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Top AFCON players to keep you on the edge of your seat

Salah is coming off a strong season with Liverpool. (PHOTOS/AGENCIES)

CAIRO – The curtains draw for the thrills, the spills and the chills of the Africa Cup of Nations 2019. In its 32nd edition, the tournament will, for the first time, feature a record 24 teams from the previous 16.

For many, it’s an extravaganza, but many more have their eyes focused on top stars who are highly billed to light up the tournament or flop.

With so many talents plying their trade in Europe and beyond, the tournament will not be short of “to watch” casts, but here, we picked ten who are expected to carry the burden of fate.

Mohammad Salah (Egypt)

Egypt failed to gel at their first World Cup appearance in 30 plus years last year. They qualified largely because of Salah but he goes injured in Champions League final in that infamous incident with Sergio Ramos.

He was taken to tourney while unfit and struggled for rhythm and they were the first team to pack up and out of Russia

Now Salah has his redemption moment with a Pharaoh side that will squarely rely on him.

Salah knows African Cup title will further galvanize his chances of winning Ballon d’Or after coming short last year. This year he has already won Champions League and finished strongly with Liverpool as the Reds amassed an incredible record 97pts en route finishing second behind Man City.

Salah’s other contenders for highly coveted Ballon d’Or is Leo Messi of Argentina and Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus and Portugal Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool and Netherlands. Of these, Messi is struggling with Argentina in Copa America while his club was beaten by Salah’s Liverpool in Champions League. The Argentine largely has his domestic form to rely on having won European golden boot. Ronaldo has little to write home about despite winning European Nations league while Virgil van Dijk excelled with Liverpool.

Percy Tau (South Africa.)

South Africa shot to footballing glory with their first attempt at the gong in 1996, pipping Tunisia at the finals they hosted to win their first and only title. The team boasting stars like Eric Tinkler, Mark Williams, Doctor Khumalo, Phil Masinga, Bennie McCarthy and Mark Fish were never short of leadership on the field. Any of these players could have been a leader unto him. They went on to qualify for World Cup in 1998 and finished second and third in Afcon for the next two tourneys.

And then the deterioration started.  Just making it back to Afcon is now considered a big achievement in South Africa and the team that has the biggest number of home-based players 17at the tournament will be desperate for leadership and hero to carry them ahead in the Group of Death. Talismanic former Sundowns striker Tau is the man they will be looking up to not only for goals but also carrying the team’s burden.

Sadio Mane (Senegal)

Alongside Gaffer Aliou Cisse, Mane will have the extra weight on his shoulder as he captains Senegal in the quest for their first title. The Lions of Teranga are perennial bottlers in the tournament and have come closest in 2002 when they finished second after losing penalty shootouts to Cameroon.

Mane has had a terrific season with Liverpool after taking charge from his compatriot Mohammad Salah in the later stages of the English Premier League. He ended the campaign as joint top scorer alongside Salah and another African, Pierre Aubemayang. He might have compensated for the huge disappointment of losing the league title to Manchester City by just a point with the Champions League title but for the national team, nothing comes as big as the quest for Nations Cup title.

Mane is among the most terrific forwards in the game worldwide for his pace and ability to shoot from anywhere on the pitch with both feet. West African nations in the shape of Cameroon, Nigeria and Ivory Coast have swept the last three editions and Senegal will be primed and spurred on by the feeling that this 32nd edition could just be theirs. But the question is, can Mane step up his terrific form for Liverpool in the green of Senegal?

Nicolas Pepe( Ivory Coast)

The Elephants look anything but, then again, you just can’t write them off. French side Lille were rank outsiders in Ligue 1 at the start of the season, but Pepe’s 22 goals turned into the inspiration they needed to finish second the league.

The prolific striker, who also notched up 11 assists, is already a target of European giants like Liverpool and Bayern Munich. He arrives in Cairo lead Ivory Coast’s front line knowing his good showing will be the ink of the paper for a big money move.

Riyadh Mahrez (Algeria)

The Manchester City winger has had a season of mixed emotions, struggling for starting berth under Pep Guardiola. But he won four domestic titles and his form for Algeria has never been in doubt. Algeria will be counting on the playmaker that scored crucial goals to guarantee their ticket to Egypt in a quest to not only avoid the comical group stage exit at the last edition.

The 32nd edition being across the borders in Egypt gives the Desert Warriors a rare strong belief that this could be their year as Arab nations will be inspired to fight to keep the trophy in their fold. Mahrez turned much of his frustration at Manchester into good performances in the qualifiers and will just as well have to show Guardiola his true value during the tournament.

Hakim Ziyech Morocco

The 26-year-old Ajax winger was one of the revelations of Ajax’s fairy tale Champions League showing. With 19 goals and 16 assists in all competitions last season, Ziyech proved his worth as a pacy winger. He is the humdinger in the much improved Moroccan side that will be in Egypt with nothing but the title in their mind.

But for Ziyech, the 21 goals he has scored in 23 appearances for Morocco with 24 assists in all competitions. Won Eredivisie title and was voted Dutch Player of the Year for the second successive season will be nothing when the Group of Death matches open.  He must help his side navigate the tricky ties against Ivory Coast, South Africa, and Namibia. On the evidence of his season, he is worth every bet to keep viewers on the edge of their seats during the tourney.

Denis Masinde Onyango (Uganda)

Of the 24 teams converging in Egypt to vie for the sweet chalice, perhaps there is none whose the population will be nursing hope on a goalkeeper like Uganda. Denis Masinde Onyango is the Uganda Cranes skipper and the nation’s hope for the team to do better than in the last edition when they fell flat in the group stage despite a strong showing in which they conceded just three goals.

Onyango’s seasons with South African giants Mamelodi Sundown’s has been the talk of the Rainbow nation as South African fans labored to explain why they believed Kaizer Chief’s Itumeleng Khune was a better keeper than Onyango. But the Ugandan ‘Mr. Safe Hands’ has hardly paid attention, focusing on his game between the sticks for Masandawana and for Uganda Cranes.

The two-time African Goalkeeper the Year is in a good frame and, if Mohammad Salah was asked who he dreaded facing in goal in the tournament, his answer will probably be Onyango.

The imposing goalkeeper had a remarkable spell in the last edition, standing tall and exiting Gabon with his gloves the pride of the nation. It was his first tournament and if Cranes were lacking in experience then, perhaps they will have one better.

Victor Wanyama (Kenya)

Wanyama has played over 330 games for four professional clubs.

The combative the midfielder has had a tough 2018/19 league season with employers at Tottenham Hotspur.

A long spell in the sickbay coincided with the rise of Moussa Sissoko, leaving Wanyama with hardly any play time. But he true to his tact and talent, he was himself and in fine shape when he was finally called up to give his boots to the club as injuries ravaged Spurs in the final bend of the season. Wanyama didn’t disappoint as he helped the team beat Manchester City and Ajax in the Champions League.

Wilfried Ndidi (Nigeria), Idrissa Gana Gueye and Cheykou Kouyate (both Senegal) might the holding midfielders on the lips of many, but Kenyan skipper Wanyama has always squared his shoulders facing the toughest midfielders in world football and stood with them boot for boot.

After 15 years in the wilderness, Kenya is back on the big stage and Wanyama, who failed to match his elder brother’s feat of winning Champions League will hope to lead Kenya to a better showing the McDonald Mariga has ever dreamed of.

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