African Nations Cup: Aubameyang, Mahrez top list of players to watch

It’s been a while since Africa had a world star boasting the status of George Weah, Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o but there will be no lack of key players with lofty ambitions when the African Nations Cup finals kicks off in Gabon on Saturday.

A total of 368 players competing for the 16 teams at the tournament hail from a broad spectrum of clubs from giants like Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain to teams in the amateur leagues in France and Portugal and as far afield as Iceland, Moldova and Vietnam.

For the fans, though, eyes will be firmly fixed on the top stars who will bring the crowds into to the stadiums as their footballing heroes return to their home continent in the hope of going back to their clubs as all conquering heroes.

These will be the key players to watch out at the African Nations Cup finals, which conclude on Feb. 5.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, FW, Borussia Dortmund and Gabon

The Gabon superstar brings a rich vein of scoring form from the Bundesliga to his role as Gabon’s leading player but he carries a heavy burden of responsibility in a team where the supply line will be nothing like that he enjoys at Borussia Dortmund. Often it can be a frustrating exercise for the French-born forward; he’ll be greeted with the biggest roars of the tournament but it remains to be seen whether the demi-God status spurs him on or proves suffocating.

Andre “Dede” Ayew, West Ham and Ghana

Recently back from injury, the African Nations Cup is increasingly becoming a quest for the 27-year-old from Ghana. His father Abedi Pele was a teenager when Ghana last won the title in 1982 but memorably missed out a decade later when they were beaten on post match penalties by the Ivory Coast and Abedi had to sit the game out because of suspension.

Son Andre, who moved to West Ham in the summer, was still relatively new to the team when an injury-ravaged Ghana succumbed to a late goal to Egypt in Luanda in 2010 but he was a senior figure in the final five years later when Ghana narrowly failed again, this time in the lottery of the penalty shootout. Images of a tearful Ayew in the wake of the defeat remain among the more abiding from the 2015 tournament in Equatorial Guinea.

Riyad Mahrez, MF, Leicester City and Algeria

Having just pipped both Aubameyang and Sadio Mane to the 2016 African Footballer of the Year award, the pressure is on Mahrez to resurrect a reputation that’s taken a battering over the last months as he struggled with form at Leicester City. But his penetrating runs and set piece ability make him a major cog for Algerian side and away from all the attention on the fields in England, he could flourish in a different forum. Algeria have high hopes of cup success that could reignite their World Cup qualifying campaign.

Sadio Mane, FW, Liverpool and Senegal

It’s ironic that Mane’s role for Senegal, flirting across the midfield and hanging out wide to take on opposing defenders, comes in tandem with the protection of a Merseyside rival. Idrissa Gueye of Everton is the bruiser who sits behind the Liverpool man in the Senegal line-up and works to open up opportunities for Mane to take on opposing defences. Mane creates more than he scores for Senegal but is often the perfect foil for the striking pair of Moussa Sow and Balde Keita.

Mohamed Salah, FW, AS Roma and Egypt

Chelsea found the quick Egyptian attacker surplus to requirements but he has had an impressive run in Serie A, first on loan with Fiorentina and now on a permanent basis at Roma. Egypt’s new-look team, returning after a seven-year absence to the finals, have Salah at the heart of their attack. His pace on the break has proven especially useful in recent clashes, notably the World Cup qualifiers that have put the Pharaohs on course for a possible place in Russia as well.

Source: ESPN