Africa-Press – Eritrea. Several Premier League clubs have had to re-arrange their squads as key players ready themselves for Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations kick-off. The tournament, one of the most spectacular footballing competitions, boasts a wealth of international players from Europe.
Several Premier League managers have fought to keep their players at a crucial point in the 2021/22 calendar arguing that Covid-19 has already decimated their squads while some feel they will not have enough players available to compete. Both the FA and world football authorities have denied them and the players left for Africa this week.
Worst hit teams are Arsenal, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Watford.
Leicester manager Brendan Rogers was scribbling team change after team change onto his notepad sitting in his office on Wednesday morning. Departed for Cameroon are Daniel Amartey (Ghana), Nampalys Mendy (Senegal) as well as Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho (Nigeria).
Rogers’ problems are intensified by Jamie Vardy, who is probably going to be on the sidelines for three to four weeks with a hamstring injury. A scan this week showed he aggravated the injury again against Liverpool last week.
Vardy joins Jonny Evans, Calgar Soyuncu and Patson Daka on the injury list. Rogers intends to draft in Jannik Vestergaard to hold the defensive line while Ayoze Perez will take over from Vardy in attack.
Rogers is also considering drafting forwards Harvey Barnes and Ademola Lookman into midfield. Both are capable when it comes to scoring and operating in the opposition’s penalty area.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is worried about losing both Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, both of whom were on the score-sheet in the draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but could not prevent the loss to Leicester.
Klopp (isolating due to Covid-19 positive test) spent this week working remotely with Diogo Jota and Takumi Minamino, who is recovering from a hip injury. The pair will take over as Liverpool’s main strike threat until February 9 when Afcon ends. Divock Origi is still not 100 per cent fit but hopes to play.
However, Thiago Alcantara is still unavailable. Salah said he was looking forward to the Afcon challenge and he arrived sporting a new look haircut which is much more modern than his usual windswept style. Clowning around on the aircraft flying Egyptian players to Cameroon, he sat behind Aston Villa’s Mahmoud Trezeguet and was making fun of his friend’s haircut whilst Mahmoud was asleep.
Salah has scored 23 goals so far this season and is raring to play against Nigeria on Monday. Liverpool’s assistant manager Pep Lijdners said: “I just told Naby, Mo and Sadio to go out and win Afcon because it is a prize catch. Careers are never long and they deserve to fight for each prize. This prize comes in front of them now and it’s a tournament with so much passion.”
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has until January 16 to sort out his line-up when the Gunners face Tottenham. Thomas Partey, who is now starting to show how well he can play and justifying his huge transfer fee, and Nicolas Pepe have given the manager headaches as they head to Cameroon. However, Emile Smith-Rowe will start and hold midfield.
Watford manager Claudio Ranieri would not be drawn into the argument regarding the club’s refusal to let Nigeria’s Emmanuel Dennis travel to Cameroon.
He said it was between Watford’s board of directors and Nigeria’s management. Watford claimed the application to take Dennis arrived too late but coach Augustine Eguavoen claimed that Watford had threatened their player and prevented him from taking part in Afcon.
Dennis earned his place in the squad after several impressive displays for the Hornets and has so far scored eight goals in the Premier League from 17 appearances and two assists.
Eguavoen said Watford had done everything they could to stop him from playing for Nigeria but Ranieri said: “I think Nigeria spoke to Watford directors and not me, the manager. I am the manager, the player stays here, I’m happy and for me it is finished.” The 28-man Super Eagles have replaced Dennis with Henry Onyekuru, who plays for the Greek team Olympiacos.
Meanwhile, five players are hoping to take advantage of the Afcon competition as they get their chance to shine in the Premier League. Under Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea’s keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has earned back some of the respect he lost during Frank Lampard’s brief managerial reign. The world’s most expensive goalkeeper at £72million lost all his confidence and form but now he has a chance to shine as his successor Mendy will be away in Africa with Senegal.
Origi is, I believe, an excellent player but he has slipped down the pecking order at Liverpool with the Salah, Mane, Jota and Firmino running the show. However, he has impressed when Klopp has called upon his services, mainly as a late substitute, this season. He has scored five goals and made two assists in ten games and will surely take his opportunity to lead the line during Afcon.
Jack Grealish has not had the best of times since joining Manchester City from Aston Villa. During Afcon, Grealish could be used on the right-hand side of the field in place of Riyad Mahrez. He has been used as a false number 9 and as a left wing and midfielder.
Michael Olise will be looking to impress Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira with Wilfried Zaha missing from the team. The Frenchman has started only twice for Palace but has scored twice and made three assists and inspired a fightback against West Ham when Palace lost 3-2. He will play against Millwall in the FA Cup and against Brighton in the Premier League and, at only 20, is tipped as a big star of the future.
Nikola Vlasic came to West Ham for £27million but the Croatian international has rarely been seen in the Hammers’ first team. With Jarrod Bowen, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals and Said Benrahma all in top form, Vlasic has not been given a chance to show what he can do. With Benrahma playing alongside Mahrez for Algeria, this could be Vlasic’s chance.
Torres signs for Barca but can’t yet play
The update on the Ferran Torres transfer to Barcelona is that the Spanish giants are willing to loan the striker back to Manchester City for the rest of the season.
The reason is that cash-poor Barca are currently operating above their wage limit which is against La Liga rules. Therefore Barcelona will have to move on some of their players to bring down their wage bill and enable them to register Torres and keep within the salary rules.
Barca have also signed Dani Alves and registered him but this was made possible because of the wages saved when Sergio Aguero was forced to retire. I have been told that Torres is on a slightly higher wage than Alves. Torres was bought for a basic £46million which was mainly financed with a bank loan.
Newcastle reshaping their team for relegation fight
The world’s potentially richest club are writing out cheques thick and fast for the January transfer window. Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier has arrived in Tyneside to join the Magpies.
A £12million deal was agreed. Following him could be Sven Botman, the Lille defender who has been priced at £30million but the French club are apparently going to fight to keep him. He is a tall left-footed centre-back. Ex-Liverpool’s favourite Gini Wijnaldum is unhappy at Paris St Germain and would be ideal for Newcastle.
He scored 11 goals in his first 40 games previously at Newcastle. Manager Eddie Howe is planning to link Gini with Joelinton to increase the work rate in midfield.
The surprise package possibly taking place at Newcastle is Arsenal’s out-of-favour ex-captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has missed the last five Gunners’ games. However, many are questioning whether he would be up for a relegation fight after arriving late again for training and parking his gold Lambourgini in the St James’ car park!
Cancelo a power of strength at City
Next time you see Manchester City in action, watch Joao Cancelo. He has become a regular for Pep Guardiola who has given the Portuguese a free-roaming role. The manager pencils Cancelo into his formation team sheet as a full back.
However, when the team moves forward, he too advances and slots in next to Rodri in midfield and the remaining defenders reorganise themselves into a back three. Guardiola explained his strategy and said: “The main reason for working like this is to get more players into the middle and to pass the ball. To have four, five, six players together and when you make short passes you have more control.”
Cancelo has made more touches, most passes, second-most tackles and shots on goal than any other City player this season and when Grealish was asked who at City had impressed him he said” “Joao, he is so good he’s a joke.”
Everton look to strengthen
Under pressure Rafa Benitez agreed with his management at Everton to sign Rangers rightback Nathan Patterson, which shows the club are still backing the manager.
But the fuse is very short indeed and one more bad defeat could see the end of his brief stay at the club. The 20-year-old Patterson was wanted by Benitez in the summer but the Scottish club’s £10million valuation was thought to be too high.
Dynamo Kiev left-back Vitally Mykolenko is also on the Toffees’ radar because of Lucas Digne’s long-term uncertainty at the club. Everton are also scouting around for another defender.
Abraham making an impression in Serie A
As he headed home for a quick Christmas visit with his family, Tammy Abraham was a very happy man. After being discarded at Chelsea he was snapped up by Jose Mourinho at Roma in Italy’s Serie A.
He has now scored six Serie A goals, six in Conference League and in Roma’s game against Atalanta, he took only 55 seconds to find the net. Mourinho said: “He is able to score 20 goals per season — it’s exactly what he did at Chelsea and I am super happy with Tammy.”
Van Dijk almost back to his best
Jurgen Klopp says Liverpool have every chance of winning the Premier League title this year now that Virgil van Dijk is almost back to full strength.
Before signing the Dutchman from Southampton for £75million they had tracked 34 different centre backs over an 18 month period. Aymeric Laporte, now with Manchester City and Naples’ Kalidou Koulibaly were among those Liverpool rejected.
Klopp pointed out that Van Dijk has been on the losing side only 23 times in four years and when he plays Liverpool’s win percentage is 71.14 against 56.92 per cent when he does not play. Klpp went on to say: “We are lucky to have strength in our defence so when Virgil’s body is showing strains we do not have to push him. That is a good position for us to be in.”
Vardy steps into the cold
Even Jamie Vardy himself is worried that he is not notching up the goals with such regularity this season compared with the last five years. Vardy is 35 next month and is fighting to retain his superb fitness and energy.
He has splashed out a small fortune in bringing his home gym training equipment up to state-of-the-art standards. Vardy believes, like Cristiano Ronaldo, that it is all about looking after your body.
To help him maintain physical and mental perfection, he has installed a professional gym at home and included a cryotherapy chamber which exposes his body to low temperatures using extremely cold bursts of air which aids the recovery and healing processes after a game and also increases performance and fitness.