The African wing of SFG returns with their latest cohort of players as the countdown continues, from players ranked 30 to 21, before diving into the deep end. Resident writers Maher Mezahi and Salim Masoud Said are joined by regular contributor Lotfi Wada.
30. Aymen Abdennour
Valencia (ESP) / Tunisia / Centre Back
A contrasting year for the roly-poly centre back. In the first six months he was yet again one of Africa’s outstanding defenders, the cornerstone of a tight-knit Monaco defensive unit that made it to the quarter finals of the Champions League. Such has been his form since 2012 that he has been regularly linked to Europe’s big clubs, so it came as no surprise when Valencia took the chance on him in the summer.
His first season at the Mestalla has seen him struggle to replicate the form he showed for Monaco. What everyone initially thought was a struggle that was easily explainable because of the perils of acclimatising to a new league, culture and country has, after showing no sign of improvement in tandem with playing for a generally underperforming team, transitioned into triggering Valencia supporters’ ire against him.
He has shown little of the quality that has made him comfortably one of Africa’s best defenders in the last three years, and there are now suggestions that he could be on his way out of the club.
Highlight of the Year: Form with Monaco
It might seem like a long time ago now for Abdennour, but his good form in the first half of the year was definitely a highlight. He now needs to rediscover and reapply it in a different environment. SMS
29. Aissa Mandi
Stade de Reims (FRA) / Algeria/ Right Back
A truly great player is one that makes those around him better. Aissa Mandi is not a footballing great, and he might never be considered as such, but he does tend to help his teammates play at a higher level.
The 25-year-old’s 2015 was his best year to date. He established himself as a fixture in the Algerian national team and was named club captain at Reims – a club he has represented for the last sixteen years of his life.
In the autumn, Mandi underwent an interesting transformation. Coach Olivier Guegan decided to move Mandi into the heart of defence, following the purchase of Hamari Traore. The move proved successful as Reims shot up the table with a stellar defensive record.
In September, Mandi hyperextended his knee and was ruled out for six weeks. Almost immediately, Reims’ results took a turn for the worse. In fact, they lost all six matches he was absent for. A few matches after Mandi’s return, Guegan’s side predictably improved.
Highlight of the Year: Display of leadership qualities
As a captain, Mandi exudes calm and direction. After a loss to Toulouse, the Algerian defender approached a section of belligerent supporters on his own. After exchanging viewpoints for 20 minutes, he implored them to support the team, and assuring them that he would take their concerns to the club president. MM
28. Basem Morsy
Zamalek (EGY) / Egypt / Striker
Neither fish nor fowl. That’s how Bassem Morsy’s year at Zamalek can be described. From January to September the Tanta-born striker started the year brilliantly for Zamalek as he managed to score 17 goals under the White Knights after a long battle to become a starter under the various coaches who were appointed during the year.
These performances for his first year at top level, after joining Zamalek from Intag El Harbi, caught the eye of the Pharaohs’ new Argentine coach Hector Cuper. The striker’s impact was immediate as he scored five goals in just three games against Chad, Malawi and Tanzania.On the club side the striker reached his peak in mid September when his brace in the Egypt Cup final against bitter rivals Al Ahly gave Zamalek their first win over the Red Devils since 2007 and completed the double.
Since then? Almost nothing – just two assists to show – from the sparkling and tireless striker who’s still looking for a goal in this season. Morsy will have to work and focus more on football to show everybody that he was not a one-season wonder like many players in the past.
Highlight of the year : Zamalek vs Al Ahly Egypt Cup final
Arguably Bassem Morsy moment of grace.The bearded striker made profits from Al Ahly defensive fragility to score a brace and give Zamalek a first win over Al Ahly in eight years and ensure the White Knights’ historic Double. LW
27. Nabil Bentaleb
Tottenham (ENG) / Algeria / Defensive Midfielder
Tim Sherwood receives little credit from Tottenham Hotspur fans, and rightly so. But the credit he does receive is usually for introducing Nabil Bentaleb into the first team. However, in those first 20 appearances, the then-19 year old midfielder didn’t really demonstrate enough to catch the eyes of the footballing world, and he was a controversial selection for a while.
Nearly two years on and few are questioning his presence in one of the brightest young teams in world football, and one of Africa’s leading national teams. Now 21, Bentaleb is maturing into one of the leading prospects in the Premier League, and his form and fitness are key to Spurs’ bid to reach the Champions League for 2016-17. No longer is he a timid sideways-passing defensive-midfielder; fans of Tottenham and Algeria are now accustomed to his energy, with bursting runs from midfield making him a threat going forward as well as an accomplished part of the defensive unit.
His national team appearances seem to be helping him develop. Vahid Halilhodzic was a big fan, including him in his World Cup squad, and he became an important part of Christian Gourcuff’s team as it headed into the Cup of Nations. His performances in Equatorial Guinea suggested he will be a part of the Algeria team for many years to come, outshining many of his older, more experienced team mates.
Injury has halted his momentum somewhat in recent months, and the current form of Spurs’ midfield pair Dele Alli and Eric Dier means he may even struggle to get back into the team for now. But this is just a temporary setback; his value to club and country is only growing, something Gourcuff and Mauricio Pochettino recognise. It would have to take a sizeable offer from one of Europe’s giants to prise him away from White Hart Line in the near future.
Highlight of the Year: Sweetly struck effort versus Senegal
Most of his Africa Cup of Nations campaign, but particularly the crucial second goal against Senegal which secured their progression: a sweet left-footed strike from just outside the box which left goalkeeper Coundoul helpless. JB
26. Yassine Chikhaoui
Al Gharafa (QAT) / Tunisia / Attacking Midfielder
For a short stint last year, the real Yassine Chikhaoui appeared. The Tunisian captain is often pigeonholed as a perennial could-have-been, with die-hards referencing his many stand-out performances that unfortunately came few and far between. His biggest problem is his susceptibility to injury. Hot streaks are usually punctuated with frustrating muscle strains or ligament tears.
But at the Africa Cup of Nations, an armband sporting Chikhaoui put a smile on the face of those who continued to believe in him and he shocked the skeptics. The tall, twinkle-toed attacking midfielder played with the panache many thought impossible on makeshift Equatoguinean pitches.
Chikhaoui scored one and set-up another as Tunisia crashed out in the quarterfinals due to scandalous officiating. Chika’s hot start to the 2014/15 campaign with FC Zurich predictably cooled off and in the summer he agreed to a graveyard transfer to Al-Gharafa in Qatar. At 29 years of age, a few are questioning if that handful of matches at the beginning of 2015 were Chikhaoui’s swansong.
Highlight of the Year: Africa Cup of Nations
Chikhaoui showed up at another Africa Cup of Nations, nearly leading his country to a semi-final berth. The six-foot magician pulled off whatever skill he wanted at whim. It was a privilege seeing him at his best again. MM
25. Sofiane Feghouli
Valencia (ESP) / Algeria / Winger
A salient attribute of Sofiane Feghouli’s career has been constant and incremental improvement in different areas of his arsenal. He had a growth spurt, then he learned how to make runs in behind the opposition, and two seasons ago he improved his end product. 2015, however, is the first year Feghouli has failed visibly improve his game.
Algeria’s new captain started the year in Equatorial Guinea where he was effectively muzzled. This Africa Cup of Nations was the first major tournament he failed to perform in. The performance was particularly worrying as Feghouli has, at times, become a peripheral player under the tutelage of Christian Gourcuff.
Injuries and contract disputes have overshadowed Feghouli’s play in Valencia. Valencia’s coaching changes only threw a wrench into an already complicated situation. ‘Soso’ would proceed to miss a handful of qualification and friendly matches with Les Fennecs. Istanbul’s big three and both Milan clubs have shown real interest in signing the winger for free this summer, and the sooner Feghouli’s future is resolved the sooner he can go back to doing what he does best – performing on the pitch.
Highlight of the Year: Champions League return
Some of Feghouli’s most impressive performances have been in the Champions League. Last year, Feghouli again stepped it up on the anthem-blaring nights, scoring match-winners against Lyon and Gent. MM
24. Hakim Ziyech
FC Twente (NED) / Morocco / Winger
It could be argued that no player in Europe has contributed to their club’s success this season more than Hakim Ziyech has at FC Twente. With 11 goals and 8 assists, Ziyech has had a direct hand in 18 of Twente’s 22 goals this campaign – an eye-straining statistic for an attacking midfielder.
Clubs from around Europe have pricked up and paid attention to the young Moroccans exploits. In a match against Heracles Almelo last weekend it was reported that scouts from nine German teams were present to watch the 22-year-old play.
Badou Zaki has also kept an eye on Ziyech and has made provisional plans to build a team around him in time for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Ziyech made his debut against Cote d’Ivoire in a friendly match earlier this year. Though he hasn’t quite replicated his form with the Atlas Lions, Moroccan supporters believe in his ability to lead this team into a new era.
Highlight of the Year: Emergence as Eredivisie star
Though Ziyech was a notable name with Heerenveen, he has become a veritable star with FC Twente. A big money move looms. MM
23. Roger Assale
TP Mazembe (DRC) / Ivory Coast / Winger
Highlighted by SFG as a player to watch in our pre-tournament preview for Ivory Coast, the stocky winger went into AFCON 2015 as the only home-based outfield player in the Elephants’ squad. In the future, though, he will be more memorable for trivia questions rather than his performances in the tournament itself: the TP Mazembe winger was part of Ivory Coast’s AFCON-winning squad but was one of three outfield players not to play any minutes.
Yet, despite all that cheer-leading on the sidelines, our panellists decided he should still rank high on this list due to the way he has burst into life in his debut season for Congolose giants TP Mazembe after his February move from Sewe Sport.
Pacey, direct and a powerful finisher, an overview of the games and minutes he has played for his new club reveals a player that is more an impact sub rather than a sure-fire starter. Perhaps that was Ivory Coast coach Herve Renard’s rationale when he included him in his AFCON squad, but les Elephants were rarely in a comfortable enough position to trial such a raw player.
Throw in the quality, continentally-hardened attacking players Mazembe have at their disposal – Mbwana Samatta, Rainford Kalaba, Given Singuluma, Solomon Asante and Thomas Ulimwengu – and it’s understandable that Assale hasn’t always been a starter in his debut season.
But cup titles are often won by decisive, impactful players and this is where Assale rose to the challenge each time he was summoned. His six goals in this year’s Champions League put him only one behind joint top scorers Samatta and Bakri Al Madina, an incredible feat for a winger. He was regularly the problem solver – and not just in terms of goals. In the first leg of the semi final versus Al Merrikh his excellent penetrating pass in the 77th minute found Ulmwengu for the crucial away goal.
Highlight of the Year: Acrobatic winner against Smouha
One of the best goals in the CAF CL this season and it gave TP Mazembe an important second consecutive win after a stuttering start in their group. SMS
22. Jean Kasusula
TP Mazembe (DRC) / DR Congo/ Left Back
‘Mr Consistency’ would be the perfect nickname for the TP Mazembe and DR Congo soldier Jean Kasusula. Even though the fullback was busier than a one armed bricklayer in Baghdad this year due to his national and club commitments, he stood out as one of the few players around the continent who managed to keep a good level either at club or national level.
Kasusula’s year started brightly as he was one of Congo DR stand-out performers at AFCON 2015 where he led, with other prominent figures of the team, les Leopards to a bronze medal at the expense of home side Equatorial Guinea.
Underneath TP Mazembe’s jersey the story was the same as underneath Congo’s shirt. Solid defensively, and good enough when he moves forward to create danger thanks to his crosses and ability to dribble past his opponent, the left back was again one of TP Mazembe’s most consistent players in their quest for their fifth African crown even though he missed the final.
Injury prevented him in TP Mazembe’s Club World Cup campaign. Was it a blessing in disguise ? Probably as Mr Consistency needed surely needed some rest after so many seasons without one.
Highlight of the Year: May 2015, his entrance in Congolese political scene
After harvesting titles during his years under the TP Mazembe shirt the full-back decided this year to barter his football jersey for a suit as he officially announced his entrance in Congo DR political scene by running for a seat of representatives in his place of birth Kisangani. LW
21. Eric Bailly
Villareal (ESP) / Ivory Coast / Centre Back
The 20-year-old made his full debut for Espanyol only in November 2014, but his significant impact over the month that followed saw him included in the full Ivory Coast AFCON 2015 squad with no hesitancy despite having never previously been called up.
After field-testing the youngster in two pre-tournament friendlies, and considered the promise he had shown in such a short period of time, coach Herve Renard lost little sleep when he pondered over whether to throw him into the deep end.
Such was the state of the Ivory Coast defence that Renard saw fit to throw the uncapped youngster straight into the starting XI. Powerful, vigilant and aggressive in the tackle, Bailly’s strengths were immediately apparent as the Ivorian rearguard tightened, and his impressive performances saw Villareal move for his signature whilst he was still at the tournament.
His unforced errors, usually arising from poor balance or an inability to deal with the high ball, currently make him far from the finished article. He is still Africa’s most promising defender and, while there was a whiff of a one-tournament-wonder in the steady but unspectacular Wilfried Kanon, the other young Ivorian in the back three, with Bailly you sense we could be witnessing one of Africa’s best defenders for the coming decade.
Highlight of the Year: Forward dash in the quarter-final
Good defenders, above all, defend. Great defenders, though, offer that little bit more. Bailly definitely offered that when his surge forward acted as a catalyst for Wilfried Bony’s opening goal. SMS