The AFCON 2021 schedule of games shape up to be yet another dramatic international tournament in one of the most diverse areas. Originally, CAF scheduled the tournament for the summer of 2021. However, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the tournament to early 2022. Regardless, the tournament still carries its importance (and the 2021 moniker).
Soccer players have the opportunity to accomplish honorable things throughout their careers. Club titles are great, but players move around frequently in the modern era. The biggest honor for an international soccer player is to represent their nation in the FIFA World Cup. However, other international competitions are not far behind.
The African Cup of Nations, commonly referred to as AFCON, features all the makings of a great tournament. World class talents, wonderkids, good coaching and teams constantly on the world’s stage.
Unfortunately, the focus ahead of AFCON 2021 revolved around clubs preventing players from participating. Additionally, certain pundits question the validity of the event and its questionable coverage by European outlets.
Conflict of Interests among AFCON 2021 schedule
AFCON and the AFC Asian Cup are the only continental tournaments that take place during the European club campaigns.
In 2019, CAF moved its international tournament to the summer for the first time in history. Initially, Cameroon earned selection as the host for the tournament. However, domestic conflicts and infrastructural issues moved the competition to Egypt. Overall, the event was a success. Algeria defeated Senegal to win their second AFCON title.
The move to the summer allowed more people around the world to watch the tournament and bring attention to the Confederation of African Football. However, questionable concerns about the “unfavorable climatic conditions” moved the competition back to January-February.
European clubs have always been hesitant to send their players overseas in the middle of the season. Teams are overly protective this year, due to COVID-19 continuing to affect the world.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is particularly critical of the tournament in the middle of the club season. He will lose Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Naby Keita until at least late January.
“In January, there’s a little tournament in Africa, I just want to say, and I think Asia is playing games, too – South America as well, great, can’t wait.”
However, Egypt and Senegal are among the favorites. Therefore, Salah and Mane could be gone until February 7.
AFCON 2021 schedule: The contenders
Later, Klopp stated the media took his comments out of context. Yet, by that time, damage was done. His players are all in the running for the continent’s best player. Therefore, it is no surprise that his players represent some of the nations expected to be in the running for the competition.
Salah is currently on the form of his life. The Egyptian scored 23 goals in 26 matches in all competitions. In the Premier League, his 16 goals and nine assists lead both categories. The 29-year-old is in the conversation of greatest African player of all time.
Winning AFCON with Egypt will solidify his place amongst other icons like Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré. If Salah can dominate a tournament like Lionel Messi did in the 2021 edition of Copa America, then the Pharoahs will be dangerous.
Egypt last won the AFCON in 2010, before the majority of players currently representing the nation broke onto the stage. In recent years, a trip to the finals is the only top-four finish since that 2010 triumph. However, Egypt remains the most successful side in the history of the competition.
Salah plays a key role in the nation’s quest for its eighth triumph in AFCON 2021.
The runner-up in 2019 returns with a side even stronger than what performed at the last tournament. The main part of that comes in goal. Edouard Mendy, who mans the area for defending UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea, goes between the posts for Senegal.
In front of Mendy is Kalidou Koulibaly. Koulibaly played to a mediocre 2021 domestically with Napoli. However, recent form with Napoli is strong, helping Luciano Spalletti’s side to third in the Italian table. He enters the tournament as one of the best defenders in the world.
Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Idrissa Gueye owns a reputation as a defensive presence in the middle of the pitch. Yet, he does bag the occasional goal with the Parisians. Thus, his prowess adds another dimension to the attack.
The one question mark up top is the status of Ismaila Sarr. Watford prevented its star forward from representing Senegal at AFCON 2021. Among other reasons, Watford does not want to rush Sarr’s return from injury. A knee injury sidelined the winger for two months, something the Hornets do not want to keep a persistent issue. If the 23-year-old can participate, Senegal are the favorites to win their first AFCON.
In the 2010s, Algeria made a case as the strongest African side. Of course, recency bias kicks in as the 2019 AFCON champions.
The reigning champions return most of the players who were triumphant in the last tournament.
At the center of it all is captain Riyad Mahrez. He has been, unsurprisingly, sensational for Manchester City this season. He leads the team with five Champions League goals. Additionally, domesitc performances put the Algerian on 10 goal contributions in 16 Premier League games.
Along with Mahrez, AC Milan midfielder Ismaël Bennacer, West Ham winger Saïd Benrahma and Napoli forward Adam Ounas provide the Fennec Foxes with the best attack in Africa. They also have a wily veteran who can score scrapy goals in Islam Slimani. Because Algeria will dominate possession in most of their matches, head coach Djamel Belmadi must bring balance to the midfield and backline to prevent teams from utilizing counterattacks against them.
Ivory Coast lay a claim to possessing the best midfield in the tournament. To start, AC Milan’s Franck Kessie will be one of the most sought-after free agents in the summer. Also, Jean Michael Seri was once regarded as a player who had the technical skills, vision and playmaking ability to play for Barcelona. Instead, he went to Fulham and currently has six assists in the Championship. His play is helping his team stay in the promotion race.
Burnley’s Maxwel Cornet along with Sassuolo’s duo of Jeremie Boga and Hamed Traore gives head coach Patrice Beaumelle a multitude of options.
They also have a strong front line led by Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha, Ajax striker Sebastien Haller and Arsenal winger Nicolas Pepe. The backline features Manchester United center-back Eric Bailly, Wolves center-back Willy Boly and Villareal right-back Serge Aurier.
Goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo will need to reclaim the form that helped him make AFCON Team of the Tournament in 2015 to give Ivory Coast a chance at winning the competition.
Clearly the Ivory Coast has the names, it just comes down to how well they will mesh on the pitch. The Ivory Coast last won AFCON just three tournaments ago in 2015.
Overall, the 33rd edition of AFCON will showcase elite players trying to bring glory and honor to their countries.
Even though there are four teams who are considered heavy favorites, it is possible that a smaller nation can go on a magical run. Just 10 years ago, Zambia stunned the masses en route to its first AFCON crown in 2012. Or, a sleeping giant such as Ghana or Nigeria can become victorious like Cameroon in 2019.
Either way, the AFCON 2021 schedule of games will be must-see TV.
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