Jean Seri – Nice | Ivory Coast
We have broken one of our golden rules at SFG – we try to have one per team in these kinds of lists – but we felt Jean Seri was so excellent yet so understated that we had to deviate from protocol. The ASEC Mimosas graduate is not just top of Ligue 1 with Nice, he’s also top of the assists charts with 8 to his name.
Standing at just 5’4″, it’s easy to miss the midfielder. His midfield brethren, Serey Die and Franck Kessie, sport haircuts that make them distinct even if you were watching an Ivory Coast game in the mezzanine hours. Seri, in comparison, could easily just be Max Gradel or another short Ivorian attacker with a relatively normal hair style. There’s no razzmatazz to enhance his visibility, just simple, basic passes to open defences which often go unnoticed.
We urge you to watch him closely because, with defences sitting deep against the champions and Seri’s function as the creative fulcrum, he could be Ivory Coast’s CAN opener.
Cheikh N’Doye – Angers | Senegal
A classic late developer, Cheikh N’Doye is unlikely to be a name that the majority of people are familiar with. Having only sprung onto the scene with lower league French side Epinal in 2009 when he was already 23, dominant performances eventually earned him a move to Ligue 1 side Anger SCO, playing a key role in the process of establishing themselves as a regular feature in the French top flight as captain of the side.
Although Senegal are by no means short on the dominant central midfield hunk-types that N’Doye encompasses, he has managed to secure himself as a semi-regular fixture in his national side since debuting in 2014, adding yet another colossal presence to the Lions of Teranga’s line-up.
Providing a significant aerial threat as well as a formidable defensive wall to shield the Senegalese defence, he was used largely as a squad player during Senegal’s perfect qualification campaign, whether he will manage to displace midfield stalwarts such as Cheikhou Kouyate or Mohammed Diame remains to be seen. Unsurprisingly on the radar of West Brom given his robust style of play, Gabon offers the perfect opportunity to boost his own market value, as well as help propel his side out of a difficult group.
Mbark Boussoufa – Al Jazira | Morocco
Injuries to Sofiane Boufal, Younes Belhanda and Nordin Amrabat leaves Herve Renard short of three of his best players. Assuming he also doesn’t get injured, one person Renard will be able to count on is Mbark Boussoufa.
Renard values versatility in his players. And Boussoufa, who is able to play anywhere in midfield – advanced or deeper, or on the wings – gives him the option to change systems during games, something that Renard did to devastating effect with Zambia in 2013 to outwit opponents.
The Dutch-Moroccan has also been a player of considerable repute in the last decade, winning the Belgian Player of the Year award thrice. Despite possessing a lightweight physique that one would associate with a flying winger, Boussoufa’s playmaking abilities, whether advanced or deep in midfield, have made him an assist machine in Belgium and Russia. He hasn’t always produced the goods in the Morocco shirt and, at 32, his farewell years aren’t far away. It’s now or never.
Franck Kessie – Atalanta | Ivory Coast
With the talk of the coming and going of the golden generation in Ivorian football over the past decade or so, few expected Côte d’Ivoire to be so well stocked with players to come through and fill their boots. AFCON 2017 brings the opportunity for the reigning continental champions to show what the next set of stars has got to offer. Franck Kessie will be the one to really look out for, as the central midfielder looks to justify his high-touted price tag.
Thrown into the international setup at the age of 17, clearly the Ivorian FA noticed Kessie’s ability long before the likes of Chelsea and Everton have now, playing a full game against Sierra Leone on his debut. Now at Atalanta, he really became the dynamic box-to-box midfielder whilst on loan at Cessna last season, as African football fans begin to get excited about the prospect of a central midfielder who can actually pass.
Kessie will bring an energy that will cause the opposition some real problems, especially in the latter parts of games. The obvious heir to Mr Toure’s throne, if he can continue his currently rate of development, Côte d’Ivoire will transition from old to new with no trouble at all.
Khama Billiat – Mamelodi Sundowns | Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwean attacking midfielder would have felt hard done to not win the CAF Footballer of the Year, after more than playing his part in Mamelodi Sundowns’ Africa Champions League success. His colleague Denis Onyango, of Uganda, pipped him to the award, winning the vote unanimously, with the subdued performances in the knockout stages of the competition probably counting against Billiat.
What is for certain is that the regal Billiat will be one of the most watchable players at the tournament, and he will have a point to prove. His blend of pitter-pattering fleet-footedness, directness and lethality in front of goal have propelled him to become one of Africa’s most feared attackers, able to change games single-handedly.
Moussa Doumbia – FC Rostov | Mali
Think Malian wingers and you think 7’7″ monsters simply fielded to run all day, hit hopeful crosses, produce no trickery, and commit cynical fouls to disrupt the flow of the game. That’s a caricature, but the point we’re trying to make is that Moussa Doumbia is none of that.
Usually cutting inside from the left wing, the 5’8″ Doumbia is a JMG Academy graduate and, in line with alumni of the academy, is typically comfortable on the ball. He was a star in qualifying, his effervescence testing right backs to the brim, and his intrepidness often spread to the rest of his team.
The inclusion of Bakary Sako threatens his place in the starting XI, but Alain Giresse has definitely taken a liking to the 22-year-old and, even if he doesn’t start, he could be one of the players his coach turns to on the bench.
Zezinho – Levadiakos | Guinea-Bissau
The Levadiakos man will arguably be Guinea-Bissau’s most important player in Gabon, certainly if they are to send shockwaves. He is, of course, not the nimble, calculated attacking midfielders we see at the very top level. He isn’t soothingly polished – he can overdo it with through balls, and he can dally on the ball in a position where split-second decision-making is critical.
Every now and then, though, he comes up with a decisive moment. He will be the most important figure in Guinea-Bissau’s attack, and his quickly established understanding with striker Frederic Mendy is equally important in a team where there are a lot of new faces and relationships are still gelling on the pitch.