LONDON: Now is the time for top clubs to prove that to be forewarned really is to be forearmed. Everyone knew that the Africa Cup of Nations was on the agenda for early 2017 and now, with 23 Premier League players among those heading off to Gabon to compete for their countries in what their employers view as the world’s worst-timed international tournament, rich clubs must show they are resourceful enough to cope. Otherwise they will pay a heavy price.
For Liverpool and Manchester United that could mean slipping further off Chelsea’s pace in the title race. For clubs such as Sunderland, Leicester City and Hull City, it could mean falling deeper into relegation trouble. Of the 99 signings that Sir Alex Ferguson made as manager of Manchester United only four were African – and one of the reasons for that was the Scot’s wariness about losing a key player in the middle of a campaign. When forking out around £30m for Ivory Coast’s Eric Bailly last summer José Mourinho obviously figured that some players are so good that the risk is worth running, a feeling that Ferguson once had about Eric Djemba-Djemba. Mourinho’s judgment looks sounder on that score, with Bailly emerging as United’s best centre-back of the season so far. United kept a clean sheet without him at West Ham United in their last match but, depending on Ivory Coast’s progress in Gabon, they may have to contest another seven matches while he is away with his country. That schedule includes the high-stakes duel with Liverpool on 15 January. On the plus side for United, Liverpool will be deprived of Sadio Mané for that match, as the winger will be on duty with Senegal.
As two of their chasers are depleted, Chelsea, who used to fret about the departures of players such as Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Salomon Kalou, can smile at being unhindered by the Africa Cup of Nations.
Nigeria’s slightly surprising failure to qualify for the tournament means that Victor Moses remains available to Antonio Conte (so does Mikel John Obi, although Conte may not consider that a relevant observation).
Chelsea, then, can be confident that this year’s Afcon could be as beneficial to them as the last one was. Two years ago the title race was a lot closer at this stage, as Chelsea were neck and neck with Manchester City before the latter lost Yaya Touré and Wilfried Bony to the Afcon. City missed Touré terribly and were seven points behind Chelsea by the time their Ivorians returned. Earlier in this season it seemed as if Pep Guardiola might not have cared if Touré went travelling for a month, now the fact that the midfielder has retired from international football means one headache less for a manager who has much to ponder at the moment. City will have no players at the Afcon. Agencies
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