The African Cup of Nations is a fantastic platform for players to make an impression and possibly go on to bigger things in their careers. Sam Crocker selects his five standout players from the 2015 tournament.
MF – Papakouli Diop (Senegal )
In a team that was more akin to a forest of strong, giant redwoods than a football team, the tiny 5 ft 11 inch Papakouli Diop was one of the more impressive players during Senegal’s eventual tumbling out of AFCON at the group stage, bringing a rare element of grace to the heavy aerial style purveyed by his country.
Positioned in the centre of midfield or on the flank of a front three by Giresse during the tournament, Diop was a rare route between the Senegalese midfield and attack, as one of the few members of the squad with the ability on the ball capable of playing such a role. Possessing both strength and dribbling ability, Diop was one of the side’s best players during the tournament, as their fundamental lack of options beyond the aerial route ended up being their downfall.
Playing for Levante in La Liga primarily as a defensive midfielder, he was subjected to monkey chants by Atletico Madrid last year – responding by dancing in front of them. This tournament will have no doubt left a positive impression on those who watch him, just in case he fancies a move to a country he does not have to come up with such unique responses to racist abuse.
DF – Chancel Mbemba (DR Congo)
The Belgium-based Congolese defender had an absolutely superb Africa Cup of Nations, as he confirmed to the continent what fans of his club Anderlecht have been lauding him for for a long time – despite playing in a slightly different role to normal.
Largely used as a full-back for Anderlecht, Mbemba excelled in his defensive midfield role for his country this tournament, despite only having five caps prior to the tournament’s start. Displaying a remarkable mix of defensive solidity and competence when in possession, the comparisons the Vincent Kompany have been flying out of Belgium, proving to be arguably his country’s best player during their run to the semi-finals.
With Belgium a hotbed for plucking talent for a number of the top leagues in Europe, whether Mbemba remains where he currently is remains to be seen, but would seem that this tournament has done no harm to his chances of earning a move. The only issue any potential buyers must consider is the dispute over his age, having been registered with a number of different dates of birth in recent years, brought out during a lawsuit between Anderlecht and previous club ES La Grace.
GK – Felipe Ovono (Equatorial Guinea)
Star of part-time Deportivo Mongomo in the Equatoguinean Premier League, Felipe Ovono has risen to the goalkeeping summit of AFCON this tournament, putting in the best performance of any other glove bearer – despite his youth and inexperience.
The 21-year-old has proven to be something of a revelation for the hosts, an integral part of their overwhelming run to the semi-finals, utilising his evident talent and showmanship to drive his team forward from the back.
Demonstrating remarkable composure, his consistent ability to competently claim crosses and save the myriad of shots that regularly came his was throughout the competition, the rest of his team owe a lot to Ovono’s actions this tournament – as would have been a lot more embarrassing in front of their home fans otherwise. Making the most saves of any other keeper at this competition, his manipulation of the active crowd by laying on the ball for the extra couple of seconds to ignite cheers from his national fans made a considerable difference to the atmosphere, and made them a considerably more difficult side to beat.
Interesting whisper heard here today – Eq Guinea ‘keeper Felipe Ovono could join Barcelona B or an unnamed English club.
— Nick Ames (@NickAmes82) February 9, 2015
His performances cannot have gone unnoticed, and given the probable lack of scouting of the Equatoguinean Premier League, this tournament has acted as the ideal outlet for his ability. Given that the rest of his national team play everywhere from Andorra to Hong Kong, quite where he’ll end up is difficult to predict, but you’d imagine that a team in Europe would be willing to take a punt from an unprospected well of football.
DF – Wilfried Kanon (Ivory Coast)
Introduced into a new-look Ivorian defence created by Herve Renard for this tournament, Wilfried Kanon has been 50% of the duo that has revolutionised the way people perceive the Ivorian backline, from defensive calamity to stout, assured unit that has frustrated every opposition it has come up against thus far.
Brought in alongside Eric Bailly as part of a three-man defensive system marshalled by Kolo Toure, Kanon and Bailly have coped remarkably well with the pressure they been put under, having been thrown in at the deep end – with neither having played a competitive game for their country prior to this tournament. Both playing for ADO Den Haag when this tournament started, Bailly has already been picked up by Villareal at the end of the January window, leaving young Kanon still available for a transfer soon enough.
— Howler Magazine (@whatahowler) February 4, 2015
Gaining a reputation as an assured centre-back, comfortable with the ball at his feet as he is engaging in his defensive duties, he deserves immense credit for his performances so far – and allows Ivorians to get excited that there may be life in their defence for when Kolo Toure retires the orange shirts of Les Elephants after this competition. Getting on the scoresheet in the semi-final win over DR Congo, Kanon a team a readymade centre-back/left-back, with bags of potential and a capability of dealing with sudden pressure.
DF – Baba Rahman (Ghana)
Fitting seamlessly into this Ghana team since first making his debut just six months ago, Baba Rahman has cemented his place in the future of this Black Stars side for years to come, as one of their best players in their run to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations.
A perpetual problem that has dogged the team for some time, Rahman solves the left-back conundrum that has been dominating discussion amongst Black Stars fans, proving himself capable of playing a variety of roles on the left-side of the defence. Starting off as a wing-back during manager Avram Grant’s trial of three-at-the-back at the beginning of the tournament, he has reverted to a standard back four with equal ease, showing himself to be the answer to the left-back problem whilst also freeing up players to feature in more useful positions.
I dont understand how how Baba Rahman was not included in the AFCON XI!! This guy was the find of the tournament, no doubt
— Yayo (@Yaw_Twum) February 10, 2015
Whilst Kwadwo Asamoah was injured for this tournament, his use at left-back during the World Cup was roundly criticised – given he is arguably the team’s best player – so the rise of Rahman allows Asamoah to feature in a more useful role in the midfield.
Rahman – who currently enjoying an excellent season with an impressive Augsburg side in the Bundesliga – still has age on his side as well. At just 20-years-old, he already has over two seasons of regular football under his belt, having spent the last couple of years at fellow German club Greuther Furth – before his move to Augsburg last summer.
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