Analysis, interviews and Stats Zone, in association with Puma
Earlier this week, Jonathan Fadugba picked out five excellent players at the Africa Cup of Nations who don't ply their trade in England… yet. Now Gareth McKnight selects another five – or six – to watch
This year's Africa Cup of Nations has brought top-drawer players and teams to fight it out for glory in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. The likes of Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba and Demba Ba are superstars of the modern day.
However, look beyond the Premier League names and you'll find plenty of other players waiting to make their names. Furthermore, with the absence of heavyweights Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa, the chance is there for lesser-known players and teams to star. Past competitions have brought some of the current top African players into the limelight, and there is a crop of young, up-and-coming talent ready to show their worth this time round.
Alain Traore (Burkina Faso and Auxerre)Burkina Faso midfielder Alain Traore has been mightily impressive for club and country over the last 12 months, and is the creative talisman for his nation. The versatile 23-year-old frequently starts in the centre of the park for Paulo Duarte's men, but don't be surprised to seem him pick up the ball in wide areas or look to get beyond the strikers.
Excellent vision and an eye for goal mean Burkina Faso's Group B opponents must be mindful of the Auxerre playmaker. Seven goals this season for the Ligue 1 club have seen the likes of Newcastle and Manchester United being linked with a move for Traore, who could well be pursued again by leading clubs if he has a strong tournament. With him alongside Marseille’s Charles Kabore, the Stallions have a competitive and dangerous midfield at their disposal.
Indeed, although Burkina Faso somewhat unluckily lost their opening group game 2-1 to Angola, Traore scored from a curling free-kick (pictured) and can lay strong claim to being man of the match. He attempted and completed more passes (41 out of 54) and attacking third passes (18 out of 29) than anyone else, and also had the most shots (four). Watch him vs Ivory Coast, Thu 26th, 7pm; vs Sudan, Mon 30th, 6pm
Kwadwo Asamoah (Ghana and Udinese)
Midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah has starred in Udinese's progression over the last two seasons, and his determination and boundless energy in the centre of the park, allowing likes of the Andre Ayew free space and time on the ball, will make him an ominous opponent at this year's competition – should the Black Stars choose to use him.
The butt of criticism from some Ghanaians who feel he hasn't been replicating his fine club form for his country (to which Asamoah has responded that he plays "according to the instructions of the coach in a manner that best suits the team"), the 23-year-old seems to face a fight with Sulley Muntari for his place – and Muntari got the nod for the opening 1-0 win over Botswana.
Having matured greatly over the last 12 months – and subsequently being linked with top clubs in England and Italy – the Accra-born midfielder will be hoping that his ACoN is more like 2010, when he was a key figure as Ghana reached the final, than 2008 when he remained an unused substitute.Watch him (possibly…) vs Mali, Sat 28th, 7pm; vs Guinea, Wed 1st, 6pm
Younes Belhanda (Morocco and Montpellier)
With creative talents like Mbark Boussoufa and Adel Taarabt on board, Morocco should be an enjoyable team to watch, but their key playmaker could well be Montpellier prospect Younes Belhanda. The 21-year-old has played an integral part in leading the Stade de la Mosson club up to an unexpected second place in Ligue 1, and has netted five times this season. Excellent with the ball at his feet, the former France U20s playmaker will hope to control possession and pick a defence-splitting pass.
He certainly got off to a good start against Tunisia, despite Morocco's 2-1 defeat. His passes attempted and completed (48 out of 64) were higher than anyone on the pitch bar his central midfield partner, captain and goalscorer Houssine Kharja. Like Kharja, Belhanda was busy in the attacking third with 18 completed passes out of 28, creating two chances as the Lions of the Atlas dominated without winning. Watch him vs Gabon, Fri 27th, 7pm; vs Niger, Tue 31st, 6pm
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon and St Etienne)
Can you be a journeyman at 22? Having joined AC Milan at age 17 but failed to break through, France-born striker Aubameyang was farmed back out on loan to Dijon, Lille, Monaco and St Etienne before signing a permanent deal with the latter last month. Now he needs consistency to live up to his early career potential.
He turned down an invite from Italy U19s and represented France U21s before following in his father Pierre’s footsteps by representing Gabon. With the hopes of a nation resting on his shoulders, he inspired the co-hosts to a commanding 2-0 victory over Niger on Monday, scoring the first goal and helping create the second.
Central to all Gabon's attacking play in a dominant performance, the No.9 had the most shots (five) and shots on target (three), also creating two chances as the Panthers overwhelmed their competition-debutant opponents.Watch him vs Morocco, Fri 27th, 7pm; vs Tunisia, Tue 31st, 6pm
Andre (and Jordan) Ayew (Ghana and Marseille)
Marseille's Andre and Jordan Ayew are quickly becoming two of the most sought-after talents in European football, as the pair have progressed through the Stade Velodrome youth system into the first team. The sons of Ghana legend Abedi Pele are doing their best to represent their famous family.
Older sibling Andre (pictured) has already racked up over 30 caps at the tender age of 22, and is a supposed target for Arsenal among others. His trickery, speed and guile make him a top player already, and his creativity will be key in Goran Stevanovic's men charge for glory.
Jordan, now 20, has evolved into more of a central attacker, and will look to take advantage of his brother's range of passing. Electric pace and elusive movement off the ball will make the starlet a handful for opposing defences.
Both started in Ghana's opener against Botswana, although Jordan was substituted on the hour as the Black Stars tried unsuccessfully to extend their 1-0 lead. Andre was the more visible player, with 19 successful passes in the attacking third, four successful take-ons out of five and a painful nine fouls suffered – three times more than any other player.Watch them vs Mali, Sat 28th, 7pm; vs Guinea, Wed 1st, 6pm
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