Africa’s best footballing talent is on show through the month and here are a few gems you might want to keep an eye out for.

In many ways, the Africa Cup of Nations is the last great tournament in modern football, a three week event that encapsulates a long-lost romanticism and authenticity in the game. 

The build-up to the 31st edition has been typically fragmented: political strife in Gabon, financial problems for participants Uganda, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast, the every-strident club versus country debate, and the late completion of the venues.

Gabon, the hosts kicked off the tournament against debutants Guinea-Bissau on Saturday. Back in 2012, when they co-hosted the finals with Equatorial Guinea, Gabon reached the quarter-finals. Ivory Coast, Algeria and Senegal are the favourites to win the tournament. Scroll highlights nine players to watch out for as Africa’s 16 best teams battle it out for continental glory, culminating in the final on February 4 in the Gabonese capital Libreville.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon)


Real Madrid, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, or Manchester City? The transfer rumour mill about the future of Africa’s most prized star striker rumbles on, but this month, Aubameyang will focus solely on achieving success with Gabon. He is Africa’s most deadly striker and will carry the burden of taking Gabon beyond the group stages and possibly the quarter-finals. In 2012, he missed a decisive penalty against Mali.

Bertrand Traore (Burkina Faso)


Traore is one of the most exciting forwards in the African game. He is of the Chelsea stable, but, currently, on a season-long loan at Ajax in the Dutch capital. At the age of 15, he became a Stallion. Aged 16, he played at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012, but he should show his full potential now.

Sadio Mane (Senegal)


Like Aubameyang, he needs no further introduction. Jurgen Klopp was displeased about his absence, but he will be a real asset for Senegal. He has scored nine goals for Liverpool so far this season and will seek to translate that prolific form into goals for the Teranga Lions. He will receive backing from Cheikhou Kouyaté in midfield. If they click, Senegal, Africa’s number one ranked team, may go far.

Knowledge Musona (Zimbabwe)


A poetic name, but the striker will have to score goals for Zimbabwe, who return to Africa’s biggest stage since 2006. At Hoffenheim in Germany, Musona got almost no playing time, but since arriving at the Belgian club Oostende he has blossomed again. The “Smiling Assassin” scored plenty of goals in the first half of the season and provided the occasional assist. His speed, positioning and nous for goal make him a lethal player.

Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)


Algeria have Africa’s most talented squad, of which Mahrez is the main pick. He won the 2016 BBC and Confederation of African Football African Footballer of the Year awards, following his memorable season at English champions Leicester City. The Algerian has a magic box of tricks and likes to cut infield. Mahrez is also deadly at set-pieces. The Desert Foxes have struggled heavily in World Cup qualifying and will be keen on an improved show in Gabon.

Eric Bailly (Ivory Coast)


Gone are the days of Yaya Toure and Gervinho, who won the African crown back in 2015 under Herve Renard. Ivory Coast boast a new talented generation. Eric Bailly is an exponent thereof. He was a member of that much-lauded 2015 squad and is, slowly but surely, developing into a world-class defender at Manchester United. Jose Mourinho has lamented his absence. Bailly’s organisational skills can bring much-needed stability in the Ivorian defence.

Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo)


A glorious international swansong for the lanky Togolese striker? Emmanuel Adebayor has been without a club since he was released by Crystal Palace about seven months ago. There are big question marks over the striker’s match fitness and mental preparedness to operate at the highest level. For all his whimsical behaviour, his talent has never been in doubt and one last great tournament may not be beyond him.

Andre Ayew (Ghana)

Discontent has been the buzzword in the Black Stars’ camp with the unpopularity of coach Avram Grant at an all-time high. In Ayew, Ghana possess a striker of tremendous quality. Ayew has returned from injury and will be a key component of Grant’s set-up.

Mohamed Salah (Egypt)


The Egyptian winger failed to make an impact at Stamford Bridge, but has since his move to AS Roma been in better shape. He will spearhead the Pharaohs in Gabon. At 24, he is already ninth on Egypt’s all-time scoring list. The seven-times champions have gone through troubled times, but will be looking to restore their pride in Gabon.

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