This time for Africa: Premier League players prepare for Cup of Nations

Ian Hawkey looks at top-tier English football clubs who will be affected by players on international duty.

The absence of Yaya Toure, right, and Mame Diouf will hurt the aspirations of Manchester City and Stoke City, respectively. AP Photo
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The Premier League schedule reached its halfway mark last month on December 28 with a day of surprises. No team in the top four positions won.

It was probably not the shape of things to come, though, which is supported by a look at the individuals who influenced several of the outcomes of an unusual Premier League matchday 19.

Many of them will be absent for much of January and early February.

The fact that seven of the 17 goals scored in nine matches during the Premier League’s 19th round came from African internationals would be eye-catching on any weekend.

That it happened on one of the last days that most of them are available for a while is even more striking.

The African Cup of Nations begins on January 17, eight days after the Asian Cup, another tournament that will deprive clubs involved in domestic challenges of significant manpower.

But the African Cup of Nations, to be staged in Equatorial Guinea, has a greater impact on the Premier League in terms of numbers.

At present 16 footballers from top-flight English squads will be away – 17 if Cameroon are successful in their late bid to bring West Ham United’s Alex Song into their squad.

The impact of that on the aspirational teams of the upper half of the table on the basis of recent form is enough to have many managers break out in a cold sweat.

The next Newcastle United boss, the man chosen to replace the departed Alan Pardew, must plan without Senegalese striker Papiss Cisse, the club’s leading scorer. Cisse’s ninth goal of the season laid the foundation for the 3-2 victory over Everton on December 28.

Southampton’s Ronald Koeman must do without Cisse’s compatriot Sadio Mane, although, as things have turned out, he would have had to do so anyway.

Mane scored goals against Chelsea on December 28 and then Arsenal on New Year’s Day, but a calf injury picked up in the 2-0 win over Arsenal has ruled him out of action for four weeks – although Senegal have not given up hope as his name remains in the squad for the tournament in Equatorial Guinea.

Senegal are also hoping that West Ham’s Diafra Sakho can play a part despite a back injury and plan to assess the injury themselves, though they will have his club-mate Cheikhou Kouyate at the tournament.

Senegal are taking the most players from the Premier League with five, as Stoke City will also be missing Mame Biram Diouf in their forward line.

Senegal’s final Group C match on January 27 will be against Algeria, who will have Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez on the wing.

Mahrez cheered the Leicester supporters in the team’s last game of an eventful 2014 by scoring the goal that gave them a first win in eight matches.

The club remain bottom of the table and the bad news for Leicester manager Nigel Pearson is that the African Cup of Nations threatens to clip both his wings.

Mahrez and Ghana’s Jeff Schlupp, whose country are also in Group C, are both important members of Leicester’s squad and will be missed.

Yannick Bolasie contributes incisively in the same way for Crystal Palace, but he will, to the struggling club’s detriment, be joining the Democratic Republic of Congo squad in Equatorial Guinea.

The best African player to have in a Premier League squad at the time of the biennial tournament is one who has retired from international football.

Didier Drogba, once a totem for Ivory Coast, is now exclusively committed to Chelsea.

By contrast, his successor as Ivory Coast skipper, Yaya Toure, will be absent for up to five-and-a-half weeks from Manchester City’s duel with Chelsea for the Premier League title and most likely from the vital clash between the clubs in London on the last day of this month.

Everton have no problems with Samuel Eto’o (ex of Cameroon) and Steven Pienaar (no longer active with South Africa) as retired internationals, and would be relieved that a return to fitness and goalscoring form by Ivorian striker Arouna Kone – he struck in his first start of the campaign against Newcastle – did not make him a candidate for a recall to his national squad.

The Ivory Coast, however, has a broad choice of experienced forwards, spearheaded by Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony, who has scored more Premier League goals than anybody in 2014.

He will be in Equatorial Guinea and, so admired is he in English football, he will set off with reports of strong interest in him from other Premier League clubs ringing loudly in his ears.

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