African Cup of Nations: Five emerging talents

By Online Editorial

African Cup of Nations

Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien will be strutting their stuff in Angola this month, but Ben Lyttleton talks us through the qualities of five slightly lesser-known players worth looking out for.

Achille Emana, Cameroon:

Two things have helped Samuel Eto’o become the brilliant player he was at Barcelona. and now Inter Milan, when playing for Cameroon. One is the captain’s armband, which coach Paul Le Guen gave him after he realised that Eto’o was not performing to his potential for his country. The other is Achille Emana, playing in a role just off Eto’o, as a strike-partner that Cameroon’s star-man has missed since Patrick Mboma retired in 2004.

Emana ran away from home aged 11 and phoned his parents when he reached Spain, to tell them he was at the Valencia youth academy. When he turned 18, then-coach Claudio Ranieri said he could leave, so he ended up at French third-division club Toulouse, whom he helped reach Ligue 1 and then the Champions League. Despite interest from England, he moved to Real Betis and was their top scorer last season, though they were relegated from La Liga.

In the past he has threatened to quit the Cameroon set-up but Le Guen has made him a valued member of the squad and his partnership with Eto’o is one of the reasons Cameroon are (1.63) to top Group D and (6.6) second-favourites to win the trophy. This season Emana has been trying to engineer a move away from Sevilla, and this tournament represents an ideal opportunity to show his ability during the January transfer-window.

Mohamed Zidan, Egypt:

The two-times reigning African champions will have a very different look in Angola after coach Hassan Shehata left out Amr Zaki and Mohamed Aboutrika because of injuries and dropped Mido from the squad entirely. That will leave much of the scoring burden on the shoulders of Borussia Dortmund striker Zidan, whose relationship with the national team began on shaky ground but has blossomed in recent years.

Zidan was playing at Mainz in 2006, when Shehata claimed that he had refused a call-up to the Egypt squad for the 2006 African Cup of Nations. Zidan said he had a leg injury and briefly threatened to play for Denmark, as he had spent five years playing there. Instead, he committed to Egypt and it proved an inspired decision in the 2008 tournament: in Ghana, he scored two goals in Egypt’s crucial 4-2 group stage win over Cameroon, and against the same opposition in the final, robbed Rigobert Song to set up Aboutrika for the winning goal.

Zidan is an outspoken critic of his team-mates, like Aboutrika, who have not taken on the challenge of testing themselves in Europe. He proved last year that he is a player for the big occasion but if Egypt, (2.3) to top Group C and (10.0) for the tournament, are to make it three titles in a row, he will have to be at his best.

Mahamadou Diarra, Mali:

Diarra has become a peripheral figure at Real Madrid since a knee ligament injury last October persuaded the club to sign Lassana Diarra as his replacement, and this season it is ‘Lass’ who is the first-choice defensive midfielder alongside Xabi Alonso, while Mahamadou, signed from Lyon for €25m in summer 2006, waits his turn.

If it’s games Diarra is after though, the African Cup of Nations cannot come soon enough for him: he is Mali’s team captain and holds together an experienced midfield alongside Barcelona’s Seydou Keita and Juventus’s Momo Sissoko. Diarra has spoken of the importance playing for his country, saying: “When I get off the plane and I put my foot on native soil, I feel a sort of interior peace, as if I was leaving at the airport the tons of
stress I carry on my back in Europe.”

After an early career that took in spells at OFI Crete and Vitesse Arnhem (where he was coached by Ronald Koeman, “my European dad”) before Lyon, Diarra’s career seems to have hit the buffers in Madrid. A strong showing in Angola, where a decent Mali side are a long (3.7) to top Group A and very tempting (24.0) for the tournament, could revitalise his career, and remind some of Europe’s bigger clubs of his undoubted talent.

Manucho, Angola:

Two years ago, Manucho was an unknown striker heading off for a three-week trial at Manchester United. Within a month, United had signed him and Manucho had starred in Angola’s impressive performance at the African Cup of Nations in Ghana. He scored three goals in Angola’s first two games before his 25-yarder against Egypt, described as goal of the tournament, earned him a place in the 2008 Team of the Tournament.

The striker struggled to win a place at United, then had loan spells at Panathinaikos and Hull City before joining La Liga side Real Valladolid, where he has scored twice this season. He remains important to Angola: despite falling out with coach Manuel José last year, Manucho was named in the Angola squad and scored in last weekend’s 1-1 friendly draw with Gambia. With the injury-prone Pedro Mantorras in the squad more for his dressing-room presence than anything else, Manucho’s goals could determine
how well the hosts, who are (3.3) to top Group A and (24.0) to win the tournament, do.

Gervinho, Ivory Coast:

A former captain of the Ivory Coast Olympic team, Gervinho is treading a well-trodden path from the production-line of talent at ASEC Abidjan and then to Europe via Belgian side Beveren. He is currently one of the star performers in Ligue 1, where his 11 goals have put him top of the scoring charts and helped Lille, whom he joined last summer, to second in the table.

He only made his international debut in the 2008 African Cup of Nations, making two appearances from the bench. But since then he has scored twice in three matches and his versatility, as he can play out wide or as an attacking midfielder, make him a useful player for coach Vahid Halilhodzic. There are plenty of candidates to partner Didier Drogba in attack – including Bakary Koné, Aruna Dindane and Salomon Kalou – but few are in as good form as Gervinho. That strength in depth explains why Ivory Coast is (1.68) to win Group A and (3.4) favourites for the title.

And in Gervinho, they have a player waiting to explode on the international scene. The 22-year-old has been linked to Arsenal but by the end of this month, he may have a longer list of clubs on his tail.

Reproduced with permission from © The Sporting Exchange Limited


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