The CAF Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Ivory Coast when the hosts face Guinea-Bissau on January 13 at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan.
Senegal are the defending champions as they beat Egypt on penalties at the last edition in Cameroon.
Here’s a look at our top 10 players whose performances are likely to be decisive if their side is to lift the trophy on February 11:
1. Mohamed Salah: Egypt
The hopes and dreams of a nation rest on one man’s shoulders. If Egypt are to add to their record seven continental titles, then Mohamed Salah will have to bear the brunt of the work for the Pharaohs. Egypt have not won an AFCON title since 2010, and Salah has been left on the losing side in the final in both 2017 and 2021.
This edition of AFCON may not be the 31-year-old’s last, but it will be the last one where Egypt can truly boast that the king is still at the peak of his powers. How many international goals Salah will add to the 53 he has already netted, in only 93 appearances, is likely to be the decisive stat for Egypt’s hopes for erasing the memory of defeat in the final of the last AFCON by Senegal.
The last 🔟 #TotalEnergiesAFCON Player of the Tournament winners. 🏅
— CAF (@CAF_Online) January 7, 2024
2. Sadio Mane: Senegal
Although not set to be as defining a role in the Senegal team as his former Liverpool teammate Salah is to Egypt, Sadio Mane is still the main man for his nation. His loss to the Senegal team at the Qatar 2022 World Cup cannot be overstated. As reigning AFCON champions, the Lions of Teranga were thought to be the African team that could break through to the semifinal stage in the global event for the first time.
Without Mane, the Lions lost their bite and could not repeat their previous best of a quarterfinal appearance as they were well beaten in the group by the Netherlands and in the round of 16 by England. The 31-year-old’s 39 goals in 100 appearances for his country simply could not be replicated. It’s hard to see how Senegal defend their crown if Mane fails to fire.
3. Victor Osimhen: Nigeria
Victor Osimhen became the hottest property in world football last season when he finished as leading scorer in Serie A, helping Napoli to their first league title since 1990. Denied a crack at the 2022 Qatar World Cup by Nigeria’s playoff defeat by Ghana, AFCON 2023 marks Osimhen’s first chance to shine on the international stage.
If Nigeria are to lift their fourth crown, and only their second in 30 years, then it is likely that Osimhen will be very close to securing the tournament’s leading scorer accolade. The 25-year-old already has 20 goals in 27 appearances. There is no shortage of riches for Nigeria in their attacking options, but the 2023 African Player of the Year will need to carry either the goalscoring for his team or the workload to keep the focus of the defences on him and, in doing so, free up space for others.
— Victor Osimhen (@victorosimhen9) December 17, 2023
4. Mohammed Kudus: Ghana
Kudus has taken the Premier League by storm with West Ham this season – something a player transferring to England rarely does in their first year. The midfielder is 12th on the list in the English top flight for goals per minute – not bad for a midfielder in a team where even the strikers are demanded to work back first and foremost. The 23-year-old, who has scored 10 goals in 24 matches in all competitions for the Hammers, first caught the attention of European clubs when Danish side FC Nordsjaelland brought him from Ghana at the age of 17 – a relative latecomer in the modern football world.
His rise from there has known no bounds as, two years later, he was snapped up by Ajax where he impressed greatly in his three seasons in Amsterdam, as well as at the 2022 World Cup.
Ghana will relish the impact he could have in providing extra quality behind a forward line of the Ayew brothers and Inaki Williams.
5. Youssef En-Nesyri: Morocco
On a far different note to that of Salah, Mane and Osimhen, Youssef En-Nesyri’s performance in front of goal is likely to hold the key to Morocco’s ambitions. The historic achievement of reaching the World Cup semifinal in Qatar left their manager Walid Regragui with a clear mission ahead: to win the 2023 AFCON. To do so, Morocco need to find goals.
Their defence is their rock and is securely guarded by Sofyan Amrabat, but their attack needs to find the net more regularly and criticism has been planted at the feet of En-Nesyri. The 26-year-old’s return of 17 goals in 61 matches is not exactly an embarrassment at the international level and Regragui has highlighted the Seville striker’s work rate for the team as a key element of their success. France famously won the 1998 World Cup without a recognised goalscorer, so perhaps Morocco do not need to panic. There are, however, some incredible goal scorers at the tournament who might just pinch a tight game for their side and leave the Atlas Lions licking their wounds.
— CAF (@CAF_Online) January 10, 2024
6. Andre Onana: Cameroon
Onana’s return from international retirement in goal for Cameroon could be as problematic for the coach as it is, no doubt, welcome for the fans and his teammates. His dismissal from the World Cup squad during the tournament and subsequent retirement appeared to spell the end of this international career – at least while Rigobert Song was in charge of the team anyway.
The 27-year-old’s recall to the squad in September for the AFCON qualifiers was a shock. Whether Onana and Son have buried the hatchet or not, the ultimate sweeper keeper’s role will be vital to his team’s chances of success.
7. Riyad Mahrez: Algeria
Mahrez captained Algeria to victory in the 2019 final against Senegal but a repeat in Ivory Coast does not appear on the cards. The winger was a magician in the Premier League winning the title with both Leicester City and Manchester City.
It was with the former where a tightly knit group of players, sprinkled with some star-studded magic, defied all the odds imaginable to secure their first English top-flight crown. They had only ever been runners-up previously and that was in 1928-29. The 32-year-old, now with Al Ahli in the Saudi Pro League, has an impressive 30 goals in 89 appearances for Algeria.
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire! 📍
— CAF (@CAF_Online) January 7, 2024
8. Nicolas Pepe: Ivory Coast
Arsenal’s one-time record signing has yet to achieve his full potential and there would be no better time to do so than at an AFCON hosted in his own country. His 10 goals in 37 international appearances is hardly enough evidence to excite fans before the tournament.
With Wilfred Zaha overlooked for the squad and Sebastien Haller misfiring at Borussia Dortmund, however, Pepe seems the most likely to shine. Indeed, it was Pepe’s goal that sealed the demise of the defending champions, Algeria, at the last edition. Should both Pepe and Haller shine then, with home advantage perhaps a second AFCON, to add to their 1992 triumph, could be in store for the Elephants.
9. Hakim Ziyech: Morocco
Morocco are expected to be the team to beat at AFCON 2023, the strength in all areas is clear but it mainly lies in their defensive set up. As much as En-Nesyri must find the net more regularly, he will need help. The most likely source of goals and assist contributions to aid the striker will come from Ziyech on the flank.
The Chelsea forward, on loan at Galatasaray, has scored 20 goals in 54 international appearances and the Atlas Lions needs him to rediscover his form at FC Twente and Ajax that led to his move to Stamford Bridge in 2020.
24 managers, 24 dreaming nations behind them. One cup at stake. 🏆
— CAF (@CAF_Online) January 6, 2024
10. Yves Bissouma: Mali
Were there to be a real dark horse to emerge as contenders for the AFCON title, then Mali are a team on the move. They are unbeaten in seven matches, winning six of those including a 6-2 drubbing of Guinea-Bissau in their final warm-up match. The centre of midfielder is a particularly powerful area in terms of quality and depth for Mali but Tottenham star Bissouma has the potential to be one of the players of the tournament.
Could an AFCON to remember for the 27-year-old be enough to propel Les Aigles to their first AFCON title? Never say never and, much like the favourites Morocco, their best form of attack may be their defensive set up.
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