Liverpool's stars prepare to light up Africa Cup of Nations
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Very few Africans get the chance to lift the Uefa Champions League and the Africa Cup of Nations within a year. Jon Obi Mikel was the last to do so. The Nigerian was part of the Chelsea team that frustrated and overcame Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in May 2012.
In February 2013, Mikel was a lynchpin in Stephen Keshi’s victorious Nigeria squad that saw off Burkina Faso in the Cup of Nations final in Johannesburg.
Six years on from Mikel’s title-winning exploits with his domestic and national team, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah have an opportunity to emulate the veteran’s feats.
The duo were part of the Liverpool side that outwitted Tottenham Hotspur at the Wanda Metropolitano in the Champions League final on 1 June. But for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, they would likely be celebrating the 2019 English Premier League crown too.
Mané and Salah will be the spearheads for Senegal and Egypt respectively in an expanded Cup of Nations. The 16 team format held sway from 1996. However Egypt 2019 will be the inception of a larger tournament. Six venues will host the 24 teams.
Salah, who was still carrying the injury inflicted on him by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos during the 2018 Champions League final, was a shadow of himself at the World Cup in Russia. Egypt limped out of the competition after the first round.
A similar outcome is not expected on home turf. Salah comes into the 2019 Cup of Nations in obscenely rude health. He was one of the leading marksmen in the English Premier League. He scored 22 goals and set up eight others during the 2018/19 campaign. The 27-year-old was also on the score sheet in the 2019 Champions League final.
With his face adorning the myriad posters looming over highways in and around the host cities of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia, the questions are: will the pressure diminish his wiles? Is too much expected of him? Can his teammates shoulder the burden?
An opening day clash against Zimbabwe on 21 June at the Cairo International Stadium should provide some of the answers.
Two days after that game, Senegal begin their bid for a first title against Tanzania at the 30 June Stadium in Cairo.
Senegal reached the last eight in Equatorial Guinea two years ago. Since then Mané has matured into one of the most prolific strikers in Europe. He also netted 22 times for Liverpool during the last Premier League season.
“Sadio is coming to an age where things are becoming more natural for him,” said the Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “He’s not having to convince people now. We all know that he’s a world-class player and he has started realising that for himself.”
The 27-year-old has 16 goals in 60 appearances for his country. However he will not be able to add to that tally against Tanzania due to suspension.
“It is better to play with Sadio Mané,” said Senegal coach Aliou Cissé. “We will have to adapt to his absence. We have 23 players who are able to do the job and do the job properly. It's the national team that's important.”
That’s pure coach speak. Necessary but rather banal. Players such as Mané and Salah are more than necessary. They are special.