Five players to watch at the African Cup of Nations, which starts Saturday:
Yaya Toure, Ivory Coast
Club: Manchester City (England)
Big, strong and quick and a dominant figure in midfield for both club and country, the younger of Ivory Coast’s two Toure brothers will likely be the foundation on which it builds its title challenge in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Yaya Toure’s worth was underlined when Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini said he would be irreplaceable while away at the African Cup of Nations.
His speed and physical power gives the Elephants a near-unstoppable force with which to launch their attacks and he provides the initial thrust — and precise passes — for forwards Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho to feed off.
His outstanding year in 2011 was capped when he was voted Africa’s player of the year. He scored important goals for his country in its perfect qualifying run, including the winner in a 2-1 victory at home over Benin which saw Ivory Coast finish with six wins from six games.
He has been outspoken of the need for the country to finally deliver and win its first African title in 20 years.
Andre Ayew, Ghana
Club: Marseille (France)
Andre Ayew, the son of Ghana great and former African Cup of Nations winner Abedi Pele, had an impressive year in 2011 for the Black Stars and followed up with six goals in 17 games for Marseille at the start of the French season.
Skillful and nimble, he can operate as a winger or as a forward and is blessed with his father’s speed, balance and ball control.
Ayew captained Ghana’s team to victory at the 2009 under-20 World Cup before emerging as a regular with the national team at a young age. Only 22, he’s already played at an African Cup as well as the World Cup.
His performances last year led to him being voted the BBC African Footballer of the Year exactly 30 years after his father won the first version of the award when also at Marseille. Ayew could complete the uncanny symmetry if he goes on to win the 2012 Cup of Nations with Ghana, also exactly 30 years after his father did.
For Ayew, football runs in the family. Besides his father, Ayew has two brothers and an uncle that are current or former professional players. Younger sibling Jordan, also of Marseille, will be with him as part of Ghana’s squad in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Demba Ba, Senegal
Club: Newcastle (England)
Having almost single-handedly lifted Newcastle toward the top of England’s Premier League with a 15 goals in 19 games in the first half of the season, France-born Senegal frontman Demba Ba is headed to the African Cup in top form.
Ba then scored Senegal’s winner in a 1-0 victory over Sudan in a recent warmup match, proving he still has his scoring touch as he heads to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
In a talented group of Senegal forwards, which also includes Moussa Souw, Papiss Demba Cisse, Mamadou Niang and Dame N’Doye, Ba is currently the outstanding player.
Tall and powerful, he scores plenty of headers, has a deadly right foot and a dangerous left foot and is a constant threat to defenders.
He scored on his debut for Senegal back in 2007 and has had a good strike rate with every team he’s played for. He will need more of those goals if Senegal is to challenge Ivory Coast and Ghana for the title.
Jerome Ramatlhakwane, Botswana
Being involved in a problematic transfer between South African clubs last year which eventually fell through didn’t seem to worry Botswana striker Jerome Ramatlhakwane. He was the joint top-scorer in the qualifying competition to lead the southern Africans to their first African Cup.
Ramatlhakwane was let go by Cape Town-based Santos, who did not register him for the new season. So he is heading to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea without playing club football in over 12 months.
That might hinder him, but his lack of an employer also means he has an added incentive to perform and put himself in a positive light for any clubs watching.
Despite no club action, he still scored five goals in eight qualifiers for the Zebras — including the deciding goal in both wins over former African champion Tunisia — to lead the underdogs into the final tournament and inspire one of African football’s big surprises.
Samir Aboud, Libya
Club: Al Ittihad (Libya)
Samir Aboud, a veteran goalkeeper and captain, was at the heart of a spirited Libyan team and the conflict-torn country’s amazing achievement to qualify for its third African Cup.
Despite the civil war at home — and being forced to play games away from Libya — Aboud led the team to three wins and three draws to sneak a place at the final tournament as one of three second-place teams.
The keeper has been part of the national team for more than 10 years and after a bunch of Libyan league and cup titles — and a 2006 African Cup campaign that yielded only one point — he will deservedly get another chance to play at the continent’s top tournament in the twilight of his career.
Aboud could be the Mediterranean Knights’ most valuable player in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea with his inspirational leadership. His contribution was recognized when he was shortlisted for Africa’s 2011 player of the year — at nearly 40 years old.