The African Cup of Nations: An Unwelcome Inconvenience?

The Premier League set for mass exodus.

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Never would I have thought that I would be writing an article about the ‘problems’ facing a team with centre midfield options ‘restricted’ to James Milner, Gareth Barry, Owen Hargeaves and Nigel de Jong. Four international footballers who are bonafide world class players and all, I’m sure, would walk into any team in the Premier League.

And yet, Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini will no doubt be rueing Yaya Touré’s imminent departure for the African Cup of Nations which begins on the 21st of January.

Touré is a huge driving force for The Citizens, with 5 goals already to his name this season, and his ability and importance could perhaps not be better evidenced than it was in his display in Tuesday night’s 3-0 drubbing of Liverpool, in which he drew the penalty from Martin Skrtel following a fantastic run from the halfway line that led to the final goal of the game and where he was denied the Man of the Match award only by the back-line brilliance of club captain Vincent Kompany. Touré is the type of box-to-box midfielder that any manager would pay top dollar to have in their starting XI; Roberto Mancini clearly agreed when he brought the Ivorian to Eastlands from Barcelona for a reported £24 million, and just last month the 28-year old was crowned as the 2011 African Player of the Year.

Now, Touré is one of ten players who could leave the Premier League this month to represent their respective countries at Africa’s biggest international competition. Older brother Kolo Touré is another Manchester City player leaving for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, although his absence from the side over the past six months for failing a drug test has meant that Kompany and Joleon Lescott have formed a formidable partnership at the heart of the league-leaders’ defence and, as a result, will know they are very capable without the former Arsenal man.

If I asked the question ‘Who was the signing of the summer in 2011’s offseason?’, I’d have trouble arguing with someone who gave Demba Ba as their response. The Senegalese striker signed for Newcastle United on a free transfer following West Ham’s relegation to the Championship and has gone on to score 15 league goals this season already; only Robin van Persie has found the net more frequently. As Ba boards the plane for central Africa, therefore, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew could be forgiven for having a tear in his eye, as he also looks set to lose star midfielder and reportedly Manchester United target Cheik Tioté. Their back-up striking options of the Ameboi brothers, Peter Lovenkrands and Leon Best will look to use Ba’s short-term departure as an opportunity to cement a first-team place, but questions must be asked as to whether they have that same va-va-voom.

Speaking of va-va-voom, Arsenal legend Thierry Henry is expected to make his loan return to North London official any minute now, just in time to wish a safe trip to another Ivorian plying his trade in England’s top tier, Gervinho. The dodgy-haired striker has come under criticism this season for some questionable finishing, but there can be no doubting the fact that he has a role to play when the Gunners go forward as part of a front three that also involves van Persie and England winger Theo Walcott. Henry could fill that Gervinho-shaped hole on the left for the coming month as he could throw back to the role he played in a Barcelona team with Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o that was enough to keep defenders awake for hours into the night. Andrey Arshavin, disappointing so far this season could also be given a returning place in the Arsenal attack, although Wenger may look more closely at teenage sensation and England Under-21s winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Similarly, the departure of Ivory Coast powerhouse Didier Drogba could mean a greater run of fixtures for misfiring striker Fernando Torres. Torres signed for Chelsea for £50 million but has disappointed many by only scoring 3 times in his first 27 games for the Blues. Can Drogba’s absence lead to an increase in Torres’ self-belief and goalscoring tally?

Elsewhere QPR will lose two of their star players in Moroccan playmaker Adel Taarabt and Senegalese left-back Armand Traoré; Chelsea will be without wantaway Ivorian forward Solomon Kalou; and Wigan will also notice the tournament pinching their Senegalese midfielder Mohamed Diamé.

Some fans will miss their team’s stars, some players will see their teammate’s departure as an opportunity, a chance to shine. But what of the players for whom there were no seats on the plane?

Several of the Premier League’s managers will be wiping their brows, grateful for the fact that their African stars will not be entering the competition. Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill will surely be pleased at Benin’s failure to qualify for the tournament as it means he can keep hold of arguably his best player in midfield maestro Stéphane Sessègnon.

Emmanuel Adebayor will stay at Spurs after his native Togo failed to qualify for the tournament. Perhaps the biggest shock of the African Cup of Nations qualifying phase was the failures of the Nigerian national team. With six Nigerian internationals representing Premier League clubs (Yakubu, Peter Odemwingie, John Obi Mikel, Dickson Etuhu, Victor Moses and Victor Anichebe), I’m sure there are plenty of managers and fans alike who will be pleased by the surprise pre-mature exit.

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