Five players to watch out for at AFCON 2017

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New African Footballer of the Year and Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez tops a cast of stars heading to Gabon this week for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

Here, we select five footballers worth keeping a close eye on when the biennial 16-team competition bursts into action this Saturday:

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG (Gabon)

The 27-year-old striker has been averaging a goal a game this season for Borussia Dortmund to top the Bundesliga scorers’ chart going into the mid-season break.

After being crowned 2015 African Footballer of the Year, the France-born son of a Gabonese father and a Spanish mother finished runner-up to lethal Leicester City weapon Mahrez in the latest poll.

He will be desperate to do well for Gabon as his failure to convert a shootout penalty condemned the 2012 Cup of Nations co-hosts to a quarter-finals defeat by Mali.

SERGE AURIER (Ivory Coast)

The 24-year-old Paris-Saint Germain defender was constantly in the media spotlight last year, but many of the headlines he created had little to do with football.

He labelled team-mate Angel Di Maria a “clown”, made homophobic insults against then PSG coach Laurent Blanc, struck a Paris police officer and made a throat-slitting gesture after an Ivory Coast game.

But the right-back was hailed as a hero last November when he saved the life of a Mali opponent in a World Cup qualifier by preventing the injured footballer swallowing his tongue.

ANDRE AYEW (Ghana)

Sidelined by injury for much of this English Premier League season, the absence of the 27-year-old West Ham United midfielder has been sorely felt by misfiring Ghana.

No Ayew meant there was little creativity from the four-time African champions, who have won only one of their last five Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers.

Captain and striker Asamoah Gyan will be particularly happy to see ‘Dede’ back in the national team as his form has been embarrassingly poor, due partly to a lack of quality service.

RIYAD MAHREZ (Algeria)

Being voted 2016 African Footballer of the Year crowned a special spell in the career of the 25-year-old who helped Leicester City to a sensational Premier League title last season.

He was also named Premier League Players’ Player of the Season, BBC African Footballer of the Year and made the FIFA Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or lists too.

But his form, and the results of Leicester and Algeria, have gone off the boil lately, placing pressure on the man who has succeeded Sofiane Feghouli as the football icon of the north African nation.

SADIO MANE (Senegal)

After disastrous 2012 and 2015 Cup of Nations campaigns, success-starved Senegalese supporters hope Liverpool striker Mane can trigger a change in fortunes.

The Teranga Lions lost all three matches five years ago and won only one two years ago as two ventures into central Africa turned sour despite star-stacked squads.

Liverwire attacker Mane, third in the 2016 African Footballer of the Year poll behind Mahrez and Aubameyang, has been consistently impressive for the title-chasing Merseysiders this season.

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Can a North Africa Arab nation win AFCON 2017?

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Who will shine in Gabon?

The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on January 14 in Libreville, Gabon, as the world’s eyes turn to the Central African country.

Among the challengers for continental glory will be North Africa’s Arab nations, who have respectively developed a reputation as technically astute and tactically sound outfits.

For this edition of the tournament, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco will each compete for AFCON 2017 honours.

All four sides have coaches leading them into a major tournament for the first time.

And Sport360 weighs up the respective prospects of each side and how far each team can go in the 2017 edition of the event.

Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

EGYPT

Egypt make their long-awaited return to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017. The seven-time champions will appear at the biennial tournament for the first time in seven years – putting the political, economic and social turmoil of the 2011 revolution behind them.

Since then the Egyptian Premier League has stuttered on and off, operating only intermittently, with the instability of the domestic league proving a veritable handicap to a unit that relies so heavily on its domestic talent.

A false dawn of sorts occurred when Bob Bradley was brought on during the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign but after a successful group stage his side were trounced 6-1 by Ghana in the play-off.

Cue the arrival of Hector Cuper.

Cuper was, for many, an uninspiring appointment. At 61 years of age, he had undoubtedly enjoyed success at the biggest European clubs, but had also developed a reputation for failing when it mattered most. The Argentine manager lost two UEFA Champions League finals and consistently finished as a runner-up in league play.

But with a crop of fresh faces ready to learn, Cuper has forged a new identity for this Egyptian side. Gone are the days of a widespread, homogeneous Hassan Shehata-led Egypt that would dominate possession and attack down various avenues.

Cuper’s Pharaohs revel in the counter-attack, utilising the pace of Mohamed Salah to stretch the opposition. Curiously, Cuper has been censured in the local press for doing exactly what he was brought in to do – win ugly, but Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny nicely summed up Egypt’s style of play after a win against Ghana last year, saying: “We play in a realistic way. The result is important for us, more important than the performance.”

LIKELIHOOD OF WINNING AFCON: 6/10 – There’s an air of familiarity in Group D as Uganda, Ghana and Egypt have found themselves in the same group in the Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifying. If the Pharaohs can defend set-pieces and continue to provide a threat on the counter-attack, they can make the final eight but are unlikely to go any further.

ALGERIA

Georges Leekens is in the embryonic stages of his second spell at the helm of the Algerian national team. When Belgian coach Leekens first took over in Algiers, back in 2003, the decrepit working conditions appalled him.

“I knew it would be a tough assignment and that’s why it took two months to think it over, but I never imagined it would be so hard.” Leekens told Voetbal magazine in 2003. “There is no organisation, there are no telephones and no proper offices.”

Despite the logistical frailties, Leekens helped Algeria qualify for the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations but just as the final preparations were being put into place, Leekens tendered his resignation, citing personal issues. Many in the country took umbrage with the untimeliness of the move, and Leekens further exacerbated matters by joining Excelsior Mouscron in his native Belgium a few months later.

While it is true that Leeskens is infinitely better equipped this time round, it is also true that the task at hand is manifestly more complicated. Expectations in Algeria are at an all-time high as supporters are in arms over Les Fennecs only collecting one point from a possible six in World Cup qualifying.

The consensus is that Leekens has the best squad at his disposal since Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi performed wonders with the golden generation of the 1980s. The Belgian boss, for instance, can call upon the likes of Yacine Brahimi and Riyad Mahrez in attacking midfield and Islam Slimani in attack.

Nevertheless, Leekens will travel to Gabon delicately riding a wave of pessimism. A string of poor results may anger a posse of players who forced the previous manager, Milovan Rajevac, to resign.

LIKELIHOOD OF WINNING AFCON: 8/10 – No one quite knows how Algeria will do in Gabon. Les Fennecs may be the most impressive side on paper, but are currently mired in negativity. They could just as easily crash out in the group stages as win their second ever title.

TUNISIA

Like Leekens, Henryk Kasperczak is a familiar name in North Africa. The former Poland midfielder was on the touchline when the Carthage Eagles qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France, coaching the team to a respectable group stage exit before searching for greener pastures.

Fast-forward two decades and Kasperczak has rediscovered his mojo with the North Africans. Staying true to his pragmatic tactical approach, the 70-year-old has only lost one of his past 10 matches. Tunisia comfortably qualified for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations and are now sitting pretty atop Group A of World Cup qualifiers too.

Kasperczak’s record is slightly tainted by the fact that he has espoused a cautious approach, often fielding five defenders, while critics also point out that his side are yet to be truly tested by genuine African heavyweights.

With experienced heads in crucial positions, however, the Tunisians will pose a problem for any opponent they come up against in Gabon. As they were in 2015, the North Africans will be difficult to break down in defence, with Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri tasked with conjuring game-changing moments of magic in attack.

LIKELIHOOD OF WINNING AFCON: 5/10 – Prediction – Tunisia may lack the more obvious quality of Algeria or Senegal in Group B, but do carry good form into the tournament. Unfortunately, it isn’t likely that they will progress from this Group of Death.

MOROCCO

The journeyman tag is one that is often thrown around in African football. It is not, however, necessarily pejorative, as Hervé Renard has demonstrated. The handsome, white-shirted meneur d’homme is the true inheritor of the legacy of Claude LeRoy: a witch doctor who is respected for thoroughly immersing himself in his craft.

After becoming the only coach to win the Africa Cup of Nations with two different nations, Renard opted to try and make a name for himself back home in the north of France with Lille. However, a drab six-month start to the season was enough to earn him the sack. Renard left France disillusioned with fickle bosses and predatory media outlets.

Once more available on the African market, Renard accepted an attractive offer from the Moroccan Federation. With the necessary infrastructure and a talented pool of players, the Savoyard is looking to expand on his already impressive record by becoming the first coach to win the Cup of Nations with three different national teams.

To achieve that goal, Renard will rely on a wealth of riches at in attack. Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech, Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal, Saint-Etienne’s Oussama Tannane, and Nice’s rejuvenated Younes Belhanda are some of the names that may take the unsuspecting continent by storm and guide the Atlas Lions to glory.

LIKELIHOOD OF WINNING AFCON: 7/10 – The Atlas Lions will rely heavily on Renard’s knowledge of 2015 African champions Ivory Coast to get out of Group C. As they lack a bona fide striker, Morocco may struggle in the advanced stages of this tournament, but have the wherewithal to make it to the quarter-finals.

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The 21 EPL players going to AFCON 2017

Liverpool star man Sadio Mane will be joined by Riyad Mahrez, Eric Bailly, Mohamed Elneny and a host of other Premier League players when the African Cup of Nations kicks on January 14.

With the final squads announced, here’s the full list of Premier League players going to Gabon:

BOURNEMOUTH: Max Gradel (Ivory Coast)

ARSENAL: Mohamed Elneny (Egypt)

BURNLEY: None

CHELSEA: None

CRYSTAL PALACE: Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast), Bakary Sako (Mali)

EVERTON: Idrissa Gueye (Senegal)

HULL CITY: Dieumerci Mbokani (DR Congo), Ahmed Elmohamady (Egypt)

LEICESTER CITY: Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)

LIVERPOOL: Sadio Mané (Senegal)

MANCHESTER CITY: None

MANCHESTER UNITED: Eric Bailly (Ivory Coast)

MIDDLESBROUGH: None

SOUTHAMPTON: Sofiane Boufal (Morocco)

STOKE CITY: Mame Biram Diouf (Senegal), Wilfried Bony (Ivory Coast), Ramadan Sobhi (Egypt)

SUNDERLAND: Didier N’Dong (Gabon), Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia), Lamine Koné (Ivory Coast)

SWANSEA: None

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: None

WATFORD: Adlene Guedioura (Algeria), Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)

WEST BROM: None

WEST HAM: Cheikhou Kouyaté (Senegal)

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