Top Five U-23 Players at the 2019 AFCON

The 2019 African Cup of Nations in Egypt is about to start and true football fans will be glued on the edge of their seats when the spectacle arrives. There are many national teams that will be looking forward to having a great campaign. Like any other football tournament, we are hoping that another underdog will rise from the ashes and prove a stubborn team to beat for the giants or popular teams which include Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco, etc. Before that happens, you need to take note of a few individuals that have been doing very well for themselves. The following is a list of U-23 players that you should look out for in the upcoming tournament.

Andre Onana of Ajax celebrates after Noussair Mazraoui of Ajax (not pictured) scores his team's first goal during the Group E match of the UEFA Champions League between Ajax and SL Benfica at Johan Cruyff Arena on October 23, 2018 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Oct. 22, 2018 - Source: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Andre Onana of Ajax celebrates after Noussair Mazraoui of Ajax (not pictured) scores his team's first goal during the Group E match of the UEFA Champions League between Ajax and SL Benfica at Johan Cruyff Arena on October 23, 2018 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

(Oct. 22, 2018 - Source: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Andre Onana (Cameroon)

Just as Liverpool celebrate their conquest in Europe, another Dutch club left the UEFA Champions League tournament with their chests held high. Ajax Amsterdam is the team in question. The surprise of the season. The youngsters who eliminated defending champions Real Madrid and a Ronaldo-inspired Juventus. In between the sticks was our very own Cameroonian international, Andre Onana. The 23-year old led his team from the back with the protection from Matthijs de Ligt who has since been rumored with a move to Barcelona. Onana himself was an impenetrable shield that only shipped in 34 goals in their 2018/19 Eredivisie title-winning campaign. Undeniably, the experience of playing in competitive leagues raises expectations on the youngster making him one of the players to watch in this upcoming 2019 African Cup of Nations finals in Egypt.

Prior international experience? Of course. Andre Onana is not only a capped Cameroon international but also an indispensable player in their goalkeeping position. Onana was first capped in 2016 but made a controversial decision to turn down the opportunity to represent his nation at the 2017 AFCON Gabon. His reason was logical. He wanted to cement his position in the Ajax team after Jasper Cillessen left for Barcelona. That decision has paid dividends as he is now among the best young goalkeepers in Europe. At what cost though? His decision to stay back meant that he had to miss out on his nation’s victory as they lifted the 2017 African Cup of Nations trophy after beating Egypt 2-1 on the 5th of February, 2017. However, he has an opportunity to redeem himself at the big stage and prove his worth to his nation.

Managing expectations is something that Andre Onana is going to have to deal with. Having led his club Ajax to the semi-finals of the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League, reaching the semi-finals of the AFCON tournament would be the bare minimum expected of him. Onana has already set the bar so high in Europe which has seen him mooted to be on the transfer wish list of German Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich. A player of his quality would bring much-needed competition to Germany international Manuel Neuer who has since lost his crown as the best goalkeeper in the world and has dipped in form of late.

To be fair, Iwobi was still discovering his best position on the pitch back then. Since his much-improved campaign with Arsenal this season, it is clear that Iwobi is a left winger equipped with dribbling abilities and the strength of a true West-African raised by fufu and garri.
— Tinotenda Magiya, FirstTouch Africa
Achraf Hakimi of Morocco looks on during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Morocco and Iran at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 15, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (June 14, 2018 - Source: Alex Livesey/Getty Images Europe)

Achraf Hakimi of Morocco looks on during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Morocco and Iran at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 15, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

(June 14, 2018 - Source: Alex Livesey/Getty Images Europe)

 Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)

 A no-brainer really. The Spanish born Moroccan was part of the Borussia Dortmund team that gave Bayern Munich a run for their money. The BVB club was as closest as they have been in 7 seasons to win the German Bundesliga trophy as they finished just two points behind the dominant Bayern Munich team. The African defender who was on-loan from Real Madrid managed a total of 7 assists and 2 goals in 23 starts. His attacking creativity on the overlap gave manager Lucien Favre a headache on who to start between the Moroccan and the experienced Marcel Schmelzer. Nonetheless, Hakimi enjoyed his time at the German club as he bagged a decent amount of game time at a top club that also guaranteed him UEFA Champions League football. Of his primary role, Achraf Hakimi averaged 1.6 tackles, 1.4 interceptions and 1.8 clearances in the defensive phase. His consistency reminded Real Madrid once again that in him, they have a young player capable of taking over the reins in the left-back position after Marcelo.

Let’s talk about his experience at the international scene. Hakimi was one of the breakout stars for the Morocco national team that participated in the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals in Russia. Hakimi’s Morocco was placed in the group of death that included European giants Spain and Portugal. On paper, there was no chance really but still, Morocco turned in some amazing performances with the young defender protecting the back-line on the left flank. His defensive contribution stood out in the 3 matches played in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group stages where he averaged at least 3 tackles per match. The opponents were too offensive but Hakimi was up for the task to get his hands dirty and help out the center-back pairing. It is quite unfortunate that Morocco could not qualify to the knockout stages of the competition but the experience for the Madridista was priceless. It means that Achraf Hakimi goes into the AFCON commencing on the 22nd of June, 2019 as an experienced FIFA World Cup player and a hungry defender ready to prove himself on Africa’s biggest stage.

To be honest, there is not much pressure on Hakimi to have an outstanding tournament because there are not many expectations on the Moroccan team to go all the way and win it.  This means that Hakimi can play freely and show his quality again in an environment similar to that of Dortmund where he joined a team with huge potential but fewer expectations. In terms of transfer rumors, Hakimi has hardly been linked with a move away from the Bernabeu partly because of the hefty fee that it would require for clubs to pry him away from the Spanish club. This means that Borussia Dortmund will retain the player’s services once more for another season on-loan. It is just a matter of time before the youngster starts knocking the doors hard enough for the Los Blancos to listen and realize the potential star he could become if given the opportunity at the highest level.

Managing expectations is something that Andre Onana is going to have to deal with. Having led his club Ajax to the semi-finals of the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League, reaching the semi-finals of the AFCON tournament would be the bare minimum expected of him.
— Tinotenda Magiya, FirstTouch Africa
Franck Kessie of AC Milan walks on pitch prior to the Italian Supercup match between Juventus and AC Milan at King Abdullah Sports City on January 16, 2019 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  (Jan. 15, 2019 - Source: Claudio Villa/Getty Images Europe)

Franck Kessie of AC Milan walks on pitch prior to the Italian Supercup match between Juventus and AC Milan at King Abdullah Sports City on January 16, 2019 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

(Jan. 15, 2019 - Source: Claudio Villa/Getty Images Europe)

Franck Kessie (Ivory Coast)

One of the most profiled players prior to the start of various tournaments, Franck Kessie is a player on the rise. Having cemented his position as the defensive midfielder for AC Milan not so long ago, the 22-year-old Ivorian is a player much respected in the Italian Serie A. As established, Kessie is a non-conventional holding midfielder who has the pace and power to offer more on the other end of the pitch.  In the defensive phase, he chips in with an average of 1.2 odd tackles per match, breaking up the play for the opponents. He also registers at least 1.5 clearances in each match guaranteeing some relief to the defenders in the heat of the moment. Kessie is also a player hungry for attack and does just fine in front of goal having scored 7 goals and assisted 2 in his 34 appearances in the Italian Serie A fixtures. To me, he resembles French World Cup winner Paul Pogba who has the same attributes and is unpredictable in the 90.

 Kessie also has experience at the national level. He has since represented Ivory Coast from the youth level up to the senior team. Kessie played at the U-17 and U-20 level before representing Les Éléphants 26-times. He, however, is yet to register his first goal for his national team which will be something that will be on the back of his mind coming into this 2019 African Cup of Nations group stages. The dynamic midfielder is also looking to use this opportunity to showcase his talent amongst Africa’s finest. The likes of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Hakim Ziyech, Percy Tau, Khama Billiat, and Wilfried Zaha will all be participating in this competition and it would be interesting to see where the midfielder will be ranked as soon as the tournament closes in July.

 The international transfer window officially opens on the 11th of June, 2019 and it would be a surprise to not hear speculations about Franck Kessie’s possible destinations. A player of his caliber is something that many teams in Europe are missing. With the aging Nemanja Matic at Manchester United, Kessie would provide a more sustainable and competent partner to the free-spirited Paul Pogba. At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola is on the hunt for that player that can replace Fernandinho and who else could do the dirty work as well as intelligently offer support with the late runs into the box than the Ivorian. The list goes on. It will be interesting to see who will eventually get to acquire his services for they do not come cheap. Could this tournament be the key for Kessie to join one of the most prestigious clubs in Europe?

Alexander Iwobi of Nigeria pictured ahead of the International Friendly match between Nigeria and Serbia at The Hive on March 27, 2018 in Barnet, England.  (March 26, 2018 - Source: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images Europe)

Alexander Iwobi of Nigeria pictured ahead of the International Friendly match between Nigeria and Serbia at The Hive on March 27, 2018 in Barnet, England.

(March 26, 2018 - Source: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images Europe)

 Alexander Chuka Iwobi (Nigeria)

 Alex Iwobi has had by far his best season in an Arsenal shirt this past 2018/19 season. The arrival of a tactical coach in Unai Emery as the Head Coach at the club meant that more playing time was going to be awarded to the Nigerian international from the wide channels. Alex Iwobi made 46 appearances this season scoring 5 goals and assisting 8 times. The Nigerian had been receiving some smack from the Gunners faithful who demanded more end-product in the final third of the pitch and the Haile End Academy graduate came up with the goods this season. Iwobi was a constant threat for Arsenal, especially when partnered with the Bosnian tank, Sead Kolasinac. The Nigerian’s link-up play brought out the best in the left-back who created many goal-scoring opportunities for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. His improvement this season is typified by his last goal for Arsenal in their 2018/19 UEFA Europa League final match against Chelsea when he scored the consolation goal for Arsenal on a half-volley from the edge of the box. There is more to come from Chuka.

Iwobinho is a regular international ever since he switched his allegiance to Nigeria. However, the player has been limited to a bit-part playing role in the Super Eagles team. This was seen in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia where the young midfielder started only one match and made 2 second-half cameos in the last two matches. To be fair, Iwobi was still discovering his best position on the pitch back then. Since his much-improved campaign with Arsenal this season, it is clear that Iwobi is a left winger equipped with dribbling abilities and the strength of a true West-African raised by fufu and garri. Super Eagles coach, Gernot Rohr, must have the 23-year old in his plans if the Nigerian national team is to challenge for the AFCON title. His experience at the club level and the maturity hitting at the right time could provide the juju for Nigeria in Egypt this month. I think Iwobi will be one of the standout performers of the tournament.

Apart from that, there had been rumors about the player’s exit from the Emirates Stadium. Many Arsenal fans had called for his head in Arsene Wenger’s final season as the Arsenal manager. However, his commitment and work rate convinced enough of those critiques that he has a lot more to offer. Now, both the club and the player are convinced of the marriage and are looking forward to what the future holds for them under a new manager. If there is a club that is to come calling for his services, Arsenal is surely going to quote a fee in the region of $35 million which would not be surprising in this inflated market.

 Samuel Chukwueze (Nigeria)

 A newcomer to this list of U-23 African sensations plying their trade in Europe. Samuel Chukwueze made a name for himself this season when his team Villareal faced Real Madrid in La Liga on match day 18. Chukwueze produced a master class in an encounter against the former UEFA Champions League defending team and ensured that the yellow submarines shared spoils with the Los Blancos. His style of play is something to reckon. Dennis Takaendesa said, “When one receives the ball on the flank, gets enough time to switch it to his favored left foot, goes at Marcelo, drops a shoulder to call in Casemiro to assist his compatriot, before Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos are required to put out the fire - you know what’s up.” The 20-year-old winger managed a total of 8 goals across all competitions and provided 3 assists in 25 starts. Samuel Chukwueze will be looking to grab the chance to play for Nigeria at the tournament commencing on the 22nd of June.

Going into this tournament, he has not much experience playing for the national team having only made one appearance thus far, but do not be fooled by that fact because Chukwueze is a boy with the right arrogance on the football pitch. His confidence to take on defenders with his much-favored left foot will surely remind you of the Bayern Munich legend Arjen Robben who recently left the club for greener pastures.
— Tinotenda Magiya, FirstTouch Africa

Chukwueze was among the shocking omissions from the Super Eagles team in the previous international friendlies. The Nigerian coach, Gernot Rohr went for other wingers including Samuel Kalu, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa and Henry Onyekuru because they were in better form than the youngster. However, Chukwu has been handed a rare opportunity to showcase his talent in front of the whole continent of Africa and football lovers from across the globe at this year’s African Cup of Nations finals. Going into this tournament, he has not much experience playing for the national team having only made one appearance thus far, but, do not be fooled by that fact because Chukwueze is a boy with the right arrogance on the football pitch. His confidence to take on defenders with his much-favored left foot will surely remind you of the Bayern Munich legend Arjen Robben who recently left the club for greener pastures. Will the youngster grab his opportunity when it is handed to him?

 I am more certain about the speculations that are going to sky-rocket from this point onward. Samuel Chukwueze is a winger, a position especially for a club like Arsenal. The prospect of joining fellow Nigerian Alex Iwobi at the Emirates and bombing the flanks, mirroring the performances of Robben and Ribery at Bayern would be a pleasant sight for the Arsenal fans. Chukwueze’s flair means that he will continue to be linked with bigger clubs who are in need of the kind of a player that hugs the touchline and gets past defenders in the tightest of spaces. I would not be surprised if a big move actually materializes in the aftermath of this tournament because Samuel Chukwueze has the raw talent that we have seen in other English players like Callum Hudson-Odoi.