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Themes and Players to Watch at the CHAN

Africa’s first senior-level competition since the global pandemic is kicking off on Saturday as the African Nations Championship commences in Cameroon following a couple of delays. Featuring players exclusively based in the countries they represent, the tournament will be an opportunity for young players to gain exposure and domestically-based veterans to represent their nation at a high level. Here is Pan-Africa Football’s list of players and themes to follow throughout the tournament.

Morocco are the favorites until proven otherwise

Make no mistake, Morocco is the team that everyone else will have to go through in order to win the trophy. The rise to prominence of the country’s domestic scene is well documented, and their 2018 CHAN title is a major reason why. Bringing a squad that features multiple players from Raja Casablanca, Wydad, and RS Berkane, there will be plenty of players who have been tested at the highest levels of CAF football. Leading scorer of the 2018 tournament Ayoub El Kaabi will be back for this edition following his return to Wydad from Chinese football. The team will be very difficult to break down as well with multiple members of RS Berkane’s stingy defense being called up. 

How will the hosts look?

Looking at the exhibition match results and what experts in the country are saying, the prognosis is not positive for the Intermediate Lions. Martin Ndtoungou Mpile was hired a few months back in a bit of a panic move to try and bring some stability to the squad, but the team has only shown more moments where they lack fluidity. Because Mpile brought in a new foundation of players and changed things around, it appears that Cameroon has squandered any opportunity to develop team chemistry ahead of the tournament and will be lucky to advance out of their group. 

How fierce will the Leopards be?

With past success in winning the CHAN in 2016 and sporting plenty of players from renowned club TP Mazembe for this edition, the squad for DR Congo appears strong, but the squad selection has set off debate in the country. Coach Florent Ibenge’s pedigree in African football is well-regarded but leaving out past stars such as former CAF Africa Based Player of the Year Tresor Mputu has left plenty of speculation as to whether the team will be strong enough to compete. However, there are still some senior national team veterans like full-back Issama Mpeko and Ley Matambi that give reason to believe the team will be favorites to win Group C. 

Guinea and the Horoya contingent

Horoya AC have set a new standard for West African club football and the Guinean club will be well represented at this edition of the CHAN, though key player Boniface Haba will be unavailable. It is clear that Guinea want to make a statement at this tournament and it will be interesting to see how the squad copes with expectation. Despite Haba’s absence, his club teammate Morlaye Sylla will be one of the players to watch at the tournament. The 22-year-old creative midfielder can break down defenses with his passing, dribbling, and ability to shoot with either foot. As seen in the first clip below, his set pieces are at an advanced level as well:

The Officer and the Electrician

Clément Pitroipa
Mohamed Lamine Ouattara

Burkinabé football continues to rise to unforeseen heights in the country with the national team’s success and the high-profile transfers of multiple talents to top European leagues. Now the country’s domestic scene is increasing its influence with the rise of clubs like Salitas FC and the CHAN is a dream opportunity for these players to gain exposure. Clément Pitroipa of the Army club USFA and Mohamed Lamine Ouattara from national electricity company club AS SONABEL have stood out in the Burkinabé Premier League this season. Pitroipa is a 22-year-old smooth creative midfielder who can create or finish goals, winning the Player of the Month award for November. Another 22-year-old, Ouattara is a pure goalscorer with a combination of speed and size, knocking in 13 goals in 15 appearances to lead the league. Both players are responsible for their respective clubs being tied at the top of the league table and Ouattara earned a call-up to the full senior Burkina Faso team for the last round of AFCON qualifiers. 

Brian Aheebwa and Uganda’s forwards

KCCA FC forward Brian Aheebwa is earning plenty of pre-tournament hype, and for very good reason. The 22-year-old has scored 7 goals in 5 matches this season in the Uganda Premier League and recently scored a hat trick to nearly guide his club to a remarkable comeback against AS Kigali in the CAF Confederation Cup. The Cranes of Uganda will be counting on him to keep his form up in a very capable squad with his predatory instincts: 

Vipers forward Muhammad Shaban is another player to watch. The 23-year-old was set for big things when he signed for Raja Casablanca at 20, but a devastating knee injury has seen him return to Ugandan football to rejuvenate his career. He and 25-year-old club teammate Milton Karisa are players that are capable of impacting proceedings.

Mali’s defensive core from Stade Malien

Les Aigles are always competitive and continue to export talent from domestic teams and academies at a rapid rate. Domestic champions Stade Malien conceded only 8 goals in 24 matches in a dominant 2019-20 season that saw them capture the title. 25-year-old Stade Malien goalkeeper Djigui Diarra will be counted on to be a leader for Mali, having already made nearly 40 appearances for the full senior team since being a standout performer at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. Issaka Samake, Yacouba Doumbia, and Mamadou Doumbia are members of the Stade Malien defensive line who will be in line to start in front of Diarra. 

Goalkeepers

Aishi Manula- Tanzania
Olivier Kwizera- Rwanda

The last few seasons in European football have seen Africa’s goalkeepers growing the reputation of the continent between the posts. A couple of keepers who have stood out in Africa Cup of Nations qualifying will be at the CHAN, including Tanzania’s Aishi Manula and Rwanda’s Olivier Kwizera. Kwizera was outstanding in Rwanda’s two matches against Cape Verde and possesses quick reflexes for shots from inside the box. The 25-year-old Manula, currently at local giants Simba SC, has been a notable factor in a Tanzania side that is difficult to break down, particularly in the senior side’s recent matches against Tunisia. Keep an eye on Mali’s Djigui Diarra, who has plenty experience at the international level at 25.

Rwanda’s veterans get another chance

Jacques Tuyisenge
Ernest Sugira

There are multiple players who have already played in an African Nations Championship and will be keen to lead their teams to glory. Jacques Tuyisenge and Ernest Sugira were important players on Rwanda’s team in 2016 when the country hosted the tournament. Tuyisenge recently joined APR to become Rwanda’s highest-paid domestic footballer after a prolific spell at Gor Mahia and a short stint at Petro Atletico in Angola. Sugira is a giant forward who is currently at Rayon Sports and will be looking to recapture his best form. Rwanda disappointingly exited in the quarter-finals that year following a strong group stage, so the 29-year-old stars will be looking to take the Amavubi deeper this time around.

Can the Chipolopolo get 2021 off to a good start?

In addition to the pandemic, 2020 was a tough year on the pitch as well for Zambia with qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations looking unlikely. The CHAN represents a brilliant opportunity for the team to instill some optimism in the fanbase. Despite a high number of friendly matches to prepare for AFCON qualifying and this tournament, the results have been far from ideal. Zambian eyes will be on coach Micho Sredojevic and to get results in this tournament. With European-based players not in the fold, keep an eye on Collins Sikombe and Emmanuel Chabula to see if they can take advantage of their chance to lead the attack.

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