Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez and Mohammed Kudus will be among the stars on display in Ivory Coast for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, but which less familiar talents could make their mark?
We are now just a few days away from the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations getting started, with hosts Ivory Coast facing Guinea-Bissau in Saturday’s curtain raiser.
Although only two of the top 20-ranked teams in the world according to FIFA are involved, AFCON rarely fails to capture the imagination. The talent on show will be plentiful, both in terms of superstars and up-and-coming prospects.
Mohamed Salah, Mohammed Kudus, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Victor Osimhen and Ismael Bennacer are among the big names for whom there’ll be great expectations, but as with any major international tournament, there will be less familiar faces hoping to leave a lasting impression.
Ahead of Saturday’s big kick-off, we’ve identified eight players as ‘ones to watch’ as they aim to announce themselves on the international stage.
Red Bull Salzburg have earned a reputation as a breeding ground for talented young players over the past few years, especially for forwards. Karim Konaté looks to be next off the so-called production line, and this tournament gives him the opportunity to make a real statement.
At 17, Konaté was actually in Ivory Coast’s squad for the last Africa Cup of Nations by virtue of his spectacular breakthrough at ASEC Mimosas – he didn’t feature, but his inclusion was an early indication of the regard he was held in. And while he may not begin this tournament as a starter for the AFCON hosts, who are – as ever – blessed with serious talent in forward positions, Konaté can reasonably expect to play a much bigger part than he did in Cameroon two years ago.
Quick, intelligent and possessing the abilities of a potentially elite finisher, Konaté could be a real wildcard for Ivory Coast; he might play off the left for the most part, but he already has a strong track record of having a decisive impact in the box at whatever level he’s played.
No one has scored more than him in the Austrian Bundesliga this season (8), and his 9.1 non-penalty expected goals (xG) is 2.6 more than anyone else. Granted, playing for the best team in the league is undoubtedly an advantage here, but it’s still evidence of how he’s getting shots away in dangerous areas, which is obviously a big plus for a forward.
Only six players have registered more shots than Konaté (38) this season in Austria’s top flight but none of those have a conversion rate that comes close to his 21.1%, with all but four of his attempts coming inside the box.
With just one AFCON title since their maiden success in 1992, Ivory Coast have been one of the biggest underachievers in this tournament; nevertheless, they’ll once again be expected to go deep into the tournament, hopefully providing Konaté with ample opportunities to shine.
Admittedly, choosing one of the two top scorers in the Bundesliga this season for a ‘ones to watch’ piece might not be a particularly hot take, but for the casual/infrequent viewer of German football tuning in to watch the AFCON, Guirassy probably won’t be that familiar beyond seeing his name in transfer gossip columns.
Those columns have linked Guirassy with a host of huge clubs, including Manchester United and Newcastle in the Premier League, and with a release clause set at roughly €17.5 million (£15m), he’s very much in the shop window.
Having struggled to live up to his potential as a young player and becoming something of a joke figure at Köln, Guirassy, 27, is now in the form of his life at Stuttgart. His goals were instrumental in helping the team avoid relegation from the Bundesliga last term; this season they’ve helped put Stuttgart on course for a return to the Champions League, having last competed among Europe’s elite in 2009-10.
A very well-rounded striker, Guirassy’s goalscoring exploits in 2023-24 have been remarkable. His haul of 14 from the first eight matchdays of this season was a Bundesliga record, and he ultimately reached the winter break with 17. Now, that makes it sound like he hit a bit of brick wall in the context of his previous form, but it’s worth noting he missed a couple of games due to injury and was only fit enough to come on as a second-half substitute in another two.
Nevertheless, Guirassy’s output for the season retains its gleam. No player with more than seven goals across the top five European leagues this term has a better conversion rate (35.4%) than him, and he’s also put away 60% of his big chances (opportunities a player would be expected to finish), a record only five players presented with at least 10 such chances can better.
Guirassy’s 4.8 overperformance in relation to his non-penalty (np) xG of 9.2 is fourth highest across the top five leagues and highlights just how clinical he’s been, scoring some wonderful goals in the process. It may not be completely sustainable form, but 9.2 np xG is still a brilliant return that suggests he’s consistently getting himself into threatening positions. It also converts to 0.78 on a per-90-minute basis, putting him fifth in the top five leagues (minimum 600 minutes played).
Guinea find themselves in a difficult group alongside Senegal, Cameroon and The Gambia, so a dependable finisher could be their trump card, assuming the knee injury he sustained in a pre-tournament friendly doesn’t turn out to be serious.
In Edmond Tapsoba and now Adamo Nagalo, Burkina Faso potentially have a highly talented centre-back partnership they can build around for the next decade – not that they’ve been partnered together extensively yet.
Nagalo, 21, hasn’t always been a centre-back, though. Much of his formative years were spent in midfield and that perhaps goes some way to explaining his technical and passing abilities.
Despite not turning 22 until September, Nagalo already boasts considerable experience at club level with Nordsjælland, whom he joined in 2020 from the highly-regarded Right to Dream academy, which is part of the same ownership group as the Danish Superliga club and behind the development of players like Kudus, Kamaldeen Sulemana, Ernest Nuamah and Simon Adingra.
Reportedly of interest to Brighton in the past, Nagalo is an exceptionally confident distributor who plays a vital role in tempo-setting from the back for his club. Experts question some of his decisions in terms of positioning, but with respect to the abilities that a modern ball-playing centre-back requires, Nagalo looks likely to be in one of Europe’s top leagues in the not-too-distant future.
He’s the only defender in the Danish top tier (minimum 620 minutes played) to average over 100 touches per 90 minutes played (110.4), and he also attempts the most passes per game (100.1) as he helps Nordsjælland establish control.
Only FC Copenhagen full-back Kevin Diks (664) has played more passes in the opposition’s half among defenders in the division than Nagalo (555), who’s also proven himself to be an adept progressor of the ball through carries (defined as a movement of five metres or more with the ball).
Nagalo has progressed the ball 1,807m up field via 180 progressive carries, coming second to Diks alone in both metrics, not only highlighting his positive mentality but also sound technical skills.
Burkina Faso will do well to match their run to the semi-finals from two years ago, but in Tapsoba and now Nagalo, they possess real play-making talent at the back that could provide a solid foundation to another expectation-defying campaign.
Bilal El Khannouss
Aged 18 at the time, Bilal El Khannouss had less than a year’s experience in senior football when he was handed his Morocco debut during the third-place play-off at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Although it was his misplaced pass that led to Mislav Orsić’s clincher as Croatia won 2-1, the teenager otherwise looked the part with his silky, delicate touches and confidence carrying the ball.
Nearly 13 months on, El Khannouss will likely be expecting to play a slightly more important role for Walid Regragui’s men having tallied a few more starts for the Atlas Lions during 2023. He’s also continued to develop well at Genk, enjoying a positive 2023-24 campaign even if his club have been disappointing collectively.
El Khannouss is a creative and technically gifted central midfielder who is capable of playing deeper or as a number 10. Just as comfortable running with the ball as he is picking out defence-splitting passes, the 19-year-old already looks like a gem and is having a big impact on the Belgian Pro League this season.
Only four players have created more chances in open play than his 34 and he also ranks as high as joint-third for secondary chances created (23) – essentially the pass to a player who creates an opportunity – highlighting El Khannouss’ ability to be influential both in build-up and the final third.
His play-making and creativitiy are helped by excellent vision and the technique to complete the passes he visualises. The graphic above suggests El Khannouss’ key passes are often on the longer side and the data backs up this theory. Among players with at least 15 open-play chances created in the Pro League this season, he ranks joint-sixth for longest average length of key pass (24.5m), and three of those above him are either wide midfielders or full-backs, meaning their outputs are likely distorted by crosses.
Beyond specifically impacting things in attack, El Khannouss also brings purpose to Genk in possession, with his 107 progressive passes bettered by only five players. He has also made the joint-third most successful switches (17), a key function considering the importance of Genk’s wide forwards Alieu Fadera and Joseph Paintsil, both of whom will also be in AFCON action with The Gambia and Ghana respectively.
Morocco do have plenty of talent in midfield, but if El Khannouss gets an opportunity to shine, don’t expect him to pass it up.
While Fadera’s promising first season at Genk undoubtedly marks him out as a player worth keeping your eye on, Gambia teammate Yankuba Minteh promises to receive plenty of attention because he’s owned by Newcastle United.
Signed from Odense Boldklub last year and loaned out to Feyenoord for the season, there have been mutterings that Newcastle could attempt to cut his time in the Eredivisie short due to their injury crisis, and for many Magpies fans, the AFCON will offer a first glimpse of the 19-year-old right winger in competitive action.
Whether there is any realistic chance of his loan being cut short, there’s no question Minteh remains rather raw. His decision-making in the final third needs work and he has a tendency to overcomplicate things.
But he’s a very exciting talent nonetheless, with his brave and direct running out wide making him a real handful for defenders, regardless of his end product.
Among players to play at least 500 minutes in the Eredivisie this term, Minteh’s average of 10 dribble attempts per 90 is second only to Osame Sahraoui (11), and he’s carrying the ball 315m per game, nearly 20m further than anyone else. Of those 315m, 186.1m are deemed to be him progressing the ball up field, putting him behind only centre-back Dávid Hancko (204.2m), with Minteh’s 15.1 progressive carries every 90 minutes the third most in the division.
He also works hard off the ball; Minteh’s the only player in the Eredivisie (minimum 500 minutes played) in 2023-24 to average more than 1.9 possession regains in the final third (2.2) and he ranks sixth for tackles per 90 (3.5) as well, which are good signs for a player hoping to break into an Eddie Howe side.
The Gambia aren’t short on explosive attacking talent, but given they are alongside Senegal, Cameroon and Guinea in a very difficult Group C, there’s an opportunity for their players to make a name for themselves here, and Minteh certainly looks capable of bringing a bit of chaos.
As far as in-demand centre-backs go, Ousmane Diomande is one of the hottest properties in Europe at the moment, with many of the continent’s biggest clubs apparently keen on the Sporting CP defender.
A fine physical specimen, quick and agile for his build, and a graceful ball-playing defender, Diomande has almost everything the modern centre-back needs and has only just turned 20.
He’s approaching the one-year anniversary of his move to Sporting, who were so impressed with his performances for Mafra in the Portuguese second tier that they struck a deal with his parent club Midtjylland to sign him in a transfer that could be worth over €12m despite him never even playing for the Danish side.
All but two of Diomande’s 28 Primeira Liga appearances since then have been as a starter, with head coach Rúben Amorim quickly warming to the young talent. Friday’s 5-1 demolition of Estoril was the first league game he’s missed this season, with Sporting sitting top of the table on 40 points from 16 matches.
Diomande has mostly featured on the right side of a back three for Sporting and he plays an important role in getting the team on the front foot with his positive mentality. While ball progression via passing isn’t exactly a standout strength of his, only three centre-backs in the Primeira Liga can better his 158 progressive carries this term.
And although the point about progressive passing stands, his 52 involvements in build-up sequences ending in a shot is 11 more than any other central defender in the division and highlights his reliability on the ball at the back. He’s also recorded the most secondary chances created among centre-backs (11).
Much like at club level, Diomande will be playing in an Ivory Coast side that expects to be on the front foot, so that should suit him. But his recovery pace will also be a real bonus to coach Jean-Louis Gasset, especially against the better sides.
Diomande’s game still requires a bit of polishing, but he’ll be in one of the top leagues sooner rather than later, and this tournament could take his breakthrough to the next level.
A teammate of Diomande’s at Sporting CP, Geny Catamo is a bundle of energy on the right flank and undoubtedly Mozambique’s most talented attacking player.
Comfortable either as a wing-back – where he’s mostly played at club level – or further forward as an inverted winger, Geny has only established himself in Sporting’s senior side this season after patiently waiting for a crack in the first team since joining four years ago.
However, his breakthrough was recently rewarded with a new long-term contract containing a release clause set at €60m, evidence of the regard Sporting hold him in.
Geny may not be the tallest but he’s blessed with searing pace and loves to run at defenders, with his 4.9 dribble attempts per 90 minutes the ninth-most in the Primeira Liga (minimum 500 minutes played) this season.
This is combined with a direct and positive mindset as Geny ranks sixth for carries (19.2) and progressive carries (11.3) every 90 minutes. He isn’t yet a reliable creative source, however his 1.3 secondary chances created per 90 puts him 10th in the division and suggests he is using the ball well in the final third – his three secondary assists is also only bettered by four players (none have more than four).
Of course, Mozambique are one of the least fancied teams at the AFCON, with their 0.6% chance of winning the trophy considered the third-lowest of all by the Opta supercomputer. But at the same time, there also won’t be any pressure.
Geny can be electrifying; Mozambique will hope he can spark at least an unlikely run to the knockouts, though they’ll have to cope without him on Matchday 1 due to suspension.
Like Guirassy, Omar Marmoush is another talented attacker heading to the AFCON during a fine campaign in the Bundesliga.
Marmoush also isn’t exactly an unknown quantity given his star status at Eintracht Frankfurt this season, but to viewers unfamiliar with the German top flight, he could be a breath of fresh air.
The 24-year-old isn’t a guaranteed starter for the Pharaohs so will have to make the most of any opportunities he gets to impress, but his form at Frankfurt suggests he’s more than capable of doing some damage.
Although his former Wolfsburg coach Oliver Glasner departed Eintracht between Marmoush signing and officially joining on a very shrewd free transfer, he’s taken his game to a new level playing almost exclusively as a centre-forward under Dino Toppmöller – but a simple fox in the box he certainly is not.
Quick, strong and technically excellent, Marmoush’s talents make him a threat across the frontline and in many different scenarios. He scored poacher-like goals against Mainz, Union Berlin and Borussia Dortmund, whereas in a 3-1 win at Hoffenheim he transformed a hopeful long ball into a goal as he turned John Brooks inside-out before a clever outside-of-the-boot finish into the bottom-right corner.
The latter goal was a prime example of his carrying proficiency, which arguably marks him out as somewhat unusual among central strikers – even if he does drift out wide a bit. He’s tallied 15 more carries (151) and carried the ball 250m further (1,786m) than any other striker in the Bundesliga this term, while his combined total of 18 shots and chances created at the end of a carry is bettered only by Victor Boniface (23) among the same group of players.
In all competitions in 2023-24, Marmoush has 15 goal involvements (12 goals, three assists), which is already the same total as he managed for the previous two seasons combined. It would also be remiss of us not to mention his inspirational display in the 5-1 hammering of Bayern Munich last month, when he scored once and got two assists.
He heads to Ivory Coast in the form of his life.