Mohamed Abou Gabal ‘Gabaski’
Nobody expected Gabaski to be one of the stories and stars of this tournament, not while being understudy to Mohamed El Shenawy. This is a man who seized the opportunity and relished it when the No.1 got injured. His saves, and penalty saves, have epitomised an Egypt team that never looked like giving in until they won the whole thing. In the end it was frankly scandalous how he didn’t win CAF’s best goalkeeper award.
The only player to make this list who didn’t make it past the quarter-finals. It could have easily been Burkina Faso’s Issa Kabore in his place but Hakimi brought his very best, elite self, in a Morocco team that ultimately failed to deliver.
He scored two goals, both free kicks at a time when his team needed a moment of brilliance – not many of the so-called world class players in this tournament have been able to come up with moments when their teams need them most.
His inclusion in the Burkina Faso team after a Covid recovery was a turning point for Burkina Faso. Suddenly they had a very good centre back at their disposal, and one that gave them the ability to kickstart attacks with brave progressive passes into middle of the pitch. His play wasn’t without errors, notably the late Sarr goal that wrapped up the game, but he showed the strengths to his game that have him highly regarded.
The only left footer was rock solid at the back and a mainstay of the Senegal defence which conceded the fewest shots. Indeed, Diallo was the only Senegal player to be on the pitch for every minute of their AFCON 2021 campaign. That is some achievement, and it illustrates how important Aliou Cisse considered him, factoring in the absence of Kalidou Koulibaly in the early matches.
Other coaches put their left backs in shackles when they faced Mohamed Salah. Aliou Cisse, in either a reckless or genius move, let Saliou Cisse play his natural game. And it nearly paid off. The penalty he won early on could have been the winner had Mane tucked It away. Ciss has constantly been adventurous down the left; his partnership with Mane down that wing resulted in a total of 19 chances created for Senegal.
The Arsenal midfielder can make a compelling case for being the player of the tournament. Sadly these awards usually go to the victors. His endurance has always been one of the strengths of his game, and Egypt needed that in a knockout stage path that has been a test of endurance.
That aside, he has been the disrupter and cleaner in Egypt’s midfield, whether it’s picking the right moment to press or be in the right place and right time to intercept. With players like Elneny on the pitch acting as his field marshals, no wonder Carlos Queiroz was unbothered by having to sit in the stands.
He didn’t have the best of semi-finals as Egypt’s well-drilled midfield engine restricted his influence on the game. Before that though Hongla had been one of the standout players, with two assists to his name. He finishes the tournament as the leading player when it comes to passes attempted into the final third per 90 minutes, with around 73% of those passes being accurate.
Burkina Faso played their counter attacking as if they had spent every waking hour rehearsing the moves. Without the through balls of Toure those moves wouldn’t have been so devastatingly swift. It was his through ball which found Dango Ouattara for the winner versus Tunisia., and these sort of through balls became a distinct feature of Burkina Faso’s play.
With just two goals in seven games this was a quiet tournament for Salah when you look at his goal contribution, but he provided more than just output: his mere presence gave teams conundrums at left back and made entire backlines on high alert.
In the round of 16 Ivory Coast’s Ghislain Konan, one of the players of the tournament until that point, didn’t stop his progressive runs but he was occupied and had to pick his moments. In the quarter finals Morocco’s left back Adam Masina rarely ventured past the halfway line. Salah was the second most fouled player behind his Liverpool colleague Sadio Mane.
What’s more, he created 10 chances, more than any player at AFCON 2021. Given the way Egypt set up, he was as much an outlet – a world class one – and, with those fouls one, a reliever of pressure for a team that did AFCON the hard way.
The most fouled player at AFCON (28 fouls suffered). The player with the most through balls attempted (14). The player with the second most chances created (9), one behind Mohamed Salah. His combination with Saliou Ciss down Senegal’s left was arguably the most dangerous at the tournament.
On top of that, there are the nerves to miss a penalty during normal time and to step up to score the winning penalty during the shootout in the most emphatic fashion, and in doing so banishing the penalty misses of yesteryear. Mane deserves this.
Ultimately, he fell just short, but he more than made his mark at the tournament. The top goalscorer of the tournament wrapped up the golden boot early, and his 8 goals put him way ahead of the pack. Aboubakar played with the hungriness of a man that had never won the AFCON before, in a way he will be more remembered for this tournament than winning it in 2017 such has been his impact.