Afcon stars Salah, Mane and Mendy among many in club-versus-country tug-of-war

Liverpool, Chelsea, Napoli, PSG and Sevilla all set to miss key players for January 9-February 6 tournament in Cameroon

Liverpool and Egypt's Mohamed Salah at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. EPA
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No club in the Premier League this season has conceded fewer goals than Chelsea. No defence in La Liga has been meaner than Sevilla’s. No team in Serie A has kept possession better than Napoli.

Little wonder then there is heightened concern at these three clubs - each challenging in but not commanding their domestic title races - at the farewells they must bid to crucial players in key areas for what could be several weeks of absence.

The Africa Cup of Nations, which begins on January 9 in Cameroon, will take from Chelsea - second in England’s top division - their Senegalese goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. Sevilla, nearest chasers of Real Madrid at the Spanish summit, will lose to Morocco their redoubtable keeper Yassine Bonou and two of his compatriots.

Napoli’s loss, fitness permitting, may also be threefold. They were setting the pace in the first third of the Italian league season thanks largely to the efficient spine of their team. It runs from Senegal’s Kalidou Coulibaly at centre-back, through Cameroon’s Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa in midfield to Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen up front.

They are among over 250 players employed in European leagues who will be away, in some cases up until the Afcon final on February 6, amid unprecedented volumes of complaint and wrangling over availability.

“The Nations Cup has become a huge battle between different lobbies,” said Vahid Halilhodzic, head coach of Morocco, “and it’s more and more complicated.”

The unusual circumstances of this edition exacerbate the club-versus-country tug-of-war. For the first time since the Afcon finals expanded from 16 teams to 24, post-2017, they are taking place in what used to be the traditional beginning-of-the-year slot. This, the 2021 edition was postponed from last summer - when club football is mostly in recess - because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Confederation of African Football last week compromised on the date required, under normal Fifa rules, for players to be at the disposal of national coaches, allowing clubs to keep them beyond the December 27 deadline and until only a week before the tournament kicks off.

It means Liverpool can pick Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane - of Egypt and Senegal - on Sunday against Chelsea, who will also have Mendy, for that high-stakes Premier League game before Salah, the league’s top scorer, Mane, Mendy and Liverpool and Guinea midfielder Naby Keita set off for their Afcon preparations.

Coaches in Africa are unhappy about the extra squeeze on their rehearsal time. “We have a problem with the English clubs in particular,” said Aliou Cisse, the Senegal head coach, bemoaning the lack of a significant winter break in the English schedule. He was also angered by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s unwise reference to the Afcon as a “little tournament”.

“There’s a lack of respect for the Nations Cup,” Sebastien Haller, the Ivory Coast centre-forward, told De Telegraaf, the Dutch newspaper. Haller plays for Ajax, whose bid to move up from second spot in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie will lack the division’s leading scorer while Haller is away.

To appreciate the importance of African football’s showpiece event to a majority of it players, look only at the efforts of Coulibaly, who has been struggling with a muscle problem, to push forward his recovery so he can captain Senegal, the 2019 runners-up, and Osimhen’s determination to play for Nigeria in spite of a fractured cheekbone that was initially forecast to keep him out until March.

Napoli’s form suffered through December with that pair injured; both are eager their countries’ chances over the next six weeks will not suffer.

So enriched is elite European club football by African talent that few leading clubs are unaffected. Manchester City will be without Riyad Mahrez, who spearheads Algeria’s defence of their African title, but given the City squad’s abundance of talent in wide, attacking positions, they would hardly compare their shortfall with Liverpool’s loss of Salah and Mane, or Chelsea’s for being without their trusted goalkeeper.

In France’s Ligue 1, where more than 50 players have been called up for Afcon, Paris Saint-Germain will say farewell to Achraf Hakimi, their Moroccan right-back, and midfield anchor Idrissa Gana Gueye, of Senegal. But PSG have a vast lead in the title race - 13 points - over their closest pursuers and know that second-placed Nice are also deprived of a full-back, Youcef Atal, of Algeria, and a central midfielder, Mario Lemina, a pillar of the Gabon team led by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

As for Aubameyang’s employers, Arsenal have at least practised how to cope without him. He was dropped earlier this month for disciplinary reasons, and cannot expect to be restored to the club captaincy, or even the Arsenal starting XI, when he returns.

Updated: December 31, 2021, 3:58 AM