Players to watch at AFCON 2021: Haller, Benrahma, Marmoush and more

Ahram Online , Saturday 8 Jan 2022

Beside usual stars Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez, Ahram Online compiles a list of players who are expected to shine for their respective teams in the 2021 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon.

AFCON 2021

Sebastien Haller (Ivory Coast)

Sebastien Haller has taken European football by storm in a stunning first year with Ajax Amsterdam after joining from Premier League side West Ham, where he had made little impact.

Having made his Champions League debut in September 2021, Haller equaled Cristiano Ronaldo's record of scoring in all six group games of the elite competition.

He netted 10 goals in six matches, becoming the only fourth player to have reached double figures in the group stage of a Champions League campaign after Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.

On the international level, he scored twice in four World Cup qualifying appearances but Ivory Coast failed to make it to the final two-legged playoff after being pipped by Cameroon.

Asked by Dutch media whether he would take part in the Nations Cup, Haller said: "Would this question ever get asked to a European player ahead of the EUROs? Of course I am going to the Africa Cup."

"Of course I will go to the Africa Cup to represent Ivory Coast. That is the highest honour."

Taiwo Awoniyi (Nigeria)

The 24-year-old striker has impressed in the first half of the season after sealing a permanent move to Union Berlin from Liverpool in the summer, scoring nine goals in 17 Bundesliga appearances.

Work permit issues prevented Awoniyi from playing for Liverpool, whom he joined from the Imperial Soccer Academy in August 2015, and he spent the following years on loan spells at FSV Frankfurt, NEC, Mouscron, Gent, Mainz and Union Berlin.

Awoniyi made his Nigeria debut in a 1-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Central Africa on 7 October, coming on as a second-half substitute for Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho

"To be honest ... I cannot describe it," Awoniyi told ESPN of his first international cap.

"It's been my target, and I was so grateful to God -- when I wake up, my first motivation for the day is to thank God. Once I've done that, I look at how the journey started, and realise that I just have to keep on going."

Said Benrahma (Algeria)

Said Benrahma has become one of Algeria's promising starts after producing some superb displays with West Ham this season.

He scored eight goals in 28 appearances in all competitions, including five in the premier league, and provided four assists. He also demonstrated his skills with some deft touches and nifty footwork down the flank.

Benrahma made his professional debut with French Ligue 1 club Nice in 2015 before having several loan stints at other French sides.

He joined then English second-tier club Brentford in 2018 before sealing a loan move to Premier League side West Ham in October 2020. The club made his deal permanent a few months later.

Benrahma has made only 14 appearances with Algeria since earning his first international cap in a friendly game against Senegal in October 2015, scoring one goal and providing four assists.

He missed Algeria's 2019 Nations Cup triumphant campaign in Egypt due to injury but is expected to be one of their key players in the Cameroon edition.

Youssef En-Nesyri (Morocco)

The Sevilla striker caught the eyes after finishing fifth in the list of La Liga's top scorers last season with 18 goals

He has become only the second African to finish that high since former Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o won the competition's top scorer award in the 2005-2006 season.

En-Nesyri was one of Sevilla's standout performers last season, scoring 18 goals to help them finish fourth and earn a place in the European Champions League.

Although he is still 24 years old, En-Nesyri is set to feature in the Nations Cup for the third time. He was also part of Morocco's squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he found the net in a group-stage game against Spain.

He has scored 11 goals in 40 appearances with his national team since making his debut in 2016.

En-Nesyri will be entrusted with leading Morocco's attack, especially in the absence of Chelsea winger Haim Ziyach.

"I wish to win the AFCON with Morocco; it has been my desire since I was young. This is the time to deliver the second title for the Lions and make Moroccans happy," he said.

Kamaldeen Sulemana (Ghana)

Kamaldeen Sulemana is the Black Stars' rising star. At 19 years old, he is seen as the hottest prospect of Ghanaian football. A production of the Right to Dream academy, he has blossomed at Danish side FC Nordsjaelland since joining in February 2020.

He scored 14 goals and dished out eight assists in 43 games in the commencement of his professional career. The skillful winger, who can play pretty much everywhere upfront, caught the eyes of Europe's elites and opted to join Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais over Ajax for financial and sporting reasons.

"I knew I would have more playing time here. I felt I was a priority here and I wanted to play against big teams like PSG," Sulemana said.

It seems the opportunity will come up for him to make an impact in his first major tournament with Ghana after seven games without finding the net, as he still looks for his first international goal.

Amadou Haidara (Mali)

The 23-year-old midfielder is already one of the most-wanted talents in Europe.

Haidara emerged through the youth ranks of a local academy in Bamako and was spotted in the summer of 2016 by the scouts of RB Salzburg, where he made notable progress before joining Bundesliga powerhouses RB Leipzig in January 2019.

He developed into an all-round midfielder who can play as a number 6, 8 or even 10 thanks to his tireless efforts, accurate passing and attacking runs.

Manchester United coach Ralf Ragnick, who brought him to RB Leipzig two years ago and oversaw his development, has put him on top of his wish list to remodel his struggling midfield.

"Yes, Ralf plays a very big role in my career. Don't forget: when Leipzig wanted to get me, I tore my cruciate ligament. But Ralf said that I should come anyway. I wouldn’t have expected that back then. I’m very grateful to him because he really wanted me and gave me great confidence as a coach in Leipzig," Haidara said.

The midfield maestro missed the 2019 Nations Cup in Egypt due to injury but Cameroon seems the right stage for him to showcase his talent.

Omar Marmoush (Egypt)

The Stuttgart on-loan winger has quickly established himself as a key player for Egypt despite only making his debut in October, which turned out to be a dream one as he scored the only goal in a vital 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Libya.

He also provided an assist in Egypt's 3-0 away win over Libya in their following game before a foot injury ruled him out of the final World Cup Group F qualifiers against Angola and Gabon.

Despite his few appearances, Marmoush is already tipped to become Egypt's regular left winger at the Nations Cup, getting the nod ahead of the more established Mahmoud Trezeguet, who plays for Aston Villa,

"It was very difficult to get into the national team fold and make a quick impact, especially that I was little-known beforehand," he said in a television interview.  

"The goal against Libya gave me confidence to be among Egypt's crop of stars."

The 22-year-old joined Stuttgart from Wolfsburg on a season-long loan last summer.

He has scored two goals and provided three assists in 12 Bundesliga appearances with Stuttgart so far this season.

Hannibal Mejbri (Tunisia)

Mejbri is one of Africa's hottest prospects, having made quite an impact with Tunisia at the age of 18.

A Manchester United youngster who is tipped to break into their first team very soon, Mejbri is a versatile player who can operate in any midfield position or as a winger.

He represented France at the youth levels but eventually opted to switch allegiance to Tunisia earlier this year, making his international senior-team debut in a 1-0 friendly victory over DR Congo in June.

He went on to make eight more international appearances, including six in the FIFA Arab Cup as he played a key role in lifting Tunisia to the final before they lost 2-0 to Algeria after extra time.

On the club level, Mejbri made only one appearance with Man United's first team -- a 2-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers on the final day of the Premier League season in May.

"To be honest with you, I’ll give my absolute best wherever I’m played out on the pitch, whether that be at no.8 or no.6 or no.10 or even on the wing," Mejbri told Man United's official website.

"I think I've got the qualities to play all of those positions."

Click here for more AFCON news and info

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

Short link: