It’s Africa Cup of Nations time: The biennial chance for fans of Premier League clubs to have a good old moan about ‘that bloody competition’ for nicking their team’s top players for a month. Neglecting the fact that AFCON is a major event for the continent’s footballers and, like the European Championship and Copa America, it represents an opportunity for them to become national heroes, we like to rubbish the tournament as something of an inconvenience. And why not?
In a world where domestic football dominates, being stripped of key assets at such a crucial time in the campaign is hard to take. So which English teams will suffer most over the next four weeks? Well, given their difficult season to date, it’s little wonder that Leicester top the list. Last year’s surprise champions, whose own shock at claiming the Premier League title left them dumbstruck for the first five months of their defence, will be left to plug some serious holes.
The Foxes see PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez link up with Algeria, where he’s joined by goalscorer-in-chief Islam Slimani, while midfield dynamo Daniel Amartey has been picked by Ghana. That’s a big ol’ chunk taken out of the spine of the side. In fact, between them, the trio have managed 3,793 Premier League minutes this season – out of a possible 5,400. Their creativity and industry affected, it’s just as well Claudio Ranieri’s side don’t have any tricky matches coming up. Oh, wait, Chelsea visit the King Power on Saturday.
Premier League players don’t quite guarantee AFCON success, however
Of the last ten teams who have made the final in the previous five tournaments (10 squads of 23 players apiece), only 18 players hailed from the Premier League, equal to a little under eight per cent of that 230-player total. Algeria may therefore be wise to not count their chickens simply based on the pedigree of player joining them in Gabon this year.
The Blues, meanwhile, are one of seven Premier League teams not to be afflicted in the slightest by seasonal player departure disorder. Antonio Conte, like Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, doesn’t have any AFCON-bound squad members. While Sadio Mane’s national service with Senegal might affect Liverpool’s title chance – after all, the Reds have failed to score in the two games he’s missed so far – Manchester City have no cause for concern.
AFCON loyalties have influenced Premier League success in recent years
Chelsea (2014-15), Manchester United (2012-13) and Manchester City (2011-12) have each won the English top flight crown in season that the Africa Cup of Nations has taken place, with one common denominator—none of them sent any players to the tournament during the respective years in which they won those aforementioned titles.
In fact, Chelsea were the last team to buck the trend in 2009-10, when four Blues travelled to Angola for that’s year’s competition – Michael Essien (Ghana), John Mikel Obi (Nigeria), Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba (both Ivory Coast) – before the west Londoners won the league.
The Africa Cup of Nations has a habit of disregarding player prestige when it comes to producing champions
Europe is largely seen as the haven of elite footballers, yet three of the past five champions have boasted fewer European-based players in their squads – equal to a 60 per cent win rate – while 2013 finalists Nigeria and Burkina Faso had an equal share of players based outside the continent (eight).
Following Yaya Toure’s international retirement and his kiss-and-make-up session with Pep Guardiola, the powerhouse Ivorian will have his mind fully focused on the job at hand on the domestic front. David Moyes – perhaps not for the first time – will be looking at Guardiola through green-tinted glasses; the Scot’s envy exacerbated by the fact he will be without three key players in Sunderland’s battle against the drop. Record signing Didier Ndong is gone, representing host nation Gabon, and tricky forward Wahbi Khazri links up with Tunisia. Rock-solid centre back Lamine Kone is in the Senegal squad, and a John O’Shea-Papy Djilobodji defensive partnership doesn’t scream ‘survival’.
Between Ndong, Khazri and Kone are 3,221 Premier League minutes this season. The groan from the Stadium of Light can reportedly be heard from Libreville. Luckily for the Black Cats, they aren’t the only relegation strugglers to be floundering after the departures of key stars. Hull’s miserable campaign continues with Ahmed Elmohamady’s summons into the Egypt setup, even though he didn’t play a single second for his country in qualifying. Elmohamady has played all but 151 minutes of the Tigers’ league season and will be a big miss. He’s joined in Gabon by Dieumerci Mbokani – not that Hull will be thanking anyone for that. A gag for French speakers, there.
The AFCON runs from Saturday, January 14 until February 5. Prepare for a lot of Premier League moaning.