Six months ago, Eric Bailly was a relative unknown to the Premier League and although many of them won’t admit it, the majority of Manchester United fans will have had no clue who he was either.
With that in mind, the ease with which he has seamlessly integrated into the first team squad of one of the world’s biggest and most scrutinised clubs is staggering.
Plucked from Villareal as Jose Mourinho’s signature first signing, the 22-year-old earned the man-of-the-match award on his competitive debut, a 2-1 Community Shield victory against Premier League champions Leicester City in August.
You’d probably have to go back to Wayne Rooney to find such a young player who looked like he belonged from the very beginning.
Far from performing like a typical promising youngster thrown in at the deep end, Bailly has looked nearly flawless and any mistakes have been minimal. Stats show he has averaged more tackles (2.6) and more interceptions (3.2) per 90 minutes than United’s other centre-backs, while Mourinho said of him: “he is not experienced at this level, but he looks very comfortable at such a big club. For other guys it is different.”
When you learn more about him, however, it’s perhaps not so difficult to fathom why he looks so at home. Bailly was an African Cup of Nations champion with the Ivory Coast, aged just 20, two years ago. He started every single game in Equatorial Guinea as the Elephants claimed a second continental title with a penalty shootout victory against Ghana.
He was soon on his way to the Yellow Submarine from Espanyol for ¤5.7 million (Dh22m), the transfer going through before the trophy was even lifted.
As defending champions, Michel Dussuyer’s men have a target on their backs right now in Gabon, but Bailly embraces the pressure on their shoulders.
“The title of being a defending champion gives us more motivation to go and win it again,” the Bingerville-born defender told Sport360 at the Ivorians’ pre-AFCON training camp in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s a positive pressure because we have to go and defend our title. We know that we need courage to go and do that.”
Although he was raw back in 2015 – he had only played five games for Espanyol’s first team – Bailly had legends like the Toure brothers and Roma forward Gervinho alongside him. Yaya and Kolo have since retired from international football, while former Arsenal man Gervinho is ruled out with injury.
Fellow icons Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora and Emmanuel Eboue are also long gone, so Bailly, with a medal already to his name, is now one of the most senior players. Again, this does not trouble a man who looked at ease during the Ivorians’ opening 0-0 Group C draw against Togo on Monday.
“It’s not about taking those players’ places, it’s about coming here and giving your best,” he added, calmly.
“We know those players did a great job for the team. Now it is the young players’ duty to step in and give their best and try to push the team forward.”
Talking following training at New York University earlier this month, Bailly added: “It’s a wonderful feeling to be with my team-mates and training here.
“Everything is going perfectly. I am happy to be back in the team and preparing myself.”
At club level, life is also pretty perfect. Bailly established himself early as one of Mourinho’s first-choice centre-backs, with Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind all fighting for the spot beside him.
A knee ligament injury suffered in the 4-0 drubbing by Chelsea in October ruled him out for eight games.
When he’s been on the field though, he’s been a rock; composed, strong and lightening quick. Arguably the one player above any other who finally looks a clear heir to Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic.
United are also beginning to finally click under their Portuguese boss and Bailly is clearly happy with the embryonic stages to his life at Old Trafford, so much so that he’s already looking to stay well beyond his initial four-year contract.
“Hopefully I can play in Manchester all my life,” said Bailly when asked about his future ambitions with the Red Devils.
“I am very happy here because it is such a great club. It is such an honour to play for this club and I hope I can continue giving my best and become a great player in this club. I thank everyone, all the fans and everyone at the organisation.”
Although content with how life has begun in the famous red jersey, Bailly is not your typical, naïve early twenty-something footballer who seems to know it all. He is keenly aware the limelight can quickly fade and that starring for United cannot be taken for granted – just like Nick Powell, Federico Macheda, Memphis Depay and compatriot Wilfired Zaha seemed to do before him.
“It’s difficult to claim the position of being a first team player but I have to enjoy every minute I get at this club because it’s a wonderful club and I am very happy to be there and to be part of it,” added Bailly.
“I am happy to be at such a big club. I never dreamed a better dream than playing for Man United. Hopefully I can enjoy every bit of it every day.”
Bailly hit the ground running in the north of England, while more established names found it difficult to get a footing or find their stride. Fellow summer arrival Paul Pogba, though, is now blossoming since his world record £105m (Dh408m) return from Juventus, while Mourinho is also beginning to stamp his mark on the club that has suffered so chronically dealing with the loss of Sir Alex Ferguson.
French midfield marauder Pogba even spoke earlier this month of a belief in the dressing room that this season’s Premier League title is not beyond them.
Bailly, predictably, is not so bold, but does feel like something special might be beginning to stir and that the winds of change could be about to sweep along Sir Matt Busby Way.
He said: “There are a lot of new players and the coach is new. Now we are noting that the team is gelling together and creating a good atmosphere, and we are having the results too.
“We know that with a coach like Mourinho he can bring the best out of players, so I am very confident that this team can go further. The players are getting a good understanding both on and off the pitch.”
Junior Kabananga pounced on a goalkeeping error to give the Democratic Republic of Congo a 1-0 win over Morocco in an Africa Cup of Nations upset on Monday in Gabon.
Kazakhstan-based midfielder Kabananga profited from a mistake by Munir Mohamedi in the Morocco goal to score from close range 10 minutes into the second half.
As a result, Kabananga is our AFCON Player of the Day having scored the only goal of the two matches to take place on Sunday, January 16.
Success came two days after the central Africans refused to train over a bonuses row and a red card and an injury meant they were briefly reduced to nine men in the closing stages.
Victory took the “Congolese Leopards” to the top of Group C after the opening round as defending champions the Ivory Coast were held 0-0 by Togo in the first half of a double-header.
The Africa Cup of Nations is upon us and of course Egypt are one of the favourites for the trophy, but that’s more based on their history in the competition, rather than from a technical stand point.
The technical favourite has different characteristics, most importantly not being absent from the last three editions of the Africa Cup of Nations like Egypt has been. The majority of Egyptian players of this current generation lack experience in the competition.
Only four players, Essam El Hadary, Ahmed Fathi, Ahmed Elmohamady and Mohamed Abdelshafy, have competed in the Africa Cup before and only two or three of them will be on the pitch. Past experience plays a critical role in these kinds of tournaments.
There are several other teams with far more continental experience while the Egyptian squad has about 20 players who have only watched the Cup on TV.
Being a favourite does not necessarily translate into victory. I expect the team to perform well but in terms of actually competing for the title and winning it, I think, realistically, is going to be difficult.
There’s nothing that can replace the experience of actually taking part in this competition because it’s completely different to playing any other games. I vividly remember my first Africa Cup of Nations in 1996; it had a very special feel to it.
Pharaohs coach, Hector Cuper, has had good results with Egypt so far yet he hasn’t escaped criticism (mainly for his defensive philosophy). But this is normal because Egyptians are very critical by nature and Cuper is not the only one to be on the receiving end of this kind of flak; the late Mahmoud El Gohary led Egypt to the World Cup in 1990 yet still came under-fire at times.
I think Egypt’s main goal is very clear right now, which is to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup (for the first time since 1990).
Of course we hope that our return to the Africa Cup is a fruitful one and that we can win but the good results we’ve had so far in the World Cup qualifiers have given us, as a Football Association and a national team, the motivation to seek more. In terms of the players to look out for in the squad, I believe Mohamed Salah, Ramadan Sobhi and Trezeguet (Mahmoud Hassan) will make quite the impact in Gabon.
The current squad has a decent number of players regularly playing abroad, along with stars from Cairo’s Ahly and Zamalek. Cuper knows he has more than enough talent on the team and he has complete faith in them, which is why he discarded several players who have been doing really well domestically in the Egyptian Premier League.
As for the competition we are facing, there are multiple teams that can be considered favourites for the Africa Cup of Nations, with Algeria being the clear frontrunner in my opinion. They have a great group of players, who play well together and are regular starters for big clubs abroad. Senegal and Ivory Coast will also be contenders.