Libreville - The saying that you are only as good as the players who surround you will be put to the test at the 31st edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicked off in Gabon on Saturday.
The football world’s focus shifts to the continent to see what it can offer.
Africa’s best talent will be on display in Gabon as the three best players go head-to-head with some of the most outstanding on the continent.
If the likes of Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can reproduce what they do week in and week out at their European clubs, we are in for a memorable tournament.
However, it has not always been the case as often players reserve their best for their clubs rather than their countries. The three CAF Player of the Year finalists and a host of other top names are poised to shine on the continental stage once more.
Here are the players to watch:
Islam Slimani (Algeria and Leicester City)
Forget about the newly crowned African best player Mahrez; his compatriot Slimani is likely to overshadow him at the tournament.
Frankly, the BBC African Footballer of the Year, who played a crucial role in helping Algeria to qualify for the tournament, has not been the same since helping Leicester City win the English Premier League championship last season. He has taken his foot off the pedal with some below-par performances for the Foxes this season. But, on the other hand, his new team-mate Slimani, who was signed from Sporting Lisbon, is the one to watch in Gabon. The 28-year-old striker has come to the party with seven goals in 18 appearances for the champions and is likely to overshadow Mahrez.
Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast and Crystal Palace)
The absence of the Elephants captain, Gervinho, due to a knee injury, has opened doors for Zaha, who only switched his international allegiance from England late last year to compete for the Ivorians. The winger made his debut for the defending champions on Sunday against Sweden and provided an assist for the winning goal. The 24-year-old will be determined to prove to England what they missed out on.
Sadio Mané (Senegal and Liverpool)
Mané has been sparkling for Liverpool since his move to Anfield in June. If the Teranga Lions are to make a statement at this year’s tournament, a lot will rest on the 24-year-old winger, whose pace and skill make him stand out. Mané needs to take his club form, in which he has scored nine goals before heading to Gabon, to the tournament for Senegal to stand a chance of lifting the trophy but his team-mates have to come to the party.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon and Borussia Dortmund)
The striker is one of the usual suspects expected to set the tournament alight. Playing in front of his home supporters, the 27-year-old is under pressure to replicate his club form where he has been averaging a goal a game this season. But the pressure could be too much for the Les Panthères captain as he seeks to lead his country to glory.
Khama Billiat (Zimbabwe and Mamelodi Sundowns)
The diminutive winger should set the tournament alight with his pace and direct play. He should be more motivated and determined after missing out on the CAF African Player of the Year award – based on the continent – to showcase his talent and prove his detractors wrong. Billiat played a leading role in helping Sundowns lift the CAF Champions League last season and now has to do the same for the Zim Warriors.
André Ayew (Ghana and West Ham United)
After recovering from a thigh injury, the midfielder will be eager to help the Black Stars go a step further and win the championship. Ghana lost to Ivory Coast in the 2015 final and images of a devastated Ayew, who could not contain his heartbreak, went viral. The 27-year-old is now back to not only prove his fitness after playing only 13 times for the Hammers this season but also to succeed where he failed last time.
Here are the teams to watch:
Although there are always one or two teams which rise to the occasion and spring surprises in tournaments, the usual suspects will always be
there. Some countries are expected to outshine and upstage the favourites.
The star-studded Teranga Lions, who have always failed to deliver when it matters, are favourites to prove their worth in Gabon. Coach Aliou Cissé has assembled the best team, on paper, and will be hoping to clinch the country’s maiden championship. They were ruthless in the qualifying stages, winning all their games, scoring 13 times and conceding only two in the process. They are under pressure to deliver.
After their disastrous start in the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers, the Desert Foxes are determined to build momentum ahead of the next round of qualifiers later this year.
They had a best run in the qualifiers – winning five of their six matches and scoring 25 goals.
3. Ivory Coast
The defending champions are vying to retain the trophy they won in Equatorial Guinea two years ago. They are also out to prove there is life after former captain Yaya Touré, who retired from international football last year, and also Didier Drogba. But they have assembled the best players who are capable of going all the way.
The 2015 runners-up are hoping to go a step further by capturing their fifth continental trophy. Coach Avram Grant is already under pressure to deliver the goods, particularly after a slow start to the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers, where they are third on the table behind Egypt and Uganda.
Winning the continental title will ease the pressure on the coach and he has put together a team capable of doing so.
After failing to qualify for three previous tournaments in 2012, 2013 and 2015, the Pharaohs are determined to make up for lost time. The seven-time champions seem to have found their mojo and will be determined to leave their mark in Gabon.
The Indomitable Lions might not be the same force they used to be, but they are still strong enough to be ranked up there with the best. A lot should not be read into their preparations after losing a few players who refused to take part in the tournament. Those who will be in Gabon will be eager to prove that life goes on without the likes of Joël Matip, Allan Nyom and Ibrahim Amadou.