Napoli duo Ghoulam, Koulibaly go head to head at Cup of Nations

Naples (Italy) (AFP) – Colleagues at club level, Kalidou Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam will come up against each other when Senegal meet Algeria at the Africa Cup of Nations on Monday.

The game in Franceville, south-eastern Gabon, is decisive for Ghoulam’s Algeria, who have to win and hope Tunisia lose to outsiders Zimbabwe if they are to progress to the quarter-finals of a competition for which they were among the pre-tournament favourites. 

In contrast, Koulibaly’s Senegal — Africa’s top side in the FIFA rankings — have lived up to their billing so far and two wins from two mean they have already secured progress to the last eight as winners of Group B.

Usually, the pair play alongside each other in the Napoli defence in Serie A, having both come from France before moving to Italy in 2014. 

“My second language was Italian, but after that, thinking about coming here to play…not at that time,” says the 25-year-old centre-back Koulibaly, who moved to the San Paolo from Belgian side Genk after getting the call from then-Napoli coach Rafa Benítez.

“I realised that it was a very good idea to come to Italy. Especially for a defender, coming to Italy is what I was lacking. 

“Also I think at my level of the game, tactics, rigorous defending, that’s what I was lacking, and it also allowed me to grow, so I do not regret it.”

A starter in both of Senegal’s games in Gabon so far alongside his one-time Genk teammate Kara Mbodj, Koulibaly’s stock has risen in Italy to the extent that speculation has linked him to a mega-bucks move to Chelsea in recent months. 

But the player added: “I am doing very well in Italy and I hope to stay for a long time, we will see.”

When he arrived in southern Italy in the summer of 2014, Ghoulam was already there, the left-back having joined from his local club Saint-Etienne six months earlier. 

Eligible to represent France by birth, Ghoulam has said he went with his heart in choosing Algeria, the land of his roots. 

And he says being in Naples, one of the great Mediterranean ports, has been like coming to a home from home.

“I arrived here and it is true that I was surprised because I felt like I was in Algeria, because the way of life is similar and the way football is viewed is similar,” said Ghoulam, who turns 26 on February 1. 

“The difference is that this is a city while Algeria is a country. But I was surprised: I had the feeling that I was seeing all of Algeria concentrated in the same city.” 

– ‘Progress every day’ –

The danger is that Ghoulam and Algeria are heading for an early exit from this Cup of Nations, while Senegal are already looking ahead to the knockout stage as they target a first ever Cup of Nations title. 

Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri — who is also currently deprived of Morocco’s Omar El Kaddouri at the moment — has said scheduling the Cup of Nations at the midway point in the European season is “absurd”. 

However, they can be sure of having the trio back in time for their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid, with the first leg in Spain on February 15, 10 days after the Cup of Nations final. 

Napoli are also still involved in a domestic title race and Koulibaly added: “I think we are looking to make progress every day and even today with the Champions League, we are making progress every day for the championship, which is still really very competitive.”

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