Africa’s 2013/2014 season pacesetters
Since his move from Southern Russia, for a reported fee of £13.2m, he has regained the form that saw him establish himself as one of the finest midfielders in the Russian Premier League and win a hat-trick of Belgian Player of the Year awards. A central attacking midfield deployment, as opposed to the left flank role he held at Anzhi, has seen him the heartbeat of the side, contagiously spreading a stylish brand of football to a team that is renowned for being insipid. Despite possessing a lightweight build that is more befitting of a quicksilver winger, the Moroccan’s supreme technical ability has made him accumulate double figures in assists in seven of the last eight seasons.
No recall to the latest Morocco squad has sparked a clamour, but if he continues his sparkling form Morocco commander-in-chief Rachid Taoussi will be unable to resist his quality.
Abderazzak Hamdallah (Aalesunds)
The striker’s move to Norwegian club Aalesunds, for a club record fee of €1m, was one which slipped under the radar of even the most ardent African Football Experts, but he has popped up on the radar after a phosphorescent start. Capable of finishing with either foot in his striker role, Hamdallah is equally comfortable on the wing where his fleet-footedness shines a bit brighter, as does his seven-days-a-week endeavour. After 22 appearances in the Norwegian top flight, the Moroccan has already showcased he is one of the most complete forwards in the league, boasting double-figures in both sectors; 11 goals and 10 assists. Top scorer in the Moroccan top division last season, the mathematics will come as no surprise to Moroccan Premier League enthusiasts (they do exist).
It’ll also come as no surprise to trained eyes which had been planted on him earlier this year when Morocco were amidst their Africa Cup of Nations preparations. One of the few domestic-based players in the Morocco Afcon squad, the 22-year-old made a phalanx of effervescent cameos from the bench for the Atlas Lions in the run-up to continental centrepiece; fending off the likes of Marouane Chamakh and Adel Taarabt for the opportunity to have his ears nourished by vuvuzelas.
A move straight from Africa to a culturally polar opposite country such as Norway has never been easy for Maghrebian footballers, but Hamdallah’s goal-getting will only get better as he becomes more accustomed to his current location.
Mehdi Benatia (Roma)
His €13.5m transfer fee from Udinese to Roma had, rather insolently, raised eyebrows. Was the fee too high? Could he handle the step up? Both questions have been helicoptered away for six as Roma sit at the top with a 100% win record and only 1 goal conceded after six games.
This could be one of the transfers of the season. It’s difficult to name centre-backs who have read the game better on such a consistent basis in the last 3-4 seasons than the French-Moroccan. You’d be lucky to think of five; there are certainly not more than ten. But when you ply your trade for a modest Udinese side and you’re a defender, your work is likely to go unnoticed by the mainstream. In fairness, it hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed in a country which knows the street value of a defender – Benatia was a nominee for Serie A Defender of the Year in 2011.
You get the sense that if he had been playing in the 1970s or 1980s, he may have well have been a libero. Not only does he read the game well, he knows the appropriate time to surge forward, one-two here and one-two there, and deliver that killer pass or score a mesmerising goal that changes the direction of the game – as he did last week against Sampdoria. If he continues his current form at the more visible club that is Roma, he could arguably be, depending on your definition of the term, world class.
Papa Gueye (Metalist Kharkiv)
Rarely second best in a physical duel, Papa started preachin’ during Metalist Kharkiv’s commendable 2012 Europa League run when, aged 28, he was still uncapped for Senegal at any level.
Recognition soon came when he was named as one of the three over-aged players in the Senegal squad at the London Olympics, finishing the tournament as one of Senegal’s standout performers. With fierce competition for places at the heart of the Senegal defence and age against his side, though, Gueye has found chances to cement his place in the senior team hard to come by and has been in and out of the squad.
His current form will do his chances no harm. Set to enter a decade of plying his trade in Ukraine, the bulky Senegalese centre-back has been in irresistible form this season as he aims to win that elusive league title. Whilst he’s slow on the turn, prolific forwards such as Dieumerci Mbokani have been manhandled out of games by his sheer finesse. He has played every minute of Metalist Kharkiv’s 11 league games this season as they’re in pole position in the Ukraine Premier League with a third of the season gone. The north-east Ukraine outfit are three points ahead of second-placed Dnipro and six and 11 points, respectively, clear of powerhouses Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev.
Gervinho playing well for the Ivory Coast? A-ha! It must be because African – and international – football is of a lower standard!
The Ivorian’s break-necking start at Roma is firmly on the way to stamping his tenure at The Emirates as a malaise rather than high altitude sickness in The Best League In The World. Reinforced by his paternal figure and new Roma manager Rudi Garcia, a man who knows him inside-out from his time at Lille, the Ivorian has finally been able to replicate his international form and, crucially, the form which made him one of the world’s most coveted wingers in the summer of 2011.
In a Roma team that is spear-headed by the false nine role of Francisco Totti, and possesses a fearsome, enchanting midfield of Daniele de Rossi, Miralem Pjanjic and Kevin Strootman, it seems that all Gervinho has to do is run intelligently. And, with three goals scored so far, he does that to a devastating effect, taking up positions to threaten on the counter and circling in Totti’s vicinage.
The indecision that clouded his vision at Arsenal still props up at times, but no player’s decision-making is flawless, especially in a league where defences are stingy and goals come at a premium. What’s for certain is that Gervais Yao Kouassi is blossoming again. When he’s running at a defender or about to shoot, you get the sense that he is about to score or make something happen.
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