Football: The 11 players to watch at AFCON 2021

Away from the spotlight on Salah, Mane and Mahrez, here are some other footballers who could light up the Africa Cup of Nations.

Achraf Hakimi
Morocco and PSG's Achraf Hakimi is simply the best right-back in Africa and one of the best in the world [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

The 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) starts on January 9 in Cameroon, having been delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic.

While it is close to impossible for an AFCON to come off without a hitch, it has always thrown up memorable storylines and performances, and with some of the world’s finest footballers converging in one space.

Established names like Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, Senegal’s Sadio Mane, Algerian captain Riyad Mahrez, Senegalese goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and Ivorian Franck Kessie need no introduction.

But outside of that, Al Jazeera takes a look at 11 of the continent’s brightest stars to keep an eye on during the tournament.

Herve Koffi – Goalkeeper, 25, Burkina Faso/Charleroi

Koffi was one of the breakout stars of Burkina Faso’s run to the semi-finals back in 2017. Relatively little-known at the time, the second-generation international announced himself with an outstanding performance in the quarterfinal win over Tunisia.

By the end of the tournament, he transferred from ASEC to Lille. But things did not quite take off for him in France. After a couple of loan moves, he found stability in Belgium with Charleroi and remains a very strong goalkeeper who can help Burkina Faso live up to their “dark horses” tag.

Herve Koffi
Burkina Faso’s goalkeeper Herve Kouakou Koffi [Gabriel Bouys/AFP]

Odilon Kossounou – Defender, 21, Ivory Coast/Bayer Leverkusen

In the summer of 2021, Bayer Leverkusen paid a Belgian record fee to sign Kossounou from Club Brugge.

The fee was eye-catching, especially for a centre-back barely out of his teens.

His awareness, strength – belying his slim frame – and skills with the ball are noteworthy, and he continues a tradition of excellent Ivorian central defenders.

Achraf Hakimi – Defender, 23, Morocco/Paris Saint-Germain

Hakimi is simply the best right-back in Africa and one of the best in the world.

While his club rap sheet – Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and PSG – tells its own story, the fact he is still only 23 makes his status all the more impressive.

Hakimi’s ability to carry an entire flank is key to Morocco’s attacking play, as are his low deliveries across the box. Watch out for him to torment every left-back he comes across in Cameroon.

Abdou Diallo – Defender, 25, Senegal/Paris Saint-Germain

Diallo made his international debut in March last year but has been almost ever-present, partnering Kalidou Koulibaly, who has question marks over his fitness currently, and allowing Cheikhou Kouyate to play in midfield where he is natural.

On his day, Diallo is a classy operator with a slick left foot and brilliant defensive instincts, but being thrust into such a critical role so early in his international career is no picnic. If it goes well, Senegal will be close to impassable at the back.

Abdou Diallo
Abdou Diallo made his international debut only last year [Franck Fife/AFP]

Ilias Chair – Midfielder, 24, Morocco/Queens Park Rangers

Chair is a lively attacking midfielder with a repertoire of dribbles, drags and rolls. He is the sort of player who is easy to fall in love with.

Chair made his international debut midway through 2021 but has made his case to be a starter with increasing ferocity since then.

His performances during Qatar 2022 qualifying late last year will no doubt stand him in good stead when the starting lineup is selected for AFCON.

Yves Bissouma – Midfielder, 25, Mali/Brighton and Hove Albion

At Brighton, Bissouma is a mobile, energetic screen in front of the defence.

However, for Mali, he plays a more expansive, overtly creative role as a box-to-box midfielder capable of dribbling into advanced areas and shooting powerfully from distance.

The Eagles are another under-the-radar team to whom most should pay attention, and Bissouma is the gleaming gem at the heart of it all.

Yves Bissouma
Mali’s show in AFCON will depend a lot of how Yves Bissouma performs [Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa – Midfielder, 26, Cameroon/Napoli

Cameroon keep the ball extremely well and are solid in defence. Both of these functions require the presence and quality of Zambo Anguissa.

The Napoli man, for so long an under-appreciated analytics darling while yo-yoing up and down league divisions in England, has blossomed since joining Serie A side Napoli last summer.

He has also flourished internationally, providing incisive passing, intensity and physicality in midfield.

While Cameroon have a number of options in central midfield, the smooth gliding of Zambo Anguissa is set to stand out.

Musa Barrow – Forward, 23, The Gambia/Bologna

The Gambia are making their first appearance at AFCON and they would want to be just making up the numbers.

Forward Musa Barrow is part of a growing Gambian football diaspora in Italy, and has been in tremendous form throughout the first half of the season.

Barrow can play all across the front three, but what makes the 23-year-old so watchable is his willingness to try the unexpected.

When it comes off, it can be quite spectacular. Considering The Gambia are not favourites to advance from Group F, they will be grateful for any moments of magic they can get from Barrow.

Musa Barrow
Bologna’s Gambian forward Musa Barrow [Miguel Medina/AFP]

Umar Sadiq – Forward, 24, Nigeria/Almeria

Injuries and withdrawals have conspired to hand Spain-based Umar Sadiq a unique opportunity.

The Almeria man has more than earned it, however. Sadiq has been in good form for Almeria for close to two seasons now as the Andalusian club chase promotion to La Liga.

Watching him play is never dull. A volatile personality, combined with his height and physical build, makes him difficult to predict. It can unsettle defenders but also frustrate fans and teammates.

Mohamed Bayo – Forward, 23, Guinea/Clermont

Newly promoted Clermont are punching above their weight in Ligue 1 and much of that is owed to the form of Bayo, who is already attracting interest from the Premier League.

A powerful centre-forward who excels at link-up play and is a strong finisher, Bayo has also taken to international football quickly.

A striker of his profile, who does more than simply hang on the shoulder of defenders waiting for service, could make a massive difference for Guinea and carry them far in the competition.

Mohamed Bayo
Clermont’s forward Mohamed Bayo [Fred Tanneau/AFP]

Kamaldeen Sulemana – Forward, 19, Ghana/Rennes

Everyone loves a dribbler and Sulemana is one of the more aesthetically pleasing and unpredictable ones out there.

Signed by Rennes last summer from Nordsjaelland, the winger is already showing his worth outwitting defenders in Ligue 1.

He is also a part of Ghana’s shift in emphasis, as the Black Stars are pivoting more towards youth.

If Sulemana can bring his best form to AFCON, it would help coach Milovan Rajevac’s system fit together that much more neatly, and provide Ghana with some much-needed invention in attack.

Manager in the spotlight: Aliou Cisse, 45, Senegal

The former Teranga Lions captain is highly revered back home but has been mandated to win the elusive tournament in Cameroon or face the sack.

Cisse replaced Frenchman Alain Giresse in 2015 and his first AFCON tournament in 2017 ended in a quarterfinal exit.

Despite promising so much at the 2018 World Cup, his side failed to come out of the group.

The following year, he suffered an agonising 1-0 defeat to Djamel Belmadi-led Algeria in the AFCON final.

Having captained his nation as it roared to the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals, Cisse is aware that his COVID and injury-hit squad must go one step better than it did in Egypt, to earn the right to lead the West African nation in March’s 2022 World Cup qualifying playoff.

Aliou Cisse
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse will be under the spotlight [Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera