- Numerous Premier League players are about to leave for the Africa Cup of Nations.
- The likes of Mo Salah, Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mané and Édouard Mendy are going away.
- The most-affected teams include Watford, Crystal Palace, Leicester and Arsenal.
It’s just over a week until the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations finally gets underway, after being moved due to the pandemic, and it’s just the second tournament with 24 teams. Being a mid-season competition, club teams across Europe – and the rest of the world – will find themselves without some of their players for a few weeks, and the Premier League is one of the leagues set to be most affected.
Most of the biggest names in African football will be at the tournament. Senegal’s squad boasts a number of England-based players, but the most notable are Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy and Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, while other star names set to appear include Gabon’s Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Algeria and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and of course Mohamed Salah of Egypt and Liverpool.
Man City could benefit in title bid
In terms of the title race, it’s hard to argue against Liverpool being the hardest hit. Liverpool sit third, a point behind Chelsea in second but 12 points behind Man City in first – albeit games in hand on them both. The thought of two-thirds of their front three being unavailable for up to five games, including a two-legged Carabao Cup semi-final against Arsenal, isn’t one that sparks joy among the Anfield faithful, and it broaches the question of how Jürgen Klopp will line his team up in the meantime. Midfielder Naby Keita will also be unavailable as he’s set to captain Guinea at the tournament, and while not an automatic starter for Liverpool it’s one less option in the middle of the pitch.
Roberto Firmino is at least back from injury, while Diogo Jota is surely set to keep his place in the team too. Takumi Minamino may be the one to come in, while eyes will be on Divock Origi too, as he looks to come back from injury. While both capable deputies, the Reds will be hoping for a win against Chelsea in their final fixture before Salah and co. head off for the month.
Chelsea will no doubt miss Mendy too, the former Rennes keeper being something of a revelation since arriving at Stamford Bridge in 2020. Kepa Arrizabalaga, still the most expensive goalkeeper in history, is waiting in the wings to fill in, and will hope to make a good impression.
The London club haven’t been as heavily affected by the Cup of Nations as they have in the past, when the likes of Didier Drogba and Michael Essien would be off representing their national teams, and were handed a boost this time round when winger Hakim Ziyech was snubbed by Morocco after falling out with manager Vahid Halilhodžić.
As for Man City, Mahrez will be the only absentee. While he’s frequently appeared this season, making fifteen league appearances so far, the club’s strength in depth mean that he won’t be missed to the extent he might at another side in the division. With the likes of Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus, there are always options.
Away from the top of the league, there are some other pretty influential and important players heading to the tournament, something that could have an effect throughout the whole of the table.
The impact elsewhere in the league
Watford winger Ismaïla Sarr looked set to join Mendy, Mané and co. for Senegal, but reports suggest he has not been given permission to play for his country. The 23-year-old, who has been linked with Liverpool, has been one of the Hornets’ best players since arriving from Rennes in 2019, but has been out with injury since November anyway. A bigger blow would have been the absence of Nigeria’s Emmanuel Dennis, who’s been in great form since arriving from Club Brugge in the summer with 8 goals in 17 Premier League appearances, a crucial return for a team that’s hovering precariously above the relegation zone. Latest reports suggest that he too has been denied permission by his club to play at AFCON 2021.
Defenders William Troost-Ekong and Adam Masina will be linking up with Nigeria and Morocco respectively, the former as captain, while midfielder Imran Louza is set to appear for Morocco too. On paper, the Hornets would have had more players at AFCON than any other Premier League club besides Arsenal; in contrast, their relegation rivals Newcastle, Norwich and Leeds won’t see any absentees at all.
Burnley, one place below Watford in the table, will lose one of their best players, however, with summer signing Maxwel Cornet being named in the Ivory Coast squad, while other notable absentees can be found at Crystal Palace and Leicester. Over at Palace, three players have been called up, and they include Wilfried Zaha. The Ivorian joins Ghana forward Jordan Ayew and Senegal midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate at AFCON, while Leicester lose Senegal’s Papy Mendy, Daniel Amartey of Ghana, and Nigerian pair Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho.
The complete list of all Premier League players heading to the tournament is as follows:
Arsenal: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon), Mohamed Elneny (Egypt), Thomas Partey (Ghana), Nicolas Pépé (Ivory Coast), Omar Rekik (Tunisia)
Aston Villa: Bertrand Traoré (Burkina Faso), Trézéguet (Egypt)
Brentford: Frank Onyeka (Nigeria)
Brighton: Yves Bissouma (Mali), Ulrick Eneme Ella (Gabon)
Burnley: Maxwel Cornet (Ivory Coast)
Chelsea: Édouard Mendy (Senegal)
Crystal Palace: Jordan Ayew (Ghana) Cheikhou Kouyaté (Senegal), Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast)
Everton: Alex Iwobi (Everton)
Leicester: Daniel Amartey (Ghana), Kelechi Iheanacho (Nigeria), Nampalys Mendy (Senegal), Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)
Liverpool: Naby Keïta (Guinea), Sadio Mané (Senegal), Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Man City: Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)
Man United: Eric Bailly (Ivory Coast), Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)
Southampton: Moussa Djenepo (Mali)
Watford: Imran Louza (Morocco), Adam Masina (Morocco), William Troost-Ekong (Nigeria). Denied permission - Emmanuel Dennis (Nigeria) & Ismaïla Sarr (Senegal)
West Ham: Saïd Benrahma (Algeria)
Wolves: Willy Boly (Ivory Coast), Romain Saïss (Morocco)
The Cup of Nations probably couldn’t have come at a less desirable time for Liverpool and Chelsea, and as long as Man City can manage without Mahrez they could capitalise and at the very least maintain their comfortable lead at the top of the table. Further down the table, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Wolves could well be looking over their shoulders nervously in mid-table, as will Watford and Burnley in the battle to avoid relegation.
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