will be hoping to see their country represented in the knockouts and get on the list of Africa Cup of Nations champions.

In our preview, we will explore each of the squads named by the competing sides and the key players for every team.

Group A

Hosts Cameroon are in Group A with Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and Ethiopia.

Burkina Faso

Squad:

Key Player:

Edmond Tapsoba – Bayer Leverkusen’s 22-year-old centre-back will undoubtedly be a key presence at the heart of Burkina Faso.

Although he has been in and out of the XI for the impressive Werkself this season, he was a regular starter last season and impressed particularly with his ball-playing ability. The Stallions will be hoping for similar performances from him in this tournament.

Cape Verde

Squad:

Key Player:

Djaniniy – Veteran attacker Djaniny will be representing Cape Verde in AFCON for the third time in his career, having featured in 2013 and 2015 previously, but this time he will have to take on much greater responsibility than being just a squad player.

The Trabzonspor forward has been in fine form for the runaway Süper Lig leaders with five goals and two assists in the league to his name already, and he will need to keep delivering similarly in Cameroon.

Cameroon

Squad:

Key Player:

André Onana – Cameroon have to be considered the strongest side in the group as they have top-class talents both in midfield and attack with the likes of André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Karl Toko-Ekambi among others, but their defence is not as formidable.

Therefore, goalkeeper André Onana could well be called into action on occasion, and his recent performances in the World Cup Qualifiers show that he can be more than up for the task.

Ethiopia

Squad:

Key Player:

Shemeles Bekele – With all of their players based in Africa for club football, Ethiopia have to be considered the weakest side in Group A. That is not to say that they do not have talented players.

One of their most important men will be their most capped player Shemeles Bekele, who has ten goals from midfield in his 68 appearances. Any additions to that tally from him could go a long way in helping Ethiopia clinch an unexpected berth in the knockouts.

Group B

One of the pre-tournament favourites Senegal are in Group B, which they are expected to comfortably win ahead of Guinea, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Guinea

Squad:

Key Player:

Mohamed Bayo – Guinea are expected to pose the toughest challenge to Senegal in this group, and they are loaded with quality in midfield with players such as Liverpool’s Naby Keïta, Roma’s Amadou Diawara, RB Leipzig’s Ilaix Moriba and more.

They have one of the most in-form forward players in the squad in Clermont Foot’s Mohamed Bayo, who has nine goals and a couple of assists in 17 Ligue 1 appearances, averaging 0.65 npxG+xA per 90. That level of production should yield even greater fruit at AFCON.

Malawi

Squad:

Key Player:

Francisco Madinga Malawi have just two players in their squad who ply their trade in Europe as far as club football is concerned, and one of those is 21-year-old attacking midfielder Francisco Madinga. He is yet to score in seven caps for his national side, which he will be looking to change in Cameroon.

Senegal

Squad:

Key Player:

Sadio Mané – Despite having such a stacked squad in all positions for the last few years, Senegal are still yet to take the AFCON trophy home.

If they are to change that this time around, they will need Liverpool forward Sadio Mané to cash in on some of that xG he has been accumulating in the English Premier League, where he has scored eight league goals from a tally of 10.3xG so far this season.

Zimbabwe

Squad:

Key Player:

Tino Kadewere – Lyon’s Tino Kadewere’s 26th birthday was just four days before the start of the tournament, so he could not have afforded to celebrate too much as he is the only player in Zimbabwe’s squad who still works for a club in Europe’s top five leagues.

He was a key player for Les Gones last season when he managed ten goals and three assists in 33 Ligue 1 appearances. Although he has fallen out of favour this campaign with just 152 league minutes under his belt, he will need to be at the top of his game if Zimbabwe are to make it past the group stage.

Group C

One of the more competitive groups is Group C, which will see Morocco, Ghana and Gabon battle for qualification, while debutantes Comoros are not just here to make up the numbers and could well disrupt one of the other teams’ campaigns.

Comoros

Squad:

Key Player:

Faïz Selemani – Although Comoros do not have any player in Europe’s big five leagues, they do have a couple in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Most notably, Kortrijk’s Faïz Selemani will be a crucial figure for their attack. The 28-year-old striker has been on fire in the Jupiler Pro League this season, playing a role in half of his club’s goals with four assists to go with nine strikes of his own already. That form could be a problem for opposing defences in Group C.

Gabon

Squad:

(Two players to be omitted)

Key Player:

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Arsenal’s axed captain will have a lot to prove in AFCON following his expulsion from the latest Gunners squads after a dispute with manager Mikel Arteta, either to show what he can bring to the North London club or perhaps for potential suitors from elsewhere.

In either case, Gabon will be hoping to see him score some goals to boost their chances of making the last 16.

Ghana

Squad:

Key Player:

Kamaldeen Sulemana – Ghana have players at either end of the age spectrum in their squad, and they all could prove to be important.

One of their brightest young talents Kamaldeen Sulemana will most likely be a key player after his impressive start to life in Ligue 1 for Rennes following his summer move from Nordsjælland, so opposing defences have to be worried.

Morocco

Squad:

(Abde Ezzalzouli turned down the chance to represent Morocco at AFCON, so Tarik Tissoudali was called up in his place).

Key Player:

Ilias Chair – Hakim Ziyech’s feud with Morocco head coach Vahid Halilhodžić has seen him left out of the squad again, so someone will need to fill his create boots.

Queens Park Rangers midfield Ilias Chair could do just that, having registered three assists in the English Championship this season from an average of 2.1 key passes per 90. More of that will undoubtedly be appreciated by Youssef En-Nesyri among others.

Group D

Egypt’s battle with Nigeria for top spot will be the headline of Group D, with Guinea-Bissau and Sudan competing too.

Egypt

Squad:

Key Player:

Mohamed Salah – Of course. You could easily make a case for Mohamed Salah to be the most in-form player in world football at the moment on the back of his 16 goals and nine assists in 20 Premier League matches this season, so he will unquestionably be the most important player in Egypt’s AFCON campaign.

Guinea-Bissau

Squad:

https://www.bbc.com/sport/africa/59828280

Key Player:

Moreto Cassamá – Reims’ defensive-minded midfielder Moreto Cassamá is the only Guinea-Bissau player to have made an appearance in one of Europe’s top five leagues this season, so he will be a lynchpin in the middle of the park for them.

Nigeria

Squad:

(Victor Osimhen, Emmanuel Dennis, Leon Balogun and Shehu Abdullahi have been replaced by Henry Onyekuru, Tyronne Ebuehi, Peter Olayinka and Semi Ajayi)

Key Player:

Taiwo Awoniyi – Amidst the turmoil of managerial changes and last-minute squad replacements for Nigeria, fans’ expectations of success in the final have probably not been tempered, so the Super Eagles will need their players to deliver.

Ex-Liverpool striker Taiwo Awoniyi has been in fine form for Union Berlin this season with nine Bundesliga goals in 17 outings. He will be expected to continue scoring at that rate with the likes of Osimhen and Dennis unavailable.

Sudan

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Ishag Adam, Ali Abu Eshrein, Muhammad Mustafa

Defenders: Muhammad Abdullah Hussein, Salah Nimr, Muayyad Abdeen, Ammar Mohammed Kano, Amjad Ismail, Muhammad Kesri, Mazen Muhammadin, Mustafa Ahmed Saeed

Midfielders: Juma Abbas, Walieldin Khedr, Abdel Raouf Yaqoub, Mohamad al Hajj Komi, Mojtaba Al-Mardi, Muhammad Nour, Suleiman Hamid Ahmed, Mohamed Bashir, Dia Al-Din Mahjoub, Muhammad al Rasheed, Yasin Hamed, Al-Sadiq Hassan, Sheikh Muhammad al Hassan, Ali Muhammad Hassoun, Mohamad al Mundhir Qaddafi, Suleiman Zakaria

Forwards: Muhammad al Mustafa, Al Jezoli Nouh, Mohamed Abdelrahman, Musab Ahmed Sharif, Awad Zayed

(Five names to be omitted)

Key Player:

Mohamed Abdelrahman – Sudan are undoubtedly the underdogs in this group, but they do have a man who knows how to find the back of the net in Mohamed Abdelrahman. He scored two goals and got an assist in the most recent round of World Cup qualifiers, a tally he will be hoping to translate to AFCON.

Group E

Algeria’s title defence begins in Group E, which also includes Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Algeria

Squad:

Key Player:

Ismaël Bennacer – Algeria have a lot of talent in attack, particularly with the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Saïd Benrahma, but midfielder Ismaël Bennacer might be their most important player as his task will be to get the ball to the dangermen from an area of the pitch where Algeria lack quality depth.

The AC Milan man has averaged a very impressive 14.94 on-ball progressive actions (carries and passes) in the Serie A this season, something his teammates will hope to continue seeing in Cameroon.

Côte d’Ivoire

Squad:

Key Player:

Sébastien Haller – Underperforming Côte d’Ivoire need someone to step up and deliver consistently if they are to find success in the 33rd edition of AFCON, and one man primed to do just that could be Ajax’s Sébastien Haller.

The 27-year-old striker is in the form of his life with 10 Champions League group stage goals to his name along with 12 in the Eredivisie, so he will be expected to find the back of the net on multiple occasions.

Equatorial Guinea

Squad:

Key Player:

Carlos Akapo – Equatorial Guinea also have just one player who has featured in one of the big five European leagues this season, and that man is Carlos Akapo.

The defensive-minded full-back has eight La Liga starts to his name this season, so he will be an important figure in Equatorial Guinea’s defence.

Sierra Leone

Squad:

Key Player:

Alhaji Kamara – Plying his trade for Randers in Denmark, striker Alhaji Kamara has six goals in 14 league appearances to go with his two goals and as many assists in the Europa Conference League. Sierra Leone will hope he continues contributing to the scoreboard at that rate.

Group F

The final group is comprised of Gambia, Mali, Mauritania and Tunisia.

The Gambia

Squad:

Key Player:

Omar Colley – The 29-year-old centre-back has been a key figure at the heart of Sampdoria’s defence for over three Serie A seasons now, so he will surely be expected to perform similarly for his country.

With 5.27 clearances per 90 so far this season, he ranks in the 89th percentile among Serie A centre-backs and will quite possibly have to keep that rate up at AFCON.

Mali

Squad:

Key Player:

Yves Bissouma – One of Brighton & Hove Albion’s best performers in their impressive English Premier League season has been Yves Bissouma, who has looked good both in and out of possession.

His 5.80 tackles and interceptions in the league this season are good enough for the 95th percentile among midfielders. More of the same would hugely help Mali.

Mauritania

Squad:

Key Player:

Pape Ibnou Ba – Although not a regular starter for Le Havre, Pape Ibnou Ba has given a decent account of himself in most of his 17 Ligue 2 appearances.

His tally of just two goals might be far from impressive, but he brings more than just that to his side with his excellent work rate off the ball. Mauritania would benefit from both of those things.

Tunisia

Squad:

Key Player:

Wahbi Khazri – Saint-Étienne man Wahbi Khazri’s transformation to a forward has been superb this season, as he has found the back of the net seven times in 19 Ligue 1 outings this season despite Les Verts’ underwhelming performances that have left them in the relegation zone.

Khazri’s quality is unquestionable, though, and he will be looking to help Tunisia get as far forward in the knockouts as possible.

Stats courtesy StatsBomb via Fbref, Opta via WhoScored and Transfermarkt.

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