Friday, 7 October 2011

Africa Cup of Nations 2012 – who's Gunner be missing in January?

This is one of those seasons that falls in the odd years before a major international competition, and as such it is typically disrupted by the qualifying demands of UEFA or FIFA. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for Arsenal at the moment is highly debatable – on the one hand, the players who aren’t called up for international duty get a little respite from a hectic playing schedule and possibly some extra training time together, but on the other hand the domestic lull clearly seems to affect the spirit and consistency of the team. Worse, it can lead to injuries to key players if they get crocked playing for their respective countries.

Of course, there is another international competition that may have a similar impact on the squads of many Premier League teams in early 2012. The offending confederation is not UEFA or FIFA, but CAF – the Confederation of African Football – and the sporting event is that jamboree of crazy fans and gung-ho football that is the Africa Cup of Nations. The 2012 tournament, to be held jointly by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, runs from January 21 to February 12.

Many Arsenal fans are currently bemoaning the fact that one of our key players will be missing come January – the Cameroonian powerhouse that is Alexander Song. Most Gunners fans will know that our Alex is related to African legend Rigobert Song, and is beginning to follow in his illustrious uncle’s footsteps as one of the integral members of the national side.

But actually, there’s no need to worry on that score, as Alex Song won’t be going to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012. Why not? Well, because Cameroon haven’t qualified. Despite finishing second in Group E, a slow start and some bad results meant that their total of 8 points was not good enough to earn them a runners-up qualification spot. Draws with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal (in Yaounde) as well as a 1-0 defeat to the latter in Dakar meant that the only team Cameroon have managed to beat to date are Group E’s whipping-boys Mauritius. These results proved costly – bad news for Cameroon and for the tournament, since the Indomitable Lions have one of the richest footballing pedigrees on the continent. They were the first African team to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup, in 1990 (who can forget Roger Milla’s dance at the corner flag?), before dastardly England put them out, and they have also won the Africa Cup of Nations four times along with a gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Their absence from the 2012 tournament is good news for Arsenal, however.

A closer look at the nations that have already secured qualification reveals that Botswana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Senegal will definitely be playing in the tournament, along with Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, who both automatically qualify as co-hosts.

With a round of games still to play, there are various permutations that will decide which other countries book a place. But from an Arsenal perspective, the most conspicuous country on that list at the moment is Ivory Coast, as Gervinho is an important player in the national side. Indeed, he has already scored three goals in the qualification phase already. In all likelihood, we will be losing him for the duration of the tournament. Elsewhere, Morocco are currently top of their group with one game still to play, and so it looks as though Marouane Chamakh, who was made captain of Morocco for the first time in August 2010, will also be on his way to Africa come January. The only other player who might be missing could be Emmanuel Frimpong, who has pledged to represent Ghana should he be called up. As yet he has not earned a cap for the Black Stars, but if he makes a big impact for the Gunners between now and Christmas we may just find ourselves a midfielder short – particularly given the long-term injuries to Michael Essien and Kevin-Prince Boateng.

Arsenal’s Premier League fixtures during the Cup of Nations are as follows:
21 Jan – Man Utd (h)
31 Jan – Bolton (a)
4 Feb – Blackburn (h)
11 Feb – Sunderland (a)

In addition there is potentially a Carling Cup semi-final 2nd leg, an FA cup fourth round tie and also a Champions League round of 16 1st leg on the 14/15 Feb (although let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

A few tricky league games there, including the big match against Manchester United, when Gooners will be desperate for revenge after what happened back in August (let’s not mention the score). United themselves will hardly be affected by the loss of African players – they will be without Mame Biram Diouf, who will probably be named in the Senegal squad, but he is hardly an integral member of the United first team at the moment.

With regard to the African players in the Bolton, Blackburn and Sunderland squads, namely Chris Samba (Republic of the Congo), Yakubu (Nigeria), Elmohamady (Egypt), and Stéphane Sessègnon (Benin) – none will be off, as Benin, Congo and, surprisingly, Nigeria and Egypt will definitely not be participating, thanks to poor results in the qualifying group stage.

It seems then, that although the Africa Cup of Nations could be worse for the Gunners, we’re still going to be without one or possibly two key players – and Marouane Chamakh...

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