By Bariyo Brian Tumuramye
Mohamed Salah will lead Egypt’s hopes at AFCON while Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang are also looking to shine… but who is each country’s star man in Cameroon hoping to light up the tournament?
From Morocco to Sudan, from Nigeria to Ethiopa and from Senegal to Zimbabwe, each of the 24 teams taking part are pinning their hopes on their squad’s best and most experienced players, but which of them are leading the charges of each nation? Sportsmail takes a look.
Vincent Aboubakar – Cameroon
Gone are the days of Samuel Eto’o, it’s the Besiktas man leading the line for Cameroon and in the 29-year-old they have a regular and reliable goalscorer. He is the country’s fifth-highest goalscorer and finds himself in from this season in the Turkish top flight, netting 16 goals in 29 games.
Aboubakar has 80 caps with 25 goals scored during that time, and his powerful, imposing presence should be key for Cameroon as they host the tournament.
Edmond Tapsoba – Burkina Faso
A centre-back playing at the top of his game at present. A regular starter for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga aged just 22, the future is bright for this defender.
While Burkina Faso will be looking to the likes of Bertrand Traore to do the business at the top end of the pitch, it will be Tapsoba who is tasked with shackling a number of top players his nations are up against – including Aboubakar in the tournament opener.
Ryan Mendes – Cape Verde
The experienced former Lille winger is no stranger to the Africa Cup of Nations having featuring in the 2013 and 2015 editions.
Mendes – who spent a season on loan at Nottingham Forest in 2016-17 – now plays for Dubai side Al-Nasr and is the second-highest scorer in the Cape Verde’s history with 12 goals.
Sadio Mane – Senegal
Sadio Mane is set to be one of the most talented stars at AFCON.
The Reds star is not enjoying his best season spell of form at Anfield, but ended a goal drought against Chelsea as he scored his first goal since November 20 – netting nine in all competitions this season.
While he might not be firing on all cylinders, Senegal will still be confident they are one of the favourites to lift the trophy for the first time with Mane in their ranks.
The finished as runners up in the last edition of 2019, so with Mane joining the likes of Idrissa Gueye and Kalidou Koulibaly, he can lead a talented bunch to glory – and potentially become their highest goalscorer. He is currently three strikes away from the 29 goals set by Henri Camara.
Knowledge Musona – Zimbabwe
The 31-year-old is the country’s second highest top scorer with 23 strikes from 47 caps.
He will lead the line for Zimbabwe with some considerable experience that has seen him ply his trade for South African side Kaizer Chiefs, Swedish side Ostersunds, Anderlecht in Belgium, and now with Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Tai.
Naby Keita – Guinea
The Liverpool central midfielder is arguably the most high-profile player in the squad, and his team-mates will be looking to him to lead by example in Cameroon.
Keita has 46 caps for Guinea and played a prominent role in the international set-up in 2021, featuring five times.
John Banda – Malawi
The 29-year-old is currently the most-capped player in the squad with 74 appearances and has been a trusted member of Meke Mwase’s side in the last year.
The midfielder has scored seven times for his country and is a calming presence in the middle of the park.
Achraf Hakimi – Morocco
The PSG star has represented Morocco nine times in 2021, scoring twice and his influence is continuing to be felt all around the pitch despite being a right-back.
The title of most important player would normally belong to Hakim Ziyech, but with the Chelsea star left out after falling out with coach Vahid Halilhodzic, the mantle rests with Hakimi to try to bring the trophy to Morocco.
Andre Ayew – Ghana
The Black Stars captain now plays for Al-Sadd in Qatar and is in form – netting seven goals from his first 10 games this season.
He recently hit 100 caps for his country, just nine behind record holder Asamoah Gyan, and has scored 22 goals in total – that’s more than anyone in the current squad.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Gabon
He might be no good to Arsenal after the fallout of his third disciplinary breach, but try telling that to Gabon, who are pinning their hopes of success at AFCON on the 32-year-old forward.
The Panthers have a couple of big names in their squad – including former Southampton midfielder Mario Lemina – but none with the pedigree of Aubameyang, who is the country’s leading marksman with 29 goals from 71 caps.
He was released early from Arsenal to set off on AFCON duty and he should be more fired up than ever – once he has come out of self-isolation, having tested positive for Covid.
El Fardou Ben Nabouhane – Comoros
The forward is an experienced goal getter, currently turning out for Serbian side Red Star Belgrade and scored 18 from 42 games last season.
He’s also played in the Greek top flight for Olympiakos and should be one of his country’s main hopes of performing at AFCON.
Wilfred Ndidi – Nigeria
With Victor Osimhen ruled out of AFCON through injury, it is the Leicester midfielder who will be expected to carry the flag as one of the team’s most important players.
Ndidi has been linked with a number of top clubs for some time after impressing for the Foxes in recent seasons.
While Nigeria will be banking on the goals of Odion Ighalo and Kelechi Iheanacho, Ndidi will play an important role in protecting the defence and winning loose balls and interceptions.
Mohamed Salah – Egypt
The star man for the Pharaohs, and the star man for the whole tournament. Liverpool’s in-form forward is heads and shoulders above the others at the top of the Premier League scoring charts with 16 strikes, and Egypt have every chance of winning AFCON with his man in their side.
Even is Salah is not on top form, his presence will strike fear into their opponents and they will be focused on shackling him in most games. Salah has 45 goals from 74 caps and will be looking to make strides towards more of his country’s record books.
Egypt have won this competition seven times, but not since 2010, and this is another opportunity for Salah to get his hands on further silverware.
Mohamed Abdelrahman – Sudan
A prolific forward in Sudanese football, Abdelrahman is the most expensive signing in the history of the country’s national football league, joining Al-Hilal Omdurman for $1million.
He secured his nation’s place at AFCON by scoring in the decisive qualifier against South Africa and their hopes will hang on him again.
Piqueti Djassi – Guinea Bissau
The 28-year-old has experience of playing in the Portuguese top flight having started his career with Braga before switching to Al-Shoulla in the Saudi Arabia Premier League.
Piqueti has seven strikes in 32 games for his country. Having already been part of the squad for the 2019 AFCON, he will be hungry to use his experience to boost the rest of the team.
Riyad Mahrez – Algeria
One of the Premier League’s form men and one who is in top form for his country too. The Man City winger scored eight goals in nine appearances for Algeria in 2021 – when he performs, so does the team.
The service Mahrez provides will be crucial for fellow frontmen Islam Slimani and Yacine Brahimi, but his role in the team means a lot of their play will revolve around him as they look to get their top player on the ball.
Sebastian Haller – Ivory Coast
The Elephants are blessed with one of the most in-form strikers in Europe this season, with Haller netting ten times in the Champions League for Ajax, and he has 22 goals in 24 appearances in total.
Scary form, and just the man you would want in your squad to win your first AFCON since 2015. Great timing for Ivory Coast too, as Haller only switched his allegiance to them from France in 2020.
Kei Kamara – Sierra Leone
He might be approaching his forties, but 37-year-old Kamara knows how to find the back of the net.
The former Middlesbrough and Norwich City star is the diamond of this team with an impressive track record in front of goal, and continues to do so for his Finnish side HIFK, where he has scored five in nine games.
Emilio Nsue – Equatorial Guinea
The 32-year-old may not have a club at present, but he still has massive influence for his country as their leading sharpshooter with 12 goals – despite playing most of his career as a right back.
However, his attacking instinct has made him a huge threat going forward during his varied career – formerly playing for Mallorca in LaLiga and in the Championship with Middlesbrough and Birmingham City, before later joining Cyprus side APOEL.
Wahbi Khazri – Tunisia
Remember the former Sunderland winger? He’s still knocking around, and still as vital as ever for Tunisia.
Now 30-year-old and playing for Saint Etienne in Ligue 1, Khazri netted three times in five games for his country last year and wears the captain’s armband. He’s scored 22 times for Tunisia in 65 caps, making him the second-highest scorer in their history.
Yves Bissouma – Mali
After a three-year exile from the Mali squad, the Brighton midfielder has put aside his differences with the national side and has agreed to travel to Cameroon for the tournament.
Having him in the team will be a real boost for Mali, with Bissouma a powerful presence in the middle of the park who can break up attacks and set his side on the counter attack. His dispute with Mali was down to a disagreement over the country’s football set-up.
Aboubakar Kamara – Mauritania
The French-born star switched allegiance to feature for Mauritania last year, making his debut in March and going on to pick up six caps and netting twice.
The former Fulham forward is arguably the team’s most experienced and reputable player, having joined Greek side Aris Thessaloniki from the west London side for £3.5m last summer, coming with two seasons of Premier League experience under his belt.
Assan Ceesay – Gambia
He’s made over a century of appearances for Swiss side FC Zurich since 2018, netting 11 goals from 17 appearances this season.
He will be a huge asset for the Gambia, where he ranks as one of their most experienced players, as well as top scorer of all time.