Five Young Players To Watch Out For At AFCON 2021

With the African Cup of Nations set to commence after a COVID-induced delay, Jack Donnelly highlights five of the brightest young talents that you should keep your eye on during the tournament.

Originally scheduled for the summer of 2021, the 33rd edition of AFCON will take place in Cameroon over the next month, with the final set to play out on February 6th.
(Photo Credit – Daniel Beloumou Olomo)

After a lengthy delay due to the rampant nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the African Cup of Nations is finally set to commence. With Sky Sports committing to broadcasting 52 matches, as well as the BBC taking on 10 themselves, this year’s tournament is set to reach a bigger audience than ever before.

It’s been two and a half years since Djamel Belmadi’s Algeria triumphed over Senegal to earn their second AFCON title and The Fennec Foxes will now have to defend their crown against a cast of worthy adversaries. Early odds are tipping Senegal to go one better than in 2019 and win AFCON for the first time in their history, with Algeria, Egypt and the Ivory Coast amongst the other favourites.

The footballing talent that Africa has to offer is often overlooked, which is baffling, considering the ability of some of the continent’s top exports – Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Edouard Mendy, Edmund Tapsoba… the list goes on for miles.

As such, similarly to my article from the summer, I’m going to be taking a closer look at some of the brightest up-and-coming African talents who could take this tournament by storm. Again, I’ll try to highlight some names that have otherwise been overlooked – as good as Ibrahim Sangaré and Samuel Chukwueze are, they appear on just about every list like this.

Ilaix Moriba – Guinea

While game time has been limited for Moriba at Leipzig thus far, the midfielder will be crucial to Guinea at AFCON.
(Photo Credit – RB Leipzig FC)

Of the five players highlighted in this article, Guinean midfielder Ilaix Moriba has the biggest reputation, and understandably so. At 18 years old, Moriba commanded a £14 million fee as RB Leipzig signed the midfielder from Barcelona, after making just 18 first team appearances for the Catalan giants, with 13 of those appearances coming from the bench.

It might seem as though I am trying to downplay Moriba’s talent – the truth is, Moriba may well be the most exciting young player at this tournament. A strong, energetic presence in midfield, Moriba excels with the ball at his feet, equally capable of manoeuvring out of tight spaces with a flick or a neat pass and advancing play up the pitch with a strong run from deep.

It is Moriba’s intelligence, combined with his impressive engine, that has seen the 18-year-old receive bountiful praise. The midfielder loves pressing his opponents aggressively, and this aggression in the press helps to create space for his side’s forwards.

Despite standing over six feet tall, Moriba has work to do on his physicality, as well as his overall creativity, but what needs to be remembered is that he is only 18. Guinea will benefit greatly from his energy and aggression in the middle of the park, and with his development coming at one of Europe’s top clubs in Leipzig, Guinea’s midfield diamond will only become more refined.

Mohamed Camara – Mali

Camara spent time at lesser teams in Austria before establishing himself as a first team regular in RB Salzburg’s midfield.
(Photo Credit – Getty Images)

RB Salzburg have, over the last decade or so, amassed a reputation for developing talented African footballers, before going on to sell them for a profit. Think the likes Sadio Mané of Senegal, Naby Keita of Guinea, Amadou Haidara of Mali and Zambian duo Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu. All of these players have gone on to play for top European clubs – Mohamed Camara could well be next.

The Malian midfielder arrived in Austria as a teenager, spending a season with Salzburg’s second-division feeder club, Liefering. He spent the next campaign out on loan at TSV Hartberg in the Austrian top flight, meaning that when he eventually arrived at Salzburg, Camara had a season’s worth of experience at the top level in Austria, allowing him to seamlessly slot into the first team.

The 22-year-old best operates as the defensive cog in an industrious midfield, using his positional intelligence to cut off passing lanes and his tireless engine to drive the ball, and his team, forward. Like I described with Moriba, Camara loves to press opponents aggressively and force turnovers of possession – the difference is, while Moriba presses high, Camara rarely strays forward from deep midfield, waiting patiently to ancitipace his opponent’s movement before rushing them down to snatch the ball away.

Mali have a strong midfield trio with Camara, Haidara and Brighton’s Yves Bissouma. The three are very similar in their duties – efficient, energetic and progressive, so if Camara can keep up with his compatriots in Mali’s engine room, don’t be surprised to see a big money move to a top five league materialising in the near future for the Salzburg man.

Kamaldeen Sulemana – Ghana

Kamaldeen has excelled in Ligue 1 with Rennes this season, scoring on his debut in a 1-1 draw with Lens and consistently terrorising opposition back lines with his speed and dribbling.
(Photo Credit – JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images)

Ghana will enter this edition of AFCON with the nation’s hopes shouldered by the Ayew brothers once again, but Jordan and Andre could see their load lightened by the emergence of a talented winger who has been thriving in Ligue 1 for Stade Rennais.

Kamaldeen Sulemana – who prefers to be known as simply ‘Kamaldeen’ – has been a revelation for Bruno Génésio’s Rennes this season, after joining the club from Danish side Nordsjaelland for £13.5 million. Scoring on his debut in a 1-1 draw with Lens was the best start Kamaldeen could have asked for, and the 19-year-old hasn’t slowed down, notching a further four goals and boasting an average match rating of 7.1 on WhoScored.

Kamaldeen is a constant thorn in the side of opposition defences. His blistering pace can put him clear of any defender when he gets up to speed, and for his young age, his footballing intelligence is commendable, with the winger knowing when to keep things simple and when to take a man on. The latter of those two is Kamaldeen’s greatest strength as a player, however. Outstanding with the ball at his feet, he ranks in the 99th percentile for Players Dribbled Past per 90 (5.44), while also ranking in the 97th percentile for both Dribbles Attempted (8.25) and Dribbles Completed (4.53) per 90 in Ligue 1 this season.

Clearly, Kamaldeen is accomplished at manoeuvring around an opposing backline, and Ghana will likely look to the teenager to use his speed, direct running and eye for goal to fire them through the group stage and onto potential glory.

Abde Ezzalzouli – Morocco

After impressive showings from the bench, Abde has established himself as a regular starter for Xavi’s Barcelona this season.(Photo Credit – David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Perhaps one of the biggest shocks in the build-up to this edition of AFCON was that Morocco’s most talented player, Hakim Ziyech, had been snubbed for selection by head coach Vahid Halilhodžić, with the two having a tumultuous relationship. Morocco may have struggled without Ziyech’s revered creative efforts, if not for the emergence of 20-year-old Abde Ezzalzouli.

The winger signed for Barcelona in the summer, having enjoyed a successful first spell in professional football with Hércules CF in the second division of Spanish football. With the legendary Lionel Messi departing for Paris and Ousmane Dembélé finding it difficult to stray too far from the physio’s bench, Abde’s route to the first team was fast-tracked when Xavi replaced Ronald Koeman as manager in November.

Capable of playing on either flank, but more regularly found on the left, Abde’s role for Barça has been to stay wide, wait to receive a pass and take on an opponent to create a shooting opportunity. Agile and quick off the mark, Abde has seen great success at taking his marker on, ranking in the 99th percentile for Dribbles Attempted (7.88 per 90), Dribbles Completed (5.06 per 90) and Players Dribbled Past (5.06 per 90) in La Liga this season. While his tendency to stick to the touchline leaves him with little grass to showcase his speed, Abde has been shown to be lethal on the counterattack and ranks in the 96th percentile for Progressive Carrying Distance (187.5 yards per 90) and Progressive Carries (9.19 per 90) in La Liga this season.

Ziyech’s absence means that Morocco are in desperate need of a man who can pick up the ball and make things happen – Abde fits the bill completely. The youngster is yet to make his international debut, but given the start to his Barcelona career, expect fireworks should he enter the fray in this tournament.

Odilon Kossounou – Ivory Coast

Kossounou has been a consistent and impressive presence alongside Edmund Tapsoba in Bayer Leverkusen’s back line this season.
(Photo Credit – Jörg Schüler/Bayer 04 Leverkusen)

The Ivory Coast have not had the greatest success in AFCON since their 2015 triumph in Equatorial Guinea. The Elephants failed to survive the group stage in 2017 and could only muster a quarter final appearance in 2019. This year, however, Patrice Beaumelle’s squad are amongst the favourites for Africa’s crowning glory, with a myriad of talented players, with young defender Odilon Kossounou ready to make his mark at his first AFCON.

The 6’3 centre back currently plies his trade in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen, having joined the Bundesliga outfit after a massively successful season with Club Brugge. Kossounou has been a consistent presence in the Leverkusen back line this season, making 20 appearances in all competitions, most regularly alongside fellow AFCON competitor Edmund Tapsoba in a centre back pairing, but the 21-year-old can also play at right back, should he need to.

An athletic and intelligent defender, Kossounou reads attacking scenarios exceptionally well, covering dangerous through balls with a combination of his speed and commendable positioning. Kossounou’s defensive awareness allows him to play the game with patience, waiting until the optimum moment to rush down an adversary and rob them of the ball. One of his biggest improvements at Leverkusen has been his passing ability – Kossounou boasts an average Pass Completion Rate of 88.1% per 90, and is more than comfortable in playing both short, cute passes and long, diagonal balls out to the wings.

The only problem facing such a promising young defender in Kossouno is his place in the Ivory Coast pecking order. Despite already having 11 caps to his name, the Leverkusen man has Ivory Coast mainstays in Eric Bailly and Willy Boly to compete with. Playing at right back would be the easy fix, if Serge Aurier didn’t already have the position locked down. Despite that, it’s likely we will see Kossounou take to the pitch at some point, and it will absolutely be worth keeping an eye on him.

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