FT's AFCON 2019 Ultimate XI
Many were called but eleven were chosen
Algeria are the champions of Africa. An underdog whom a few gave a chance but convinced all that they are worthy winners of the 2019 Total Africa Cup of Nations when all was said and done. By virtue of their triumph, it becomes even easier to explain why four of our chosen best eleven players from the 2019 AFCON tournament are a part of the Desert Foxes. These eleven are what would form team Africa to challenge any other continent or galaxy, chosen solely based on their performances in Egypt.
So without further ado, let’s reveal who they are, knitted in a basic 4-2-3-1 formation.
Mouez Hassen, Tunisia – Goalkeeper
The Tunisia goalkeeper’s main spotlight moment was probably not what he would have chosen. The 24-year-old OGC Nice shot-stopper almost recreated the Kepa-Maurizio Sari Chelsea scene when he was tactically substituted by Alain Giresse in the closing extra time minutes of their round of 16 clash against Ghana. Tunisia had played out to a thoroughly entertaining 1-1 draw and the more experienced Ben Mustapha was called upon to save penalties, which Mouez didn’t take so well, hesitating and eventually gesturing his frustrations as he left the pitch. The latter did actually save the day and the young goalkeeper later apologized to the Tunisians on twitter.
It goes without saying that the Carthage Eagles weren’t at their best despite reaching the last four of the 2019 AFCON. Mouez however was. He kept a total of 2 clean sheets in his 6 appearances, most remarkably pulling off some of the top breath-taking reflex saves in the tournament, to deny Madagascar a furtherance of their dream in the quarters and keeping Senegal at bay in the semi-finals. Just a small judgement mistake in extra-time ensured Tunisia’s Bronn scored an own goal that denied the 2004 champions a finals appearance.
If we are looking for the next exceptional shot stoppers on the continent, after the generation of the likes of Egypt’s El Hadary, surely North Africa has another one in Hassen.
Youcef Belaili, Algeria – Leftback
He is not a left-back and neither did he star as one in Algeria’s road to their second ever AFCON title, but his versatility and style of play allowed us to pick him as one for this list. Deployed mainly on the left-wing or midfield positions for the Desert Foxes, ahead of FC Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, Belaili emerged as one of the lesser known stars of the Egypt 2019 tournament. The 27-year-old Esperance Sportive de Tunis man was arguably Algeria’s best player of the tournament without being a subject of exceptionally spectacular moments. He slammed home the solitary goal in Algeria’s 1-0 win over Senegal in the group stages and was ever so consistent throughout the campaign, linking up well with Feghouli and doing the most basic things of passing, tackling and marking to absolute perfection.
Aissa Mandi, Algeria – Centre back
The champions conceded the least number of goals in the tournament, just once from open play in 7 matches and they majorly have Mandi and his partner Djamel Benlamri to thank for this. The 27-year-old Real Betis defender looked as sure as anyone can be in that Algerian back-line. Beating Senegal twice in the group stages and for the championship in the final, they calmly thwarted all of Mane’s threat, Ighalo and the highly rated Chukwueze in the semi-finals and many more that came calling. Comfortable on the ball, meticulous in tackling, winning in the air and bold in interceptions; the cool, calm and collected centre back was the best of them. He arguably bettered the performances of one of the world’s best defenders and his partner in this FirstTouch Africa XI setup whom we feature next.
Kalidou Koulibaly, Senegal – Centre back
Honestly, I might be getting tired writing about this man. The 28-year-old Napoli defender keeps making the news and the 2019 AFCON was no different, helping the Teranga Lions reach their second ever final berth and putting them in contention for a first ever Africa Cup of Nations title in their history. Working together with captain Cheikou Kouyate who was deployed as makeshift centre-back in replacing the injured Salif Sane, Kalidou erased all of the Crystal Palace midfielder’s mistakes, posing a stable physical presence when Aliou Cisse’s boys came up against Uganda and Benin in the knock-out stages. In total, Senegal kept 5 clean-sheets in all the 6 times they had Koulibaly guarding their goal. He missed out the final against Algeria for accumulation of yellow cards, with his teammates coming out to voice they were going to play for him, seeing just how central he had been to their 2019 AFCON conquest. Kalidou is effectively not just among the best in Africa, but the entire world.
Achraf Hakimi, Morocco– Right back
It takes someone special with some guts to fish out someone who didn’t even reach the last 8 as one of the tournament’s best players. You can crucify me later, but I am not going to go back on this one. The Real Madrid player personifies fearlessness. At just 20-years of age, his reputation for running up and down the flank, tearing apart other defenders, going at goal or laying up assists on a silver platter is unparalleled. No wonder he was named the 2018 Africa’s Best Young Player at the CAF Awards. After starring in the group stages, the right-back was also a victim of Morocco’s early and surprising exit from the tournament at the hands of Benin on penalty shootouts in the round of 16. The Atlas Lions had achieved maximum points in the group stages and finished without conceding a single goal from open play.
Idrissa Gueye, Senegal – Left defensive midfielder
If you are a follower of the English Premier League and this blog, you’ll know that Idrissa Gana Gueye has consistently been the best defensive midfielder and tackler in the past three seasons. The 29-year-old PSG bound midfielder effectively came to the party for Senegal in their 3rd group stage match against Kenya, after missing out on the match-day two loss against Algeria. The diminutive midfielder was the spine of Teranga Lions’ midfield and perhaps for the first ever, we saw him appearing in a more advanced midfield role. He edged his name in Senegal’s history books by scoring the only goal that gave Aliou Cisse’s men passage into the semi-finals after seeing off a stubborn Benin. His proposed move to the French Ligue 1 champions couldn’t have come at a better time and the Everton man could be a key ingredient in ending PSG’s UEFA Champions League curse.
Ismael Bennacer, Algeria – Right defensive midfielder
Who else to partner Gueye in our midfield than the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Best Player of the tournament. The 21-year-old box to box defensive midfielder otherwise known as a number 8 was a real nuisance to all the opposing players he came up against. The former Arsenal man looked obsessive, vicious and like he doesn’t tire in Algeria’s midfield set-up. The Empoli midfielder who is reportedly set to join Italian Serie A giants, AC Milan boasted a passing accuracy of more than 87% and racked up more than two assists even though stats do not tell the complete story when it comes to him. He is definitely one of the most exciting young African players to look out for in the near future.
Alexander Iwobi, Nigeria – Central attacking midfielder
The Super Eagles weren’t the most impressive or convincing unit throughout the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and one of the players to thank for their 3rd place finish should be the Arsenal forward. Coming through the North London club’s academy, the 23-year-old forward’s potential has always been there for all to see, even earmarked to be as good as or even better the displays of the Nigerian legend and his uncle, Austin Jay Jay Okocha. After playing mostly as a central striker in his academy days, an attacking midfielder for Arsene Wenger and left-wing under Arsenal’s current head coach, Unai Emery; Iwobi’s search for his best position has always rendered him less effective than imaginable. However, in the Super Eagles’ charge to the semi-finals, Gernot Rohr deployed him as a number 10 and did a lot of heavy lifting in knitting the Nigerian team together. Even his criticized end-product was improved immensely, holding onto the ball to free wingers and wing-backs, linking up defense and attack. He scored that all important winner against the 2017 champions Cameroon in the round-of-16 and assisted a few others as well. After all, Emery could perhaps get the best out of Iwobi in that attacking midfielder position but given how he has options in Ozil, Mkhitaryan and now Ceballos; we ask if Arsenal is where Iwobi would craft a legendary career for himself.
Sadio Mane, Senegal – Left winger
When we talk of big name players who stepped up and showed their worthy, Sadio tops that list. The Liverpool forward surely took to the pitch and backed up his assertion that he would exchange his 2019 Champions League win for a maiden AFCON title with Senegal. After missing out on their 2-0 win over Tanzania, Mane came through very hungry in their 1-0 match-day two loss to Algeria. Always looking dangerous whenever in possession of the ball and keeping us all at the edge our seats, the 2018/19 Premier League golden boot winner was responsible for most of the tournament’s tasty dribbles. Fresh to the mind was how he wriggled and danced past two Benin defenders in a flash that set-up Gueye for Senegal’s quarter-final winner against the Squirrels. Even though he missed two penalties won from open play, Mane still managed to score 3 goals in 6 matches, just 2 shy of the golden boot winner, Odion Ighalo. One of Algeria’s highly successful strategies to win the 2019 AFCON gold involved throwing three or more players at Mane whenever he got the ball. Even then, he still proved difficult to contain.
If Senegal had won the 2019 AFCON, surely, the 27-year-old would have been one of the favorites to win the 2019 FIFA Best Male Player Award and the Ballon d’Or. Now, we will have to wait and see.
Riyad Mahrez, Algeria – Right wing
The Manchester winger didn’t have the best of displays according to his standards, but how can you fault a big name player who comes through and captains his nation to a coveted Africa Cup of Nations title. The 2019 Premier League winner was targeted throughout the better part of the campaign and thus became a bit quiet on more than one occasions. However, when called upon to step up and carry the team, he did just that. Just like Mane, the Algerian play-maker scored a total of 3 goals, including the headlining injury time free-kick against Nigeria that proved the difference as the North Africans booked a finals appearance. He had just exhibited the hallmark of his role for Algeria, a few moments before that free-kick, carrying the ball from the right-wing, skipping past markers in a silky manner and denied by the finest of margins.
Overall, it was a real captain’s display by the 28-year-old for the champions.
Odion Ighalo, Nigeria – Centre forward
Who else to lead the line but the top goal scorer of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations tournament. The 29-year-old Chinese Super League based forward bagged a total of 5 goals as Nigeria registered a 3rd place finish. After topping the scoring charts during the qualifiers with 6 goals to his name, the former Watford man proved that he surely is the best in the business. All of headed, penalty and poacher goals, he scored – resembling the traits of a complete marksman. Now that he has hung up his international boots “to give room for other young players” to shine, the Super Eagles have a responsibility to find his successor. Factually, Ighalo’s Super Eagles career wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, even as he was criticized for poor showings at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. However, one thing is for sure, he finished well.
Mouez, Mandi, Koulibaly, Hakimi, Belaili, Bennacer, Gueye, Iwobi, Mane, Mahrez and Ighalo have been our best eleven from the 2019 Total Africa Cup of Nations. Who would you have in yours?