Football: EPL fortunes may be hit by Cup of Nations detour

Manchester United defender Eric Bailly will be away with Ivory Coast but Hull, Leicester, Stoke and Sunderland will be worst hit among Premier League teams with three players from each side in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Manchester United defender Eric Bailly will be away with Ivory Coast but Hull, Leicester, Stoke and Sunderland will be worst hit among Premier League teams with three players from each side in the Africa Cup of Nations.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • With 23 English Premier League players among those heading off to Gabon to compete for their countries in the Africa Cup of Nations from Jan 14 to Feb 5, rich clubs must show they are resourceful enough to cope. Otherwise they will pay a heavy price.

For Liverpool and Manchester United that could mean slipping further off Chelsea's pace in the title race. For clubs such as Sunderland, Leicester and Hull, it could mean falling deeper into relegation trouble.

Of the 99 signings that Alex Ferguson made as manager of United, only four were African - and one of the reasons for that was the Scot's wariness about losing a key player in the middle of a title-chasing campaign.

When forking out around £30 million (S$53.1 million) for Ivory Coast's Eric Bailly last summer, current United boss Jose Mourinho obviously figured that some players are so good that the risk is worth running.

His judgment looks sound on that score, with Bailly emerging as United's best centre-back of the season so far. United kept a clean sheet without him at West Ham in their last match but, depending on Ivory Coast's progress in Gabon, they may have to contest another seven matches while he is away with his country.

That schedule includes the high-stakes duel with Liverpool on Jan 15. On the plus side for United, Liverpool will be deprived of Senegal winger Sadio Mane for that match.

As two of their chasers are depleted, Chelsea, who used to fret about the departures of players such as Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Salomon Kalou, can smile at being unhindered by the tournament. Nigeria's slightly surprising failure to qualify for the biennial Cup means that Victor Moses and Mikel John Obi, remains available to Antonio Conte.

  • ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE'S AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS CONTINGENT

  • ARSENAL
    Mohamed Elneny (Egypt)

  • BOURNEMOUTH
    Max Gradel (Ivory Coast)

  • CRYSTAL PALACE
    Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast) Bakary Sako (Mali)

  • EVERTON
    Idrissa Gueye (Senegal)

  • HULL CITY
    Dieumerci Mbokani (Democratic Republic of Congo) Ahmed Elmohamady (Egypt)

  • LEICESTER CITY
    Daniel Amartey (Ghana) Riyad Mahrez (Algeria) Islam Slimani (Algeria)

  • LIVERPOOL
    Sadio Mane (Senegal)

  • MANCHESTER UNITED
    Eric Bailly (Ivory Coast)

  • SOUTHAMPTON
    Sofiane Boufal (Morocco)

  • STOKE CITY
    Wilfried Bony (Ivory Coast) Ramadan Sobhi (Egypt) Mame Biram Diouf (Senegal)

  • SUNDERLAND
    Lamine Kone (Ivory Coast) Didier Ndong (Gabon) Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia)

  • WATFORD
    Nordin Amrabat (Morocco) Adlene Guedioura (Algeria)

  • WEST HAM UNITED
    Cheikhou Kouyate (Senegal) Andre Ayew (Ghana)

Manchester City will also have no players at the Cup. Nor will Tottenham, while Arsenal look to have enough cover to withstand the loss of the Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Elneny.

Sunderland and Leicester would like to be able to say something similar, but both of those are set to lose three important players and cannot be certain of coping.

If the Cup goes the way that bookmakers expect, then Algeria will be in the tournament right to the end, in which case Leicester will be without Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani for at least four league matches, on top of tomorrow's FA Cup tie against Everton.

Mahrez has not been as consistently good this season as he was last term, when he was voted the Premier League's player of the year, but Claudio Ranieri would surely liked to have had him available for upcoming jousts with Chelsea, Southampton and United, not to mention the meeting with Burnley, who were tipped to struggle at the start of the campaign but are two points above the ailing champions.

Slimani's absence, meanwhile, could lead to regular redeployment of the Jamie Vardy-Shinji Okazaki partnership that worked so well last season.

Hull's attempt to haul themselves out of the relegation zone will be complicated by two significant absences from a thin squad.

The Egyptian defender Ahmed Elmohamady has played in all but one of the club's league matches so far this season, while the Congolese striker Dieumerci Mbokani has served as the fulcrum of the team's attack in recent games, even though he has yet to score for the club.

New Crystal Palace manager Sam Allardyce may be wishing he used his one England match to cap Wilfried Zaha, who has since pledged his allegiance to Ivory Coast and will therefore leave Crystal Palace for the best part of a month.

Watford will also lose a key winger because Nordin Amrabat will be competing for Morocco.

Wilfried Bony has been less influential than was hoped for by Stoke this season after arriving on loan from City but the manager, Mark Hughes, would still rather the striker had not been picked by Ivory Coast.

Bony is one of three departures from Stoke, with the tricky young winger Ramadan Sobhi with the Egypt team while Mame Biram Diouf, the forward who has been successfully converted into a right wing-back by Hughes this season, will be part of Senegal's attack.

Senegal have enough talent to go far in the tournament and that would be a bad development for West Ham, for whom Cheikhou Kouyate is important. The London club will also be without Andre Ayew.

Progress by Senegal would be especially problematic on Merseyside and not only because of Liverpool's need for Mane. Idrissa Gueye has been the linchpin of Everton's midfield since joining from Aston Villa in the summer.

Villa, meanwhile, are proof that the tournament affects English sides beyond the Premier League, as Steve Bruce's attempt to steer the club into the Championship play-off places is made more difficult by the loss of three players, including his Ivorian top scorer Jonathan Kodjia.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2017, with the headline 'EPL fortunes may be hit by Cup of Nations detour'. Print Edition | Subscribe