With the January transfer window now well underway, it could be the league’s absences rather than its additions which have the greatest impact on the Premier League table come February.
The biennial African Cup of Nations tournament kicks off on 14 January, and, with the final not taking place until 5 February, some of the most talented players competing on the English domestic stage could be missing for a total of four Premier League fixtures.
While a number of sides situated towards the top and bottom of the Premier League table will be effected by the tournament, it would appear that those fearing the drop could be most concerned by the timing of some key names’ absences.
Current Champions Leicester City have struggled to find any kind of form reminiscent of that which they showed throughout the 2015/16 campaign, and, with Algerian stars Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani joining teammate Daniel Amartey – who has been called up by Ghana – on the plane to Gabon, January looks as though it could be an ominous month for The Foxes.
Fellow strugglers Sunderland will also be missing three key players for at least the most part of this month, with Lamine Koné and Wahbi Khazri – two key players in the North East side’s great escape last season – set to feature for the Ivory Coast and Egypt respectively, while Gabonese midfielder Ibrahim Ndong prepares to represent his own nation on home soil.
Also losing three men to the Cup of Nations are Stoke City (Wilfried Bony, Ramadan Sobhi, and Mame Biram Diouf), Watford (Brice Dja Djédjé, Nordin Amrabat, and Adlène Guedioura), and West Ham (André Ayew, Sofiane Feghouli, and Cheikhou Kouyaté), with, based on current form, the latter appearing to be suffering the greatest loss of all the aforementioned sides.
In terms of those teams fighting at the ‘right’ end of the Premier League table, the competition would appear to have benefitted current title favourites Chelsea, with Coach Antonio Conte fortunate enough to have a full squad remaining in England throughout the course of the tournament. Such a luxury has rarely been given to Chelsea managers in recent years, with the likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Samuel Eto’o all representing their respective countries at previous tournaments.
AFCON will also be welcomed by Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, as he holds on to first team regulars Kelechi Iheanacho and Yaya Touré, who are both staying at home after the former’s national side Nigeria astonishingly failed to qualify for Gabon 2017, while the latter retired from international football in September of last year, having competed at six AFCONs and captained his side to victory at the event back in 2015.
Current top four rivals Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United do not share in Chelsea and Manchester City’s good fortunes however, with all three losing key first-team names to the tournament.
Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger will be without Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Elneny – who adds to the Frenchman’s worries since news of Mesut Özil’s illness that is keeping the German on the side-lines – Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp will be without in-form winger and serious goal threat Sadio Mané, while Manchester United boss José Mourinho has explicitly announced his frustration over the absence of Ivory Coast defender Eric Bailly.
Of the five Ivorian’s called up ahead of the 31st edition of Africa’s premier international football event, one of the most visible names on the list is Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, who has overlooked Gareth Southgate’s attempts to convince him to play for England by accepting manager Michel Dussuyer’s request for him to play for his country of birth – even after representing the Three Lions on two occasions, with appearances in both 2012 and 2013.
A total of 24 players will be leaving their respective Premier League clubs to compete in Gabon over the course of the next month, with both the Ivory Coast and Algeria boasting five players from the English top division, while Senegal and Egypt ‘steal’ a further three.
And so the question of whether the African Cup of Nations should become a quadrennial or summer tournament looks set to commence one more, and, based on the evidence above, it would appear that few Premier League managers would be against such changes to the competition, as they look to avoid the potentially devastating effects that such absences can have over what is known to be an incredibly demanding New Year period.