The African Cup of Nations has been a topic of much discussion throughout the season, more in relation to how certain sides would cope without the loss of certain players than in actual excitement for a tournament often full with incident – this years’ being no different.
A more frequent tournament than its UEFA equivalent, happening every two years with every other tournament falling in a World Cup year, taking place mid-season the African Cup of Nations is seen by many simply as a burden. Some managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson will even go as far as apparently claiming not to wish to procure the services of players from this continent due to the impact of losing them at such an important stage of the season. Whether he would have stuck to this claim if the likes of Michael Essien had opted to move to Old Trafford is another matter. Chelsea is the obvious place to start. Starting the season as many people’s favourites for the Premier League title, Carlo Ancelotti’s men would be without the likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel for most of the month of January. Many felt that without their most influential forward and arguably their most consistent midfielder the Blues would suffer the kind of dip in form which would allow their nearest challengers to gain a stranglehold on the title. Granted Chelsea did not have the most difficult of fixtures during this period, facing the likes of Sunderland, Preston and possibly their trickiest tie, Birmingham at home. Add the fixture away at Hull postponed due to adverse weather conditions and we can see all winnable games for Chelsea regardless of who they put out.
What has in fact been witnessed is not only Chelsea winning these matches but winning them emphatically. A change in formation with Nicolas Anelka the spearhead of a 4-3-3 brought with it a seven-goal haul against Sunderland and the same formation comfortably dispatched a Birmingham City side riding high on a 15-match unbeaten run. Anelka reveled in his new role and more playing time was provided to Florent Malouda, a player often on the periphery under Ancelotti but who’s performances at the back end of last season and when called upon this season are deserving of a regular starting berth. Joe Cole has also been in fine form playing in a more advanced, albeit wide role, rather than the head of the diamond formation. The change in formation has brought with it a much more fluid Chelsea just as it did when Jose Mourinho’s hand was forced much in the same manner. In the Blues’ encounters during this period much has been made of the free-flowing football they have played and in truth they have not been put under vast amounts of pressure in the middle of the pitch by their opposition. Consequently it is difficult to measure the impact of losing Essien for these games. However, with the Ghanaian possibly out for longer than a month following the injury sustained while at the tournament, the effect of the African Cup of Nations on Chelsea’s ranks may well be measured when it comes to the next stage of the Champions League and some possibly decisive Premier League fixtures further down the line.
Another side whose potential issue with the African Cup of Nations has been highlighted since the start of the season is Manchester City. When Mark Hughes elected to sign two African former Arsenal players in Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor much was said regarding the loss of these potentially influential ingredients to a newly formed side. The loss of Toure could potentially have been the most damaging considering Richard Dunne leaving for Aston Villa meaning that central defensive options were relatively light. Looking at City’s results while they were without these two players they suffered only their third Premier League loss away at Everton, emphatically thumped Blackburn, progressed in the FA Cup and achieved a win and a loss against local rivals Manchester United in the League Cup semi-final. During this run of results City have played some fantastic football and the form of Carlos Tevez has been sublime. Adebayor hit the ground running on his City career and thrust himself into the limelight meaning that he was always the one his teammates looked to hit as much as possible. In his absence, Tevez has gained in confidence in this role and reaped the dividends. Whether his form will continue now Adebayor has returned is questionable as the pairing looked rather lackluster at times against Portsmouth in the first fixture back playing together.
The loss of Toure has left City stretched for defensive options as Vincent Kompany was already being employed as a makeshift centre-half following long term absentee Joleon Lescott. The further loss of Toure has meant that they went into the loss at Goodison with no recognised centre-half and 20-year-old Dedryk Boyata has often had to come into the back four. This led to them being opened up on countless occasions in the second leg of the League Cup tie. There is no doubt that Toure has been missed in terms of defensive options but also in the leadership qualities his captaincy brings. He has however had a poor season in terms of some of his performances and was not comfortable against Pompey at the weekend so whether his return will improve City’s defensive displays remains to be seen. Adebayor may be the real bonus returning to the Citizens’ ranks as he is likely to be relatively fresh following his compassionate leave, which will be a welcome addition for a team struggling with a busy January and who in the eyes of boss Roberto Mancini looked to be suffering the effects in their most recent fixture.
Along with Chelsea, Portsmouth was the other Premier League side with four players playing in the tournament and with vastly different fortunes than the west Londoners may be likely to suffer the effects of the tournament more acutely. Pompey has only played two Premier League encounters during January with most of their games coming in the FA Cup with the south coast outfit progressing through to the fifth round. In fact it was two African players not involved in the tournament who secured the wins in both FA Cup fixtures with the two goals of forgotten man John Utaka bringing the win against Sunderland – Utaka being provided with a rare start due to the absence of Aruna Dindane. Many pundits felt that the tournament could signal the end of Premier League football for Pompey but with the weather problems meaning only two league matches – gaining a draw and a loss – they are still only six points adrift of safety and have enjoyed some improved displays.
Of the other sides containing players involved in the tournament it is only Joseph Yobo who can be regarded as an integral member of the playing staff for his club and with the Everton man sustaining a recurrence of the hamstring injury that has plagued him all season this could be the one of the most significant blows from this year’s tournament. There is no doubt that a tournament mid-season will have an effect on those teams losing certain players but examining what we have seen during the first month of January, that effect has not been as significant as had been first thought. This however, is only the start of the problem associated with a mid-season tournament. Following the end of the tournament, all involved players will be back with their clubs and medical staff will be able to fully examine the extent of any damage suffered. Squads may have been stretched to accommodate the absence and now the real question remains – can the players stretch themselves for the second half of the season and accommodate the grueling tournament many of them have just been subjected to? The real effects on clubs’ decisions to employ players from this continent can