The Africa Cup of Nations returns this Friday at a time when the continent arguably possesses a higher quality of player than ever before.
Three African players shared the Premier League top goalscorer award this season and one of them isn’t even playing in the tournament, with Gabon’s failure to qualify preventing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from partaking.
It points to the overall quality of African football at the moment, and some of Europe’s top clubs will doubtlessly be keenly watching the tournament unfold in the hope of unearthing some hidden gems. Yes, the likes of Tanzania and Madagascar have qualified, but there is still a huge number of promising players taking part.
Here are five that we think will be on the move over the summer.
Hakim Ziyech – Morocco
The 26-year old is already being touted for a big money move before a ball has been kicked at this year’s AFCON. A stellar season with Ajax, where he contributed 21 goals from a wide position has made him extremely likely to leave Amsterdam for pastures new.
He starred against Tottenham, despite Ajax’s elimination, and could have had a hattrick on a different night. Instead, his solitary goal came courtesy of a typically wickedly struck shot that showcased the devastation of his left foot. Playing in a Morocco team void of many household names, Ziyech is bound to be their talisman.
Morocco acquitted themselves quite well in Russia last summer, coming within seconds of beating Spain in their final group game and, with a chance that three teams will qualify from their group, they should at least make the last 16. If Ziyech can get at least four competitive games under his belt, he will give himself even more prominence in the transfer market.
Maxwel Cornet – Ivory Coast
Cornet will be familiar to Man City fans after he terrorised the City defence over two games in the Champions League group stages. His performance at home to City was particularly eye-catching, with a fine two-goal haul including a wonderful bending effort from 20 yards.
He also picked out the bottom corner with pinpoint precision as Lyon shocked City at the Etihad in September last year.
Lightning quick with a vicious left foot, Cornet will surely be on a host of club’s radars over the coming weeks. The Ivory Coast forward has been linked with European champions Liverpool in recent weeks and would make a good understudy to Mohammed Salah on the right wing.
He faces stern competition to lock down a starting berth at this year’s African Cup of Nations, however, with the likes of Wilfried Zaha, Wilfried Bony and highly rated Lille forward Nicolas Pepe to choose from. Incidentally, Pepe is also being monitored by a number of top clubs following a stellar season in France.
If he can get a good run of games, though, he should cause havoc against Namibia, South Africa and Morocco.
Keita Balde Diao – Senegal
With Inter Milan allegedly pulling the plug on making the Senegalese winger’s loan move permanent, Balde Diao’s next move is uncertain.
He moved to Monaco in 2017 as one of the hottest prospects in Serie A, having scored 16 league goals for Lazio that season. However, for one reason or another that move hasn’t really worked out. Monaco were looted by just about every top team in Europe and it was impossible for them to lodge another successful title bid.
He still managed eight goals for the French club, but his underwhelming form saw them ship him out on loan to the league he had once prospered in. Unfortunately for him, he failed to rediscover the devastating form that made him one of the most dangerous players in Italy and Inter are not going to match the €30 million asking fee.
It means that his future is up in the air, and he will need an impressive AFCON if he is to convince Europe’s elite that he is worth taking a chance on. Senegal are second favourites to win the tournament and if Balde Diao can play an integral role in getting them into the latter stages of the tournament, he may well revive his career.
Jean Michaël Seri – Ivory Coast
Where has it all gone wrong for a player who appeared to be one of the most sought-after midfielders in Europe just a season ago?
In retrospect, choosing Fulham over the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea was just as questionable as it seemed at the time, and his value has plummeted following a disastrous first season in the Premier League.
In Seri’s defence, it is difficult to make an impression in such a comically bad team, but he often looked disinterested playing for the Cottagers as he undoubtedly questioned why he joined an unproven team playing in the Premier League for the first time in four years over some of Europe’s best.
Whatever caused his poor form is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Seri will be leaving Fulham.
There is no way a player of his calibre will ply his trade in the Championship next summer and a good African Cup of Nations in the heart of Ivory Coast midfield will prove that he still has the ability that made him such a hot prospect in the first place.
Seri will want to use the tournament as a platform to showcase that his season at Fulham was a mere blip in an otherwise promising career.
André Onana – Cameroon
Like Ziyech, Onana will be well known to anyone who watched Ajax’s European journey and, like Ziyech, Onana has attracted the interest of a lot top European clubs.
Onana swapped Barcelona for Amsterdam in 2015, and has been Ajax’s regular netminder since 2016. He caught the eye on several occasions during Ajax’s Champions League run and was unfortunate to end up on the losing side.
He made a stunning save to deny Fernando Llorente in Amsterdam, only for a miscommunication with Lasse Schone to hand Lucas Moura a chance to grab his second and haul Spurs back into the tie.
Although sometimes erratic, Onana has made a string of stunning saves this season and has a growing reputation as one of the finest shot-stoppers in the game. His distribution has also been imperative in Ajax’s possession-based football and he would acquit himself well in any side that looked to dominate the ball.
Playing for defending champions Cameroon, Onana will be in with a decent chance of winning the AFCON which would see his market value soar that little bit higher.