Stars of Afcon 2015 qualifying (so far)
There is a suspicion that, for all the high technicality throughout the team, Tunisia have a tendency to stunt when opponents physically impose themselves.
That accusation cannot be fired at Yassine Chikhaoui. Big, brawny and deceptively deft for a man of his size, the 28-year-old’s physical traits allow him to hold his own in physical duels. Undoubtedly the most impressive player in qualifying so far, his tight control, explosive runs and timely decision-making on the ball made him unplayable.
Finally receiving respite from the injuries that have inundated and stalled his career, Chikhaoui’s pace has understandably waned, but that has done no harm to the belief on Tunisian shores that he is a type of Zinedine Zidane de nos jours; it has merely exacerbated his grace.
After Cameroon’s ignominious showings at the World Cup, the pressure to perform has been urgently high as they’ve sought to instantly regain the backing of their home support. Disruptive influences have been discarded, younger players have been embedded – and the youngest of them all has been the fresh-faced 18-year-old Barca B goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa.
Thrown into the deep end against DR Congo and Ivory Coast, Ondoa was unfazed by the pressure he was under, especially in the latter match when Les Elephants threatened to make the score respectable. Bar a messy clearance which nearly gifted DR Congo a goal, his distribution, handling and coordination of the penalty area were overseen with the soothing assurance of someone with an abundance of experience.
Vahid Halihodzic may have left Algeria for Trabzonspor, but he has essentially assumed ambassadorial duties for Les Fennecs by packing Essaid Belkalem and Carl Medjani into his suitcase for club excursions with Trabzonspor.
The deployment gives the Algerian duo a chance to establish a centre-back core, and the potential chemistry has been enough to convince Christian Gourcouff, Halihodzic’s successor, that Medjani, who is usually deployed as a defensive midfielder, should be paired with Belkalem for the national team, too.
Medjani gave typically dogged displays against Ethiopia and Mali, scoring a priceless late winner in the latter game. An understated, no-frills member of this Algeria team, but certainly one of the leaders.
Burkina Faso may have not faced prolific goal-scoring teams in the form of Lesotho and Angola, but that doesn’t mean good defending wasn’t needed. Kone, guiding the lesser-experienced Steeve Yago almost by the hand, was imperious in extinguishing the sporadic Lesotho attacks which regularly breached the Burkinabe backline.
Faced against a side that was sat deep, and happy to absorb the pressure, Kone’s possession recycling was also crucial. His searching balls to the flanks ensured the pressure on the Lesotho defence was incessant.
The left back has been one of the unsung heroes in the rise of CS Sfaxien in the last two years, but it hasn’t stopped him from being consistently on song; delivering performances pouring with relentless enthusiasm and energy.
His tireless, freewheeling forward forays, usually sealed by a shot, have become one of the distinct features of CS Sfaxien’s attacking play, and that readiness to get forward has been replicated in national team colours.
An accomplished free-kick taker, the likes of Yassine Chikhaoui and Wahbi Khazri are also more than happy to step aside for Maaloul when the opportunity warrants it. Game by game, he continues to cement his place as Tunisia’s premier left back.
His summer move to the UAE with Al Jazira wasn’t well-received, but Pitroipa has maintained the standard of excellence for Burkina Faso that has become accepted as the norm.
While his masterfulness on the ball is a large part of what makes Burkina Faso, arguably, the easiest team on the eye in Africa at the moment, it is his lethality in front of goal which also makes him a fearsome foe.
The 3 goals in the 2 matches show his productivity is increasingly becoming the norm, a counter-argument for a man with a notorious reputation of prolificacy.
A relative unknown to those uninitiated with Ligue 1, the 21-year-old’s three goals in his first two international games have made more of the world acquainted with him.
Adjudged to be talented but a raw, rugged finisher, N’Jie certainly showed little signs that his finishing needed polishing. He embraced the pressure, playing with the intrepidness of youthfulness – in lethality, pressing and enthusiasm – against both DR Congo and Ivory Coast.
His virtues of blistering pace and deadly finishing, amidst the backdrop of his instant connection with Vincent Aboubakar, bodes very well for a Cameroon team that have had an incongruous forward line for years.
The retirements of Samuel Eto’o and Pierre Webo now make Aboubakar Cameroon’s chief marksman.
Pacey, a relentless presser, comfortable with his back to goal and an ultra composed finisher, Aboubakar brings all the ingredients of a complete forward to the table.
Indeed, he has played the lone forward role far more efficiently than his aforementioned mentors. Aged just 22, and a willing learner, it is hard to foresee a demise in his fortunes any time soon.
Honourable mentions: Yacine Brahimi, Sadio Mane, Jonathan Zongo, Tonny Mawejje, Prince Oniangue, Gervinho, Bilel Mohsni, Geoffrey Massa, Bakary Sako, Idrissa Gueye, Baba Rahman, Nicholas N’Koulou
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