SFG European-based African Team of the Season

It’s been a momentous season for African footballers in Europe, especially the strikers. Have a collection of African strikers enjoyed a better season in Europe? Probably not; Arouna Kone scored so much that Levante had to abstain from playing him to avoid triggering a clause which would have seen him return to his parent club; Emmanuel Adebayor reached double figures in goals and assists; Yakubu’s goalscoring chance conversion rate (29%) was only bettered by Papiss Cisse 37% - which is incredible, considering Blackburn were eventually relegated; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came of age, embarking on a goalscoring streak of 14 goals in 26 games; Seydou Doumbia froze Russian league defenders with his right-place-right-time sense in front of the net; and, of course, Didier Drogba's insatiable performances in big games were vintage. I could go on. But this isn’t about merely strikers. To the business at hand:

Goalkeeper: Boubacar Barry (Lokeren/Ivory Coast)
African goalkeepers seem to be in short supply in Europe. Richard Kingson has faded into obscurity, Carlos Kameni rarely played for Espanyol in the first half of the season and played second fiddle at Malaga following a January move, whilst Guy Roland N’Dy Assembe floundered in mid-table with Nancy even though he has shown genuine talent at times. The straightforward choice, then, was Ivorian Boubacar Barry who remains the number one choice for Lokeren and added a Belgian Cup medal to his medal collection this season as well as scored goals.

Right-back: Emmanuel Eboue (Galatasaray/Ivory Coast)

The alacrity-filled Ivorian’s defensive frailties were regularly exposed during his time in the English Premiership and even his attacking tendencies seemed to be fading towards the end of his Arsenal days. A summer move to Turkey – where his defensive frailties aren’t quite under as much of the microscope – has given him a new lease of life as his attacking instincts have flourished once again. Certainly, playing in a more secure defence that includes Tomas Ujfalusi and Semih Kaya, Eboue has had the free licence to maraud forward at will and become an outlet of Galatasaray’s attacking game as they won the Turkish league for the first time in 4 years, scoring key goals and laying assists in the process.

Centre-back: Mehdi Benatia (Udinese/Morocco)

You know you’ve made it when you are labelled the “Moroccan Maldini” by your own faithful. An excellent reader of the game with a penchant for an elegant dash out of defence, Benatia was a revelation in his debut 2010-2011 season for Udinese. There was to be no second-season syndrome either as Udinese finished in the Champions League places once again, with the French-born Moroccan nominated for the Serie A Oscar del Calcio award in the Defender of the Year category towards the end of 2011. Benatia is rapidly on his way to proving the hypothesis that he is the finest Moroccan defender since Noureddine Naybet is valid.

Centre-back: Aymen Abdennour (Toulouse/Tunisia)

Despite finishing 8th and 26 points adrift of Montpellier, the surprise Ligue 1 winners, Toulouse, together with the champions, had the joint-best defence in Le Championnat with only 34 goals conceded.  Aymen Abdennour has been at the heart of that impressive defensive record. The heavyweight French-born Tunisian is one of the most physical defenders in Ligue 1 and his physically uncompromising style made many grimace at the Cup of Nations – not least Andre Ayew who was  on the end of an elbow which saw Abdennour sent off. The talent is there, though, and he has been vital to Toulouse’s stingy defending this season with his supreme aerial ability and positional sense in backs-against-the-wall scenarios.

Left-back: Henri Bedimo (Montpellier/Cameroon)

Montpellier were surprise winners of Le Championnat this season and while many have focused on the goalscoring prowess of Oliver Giroud and Younes Belhanda, the raiding-down-the-left-wing performances of the peripatetic Bedimo have largely gone unnoticed. That’s understandable, of course, because defensive players are generally less celebrated. A key feature of Montpellier’s attacking phases, however, has been the telepathic understanding between John Utaka and Bedimo down the left-flank, their blistering pace coupled relentless energy over the course of 90 minutes has seen them man the left-flank more often than not.

Midfield: Cedric Makiadi (Freiburg/DR Congo)

Freiburg were rock bottom at the winter break and, being 5 points adrift of safety, all but down-and-out. If that wasn’t enough to compound misery, top scorer Papiss Cisse was sold to Newcastle and  manager Marcus Song was ousted. With the promotion of Christian Streich from his assistant role, the galvanisation of the team and the inspirational leadership of skipper Cedric Makiadi, Freiburg’s fortunes reversed in the second half of the season.  Neat in possession with an eye for goal that has sprung into life, the Congolese international has scored 6 goals this season alone – before this season he had scored 7 times in 115 matches.

Midfield: Yaya Toure (Man City/Ivory Coast)

The newly crowned African Footballer of the Year has continued his consistent performances from last season which saw him voted in the team of the year by his fellow professionals.  In an age where diminutive, tiki-taka-esque playmakers reign supreme, the Ivorian is a threat to the status quo: in his role as playmaker he simply drives with the entitlement of a military tank. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have poise or elegance, he’s equally adept at posing questions with his passing which is, at times, very inquisitive – thanks to the footballing education he received at Barcelona. Reportedly the highest paid player in the English Premiership, Toure justified his salary fully with his important goals against Newcastle which essentially sealed the title.

Left-wing: Oussama Assaidi (Heerenveen/Morocco)

The bustling left-winger has been a constant menace for Eredivisie defenders this season, combining tireless running and endeavour to blossom at the art of taking opposition full-backs on. Even though he favours cutting inside on his stronger right-foot, he’s not averse to using his left foot – and it’s this two-footedness which makes Assaidi extra difficult to deal with as he has the potential to go either side; a full-backs worst nightmare. He produced one of the best moments of the Eredivisie season with this delightful skill. Evidently not lacking in confidence, plenty of suitors are after the Moroccan.

Right-wing: Stephane Sessegnon (Sunderland/Benin)

“When you train with him he goes around you and he’s spun your T-shirt back to front!” Matt Kilgallon, his Sunderland team-mate, enthused. “He goes past you and your clothes are on the wrong way around. He’s a little magician.” Indeed, if he was South American they’d call him El Mago. Even when Sunderland were having a turbulent season under Steve Bruce, he was their star performer. With a change of management and belief injected throughout the team, Sessegnon’s performances have received the due praise and he was officially named the Sunderland Player of the Year. Only David Silva (86) created more goal-scoring opportunities for his team-mates than Sessegnon (71) this season.

Attacking-midfield: Younes Belhanda (Montpellier/Morocco)

“In one year we will not speak of Eden Hazard…” Predicted Louis Nicollin, the garrulous Montpellier chairman, at the start of the season. “We will have another name in our mouth: Belhanda.” Whilst we are still speaking of Eden Hazard, the name of Younes Belhanda is firmly making our mouths salivate. The French-born Moroccan has been at the forefront of Montpellier’s heroic against-all-odds Ligue 1 triumph, mesmerising wide-eyed audiences with his glorious passing, peripheral vision and ice-skating grace to smoothly glide past players even in very congested situations. He deservedly won the Marc Vivien-Foe prize for the best African player in Ligue 1 and, considering who he is surrounded with, he has probably been the best African player in Europe this season.

Striker: Papiss Cisse (Newcastle/Senegal)

The superabundance of African strikers who have enjoyed rich seasons in Europe made this the hardest position to pick. After much thought, I went for Papiss Cisse. With 22 goals only Doumbia betters him, but Cisse’s record is the more impressive when you consider that he made a January transfer window move and has adapted seamlessly to the English Premiership. With 37% of the chances presented to him converted to goals, he trumps all the other English-based strikers and his goals have been scored with frightening aplomb.

Honorable mentions

Goalkeeper: Guy Ronald N’Dy Assembe

Defenders: Bruno Manga, Nicolas Nkoulou, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Joseph Yobo

Midfielders: Alex Song, Sofiane Feghouli, Kevin Prince-Boateng, Victor Wanyama, Kwadwo Asamoah, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Andre Ayew

Strikers: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Emmanuel Adebayor, Yakubu, Seydou Doumbia, Arouna Kone, Didier Drogba.

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