(Pictures: Action Images via Reuters)
The Africa Cup of Nations is fast approaching; a tournament always associated with great football, colourful crowds and some of the best footballers from one of the largest continents on the planet. This year’s competition, held in Gabon from January 14th to February 5th, should be no different.
The 16 team tournament is always an exciting, sometimes bizzare, but inevitably brilliant festival of football that fans from across the globe love to watch. Thousands cram into sweltering stadia, while millions around the world also tune in, to watch some of the world’s finest battle it out for Africa’s greatest footballing crown.
But despite the excitement and exuberance it always provides, it is also a tournament that creates a few headaches, for supporters, but especially managers, as players leave their clubs midway through the season to chase international glory.
It is usually just a hindrance to teams plying their trade in top-tiers across Europe, but this season is different, with the Championship boasting some brilliantly talented Africans.
With that in mind, here we take a look at the players leaving the EFL for AFCON 2017…
Cardiff City – Bruno Ecuele Manga (Gabon)
Much like his parent club, Bruno Manga has struggled for consistency this season, with injuries curtailing his involvement in the first team and meaning he has made just 15 appearance so far this term.
However, when fit Manga is one of the best defenders in the Championship, boasting international experience with Gabon, and was named the Bluebirds Player of the Season after the 2014/15 season so will be a big loss to Neil Warnock who is desperate for strength in depth.
Gabon themselves are seen as underdogs going into AFCON, but with the power and speed of Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang captaining them, and leading the line in their home tournament, anything could happen. There is quiet optimism that they could go deep into the competition and match showings in 1996 and 2012 which saw them reach the quarters.
Newcastle – Mohamed Diame (Senegal), Christian Atsu (Ghana)
Since joining in the summer, Toon midfielder Mohamed Diame has slowly established himself as one of the first names on Rafa Benitez’s team sheet, with powerful runs from deep a key part of Newcastle’s game plan, so his mid-season departure will be a big blow to Newcastle – especially with Jonjo Shelvey’s ongoing suspension.
With Brighton now leading the Championship with a game in a hand, and currently showing no sign of faltering, Diame’s loss could be a big one as Newcastle attempt to keep the pressure on the Seagulls and live up to their tag as Champions elect.
Senegal themselves enter the Africa Cup of Nations with high hopes, as always, and are second favourites to be crowned victorious – although this is a tournament where favourites can struggle to live up to the billing.
On-loan Chelsea winger Christian Atsu will also be leaving Newcastle for Gabon, with the pacy forward selected as part of Ghana’s squad 23-man squad.
Another player who arrived over the summer, Atsu struggled at first in the North East but is quickly becoming a fans favourite. Newcastle’s loss is Ghana’s gain however; the Black Stars are hoping to win their fifth AFCON title and are fourth favourites to do so – Atsu could be a key figure.
Aston Villa – Jonathan Kodjia (Ivory Coast), Jordan Ayew (Ghana)
After arriving in England last summer when Bristol City brought him to the football league, Jonathan Kodjia has gone on to bigger things this season and has been a star at Villa Park following his £15 million move in August.
Of all players departing the Championship for AFCON, Villa are receiving the biggest blow; Kodjia is their top-scorer this season, with ten goals in a side that has so far struggled this season, and with Jordan Ayew also travelling to Gabon with Ghana, Steve Bruce’s side could lack firepower.
While he will be a big loss for Villa, Kodjia has the hopes of a nation resting on his shoulders as Ivory Coast look to defend their crown, and once again enter this tournament as favourites. With Wilfried Bony enduring a torrid season, and the days of Didier Drogba and the golden generation long-gone, Kodjia is Les Elephants’ main man and could trouble Aubameyang for the Golden Boot.
Barnsley – Andy Yiadom (Ghana)
Another EFL player leaving the Championship for Gabon and AFCON is Andy Yiadom, Barnsley’s right-back, who has looked impressive whenever deployed this season.
Paul Heckingbottom’s side have acclimatised well to life back in the Championship, and although the goal-scoring efforts of the Tykes have gained the most plaudits, (only Newcastle have scored more this campaign) Yiadom has been part of a solid backline, and will be a big loss as the Reds continue to push for an unlikely play-off place.
Fulham – Floyd Ayite (Togo)
After a run of seven straight home wins, Fulham lost at Craven Cottage on Monday and played well – but missed the creative spark of Floyd Ayite who could have made the vital difference, and he will be big loss while away with Togo.
After arriving from Bastia, Ayite has only made 11 appearance for Slavisa Jokanovic’s men, but has been in impressive form of late, and has scored four goals to quickly become a first-choice player when available.
In a tournament that will boast technically gifted players, Ayite could be a star at the African Cup of Nations for Togo, who aren’t necessarily expected to do brilliantly but did make the quarter-finals in 2013 and still have record goalscorer Emmanuel Adebayor in their ranks.
*You can watch the Africa Cup of Nations on ITV4.
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