The Premier League returns this weekend with a host of African players set to be involved in the key storylines and battles up and down the division.
Sadio Mane, the reigning African Footballer of the Year, may have departed for Bayern Munich but a swathe of arrivals ensure no shortage of star power from the continent, with the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly, Joe Aribo and Taiwo Awoniyi all set to play in the Premier League for the first time.
Here’s how we see the season unfolding for the African stars.
Last season, Riyad Mahrez won the league for the fourth time — equalling the African record set by Didier Drogba — top-scoring for City even if his minutes on the field dropped from 1955 in 2020-21 to 1493 last term.
Instead, with City boasting more of a focal point in attack, Mahrez should revert to more of a supporting role even though he will remain a key threat cutting onto his left foot from the right channel.
Jack Grealish is surely set to improve following a mixed maiden season at City, but the departure of Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling should ensure 31-year-old Mahrez retains a prominent place in Pep Guardiola’s starting XI.
However, this may depend more on whether City can enjoy stability in defence — they appear short at least a full-back or two — rather than whether Haaland and Mahrez can strike up a productive relationship.
Should City slip up, Salah’s Liverpool appear the best placed to pounce.
The Reds enjoyed a superb campaign last term, even if they ‘only’ won two domestic cups despite aspirations of a quadruple, and they’re anticipated to continue in that vein.
The departure of Mane is a considerable loss — both for his goal output and his ability to get the best out of those around him — although Jurgen Klopp will hope that January transfer Luis Diaz and summer signing Darwin Nunez can help to offset the loss of the 30-year-old attacker.
Certainly, it will take a collective effort if Mane is to be replaced, with no one player marrying his consistency in front of goal — 90 goals in six seasons at Anfield — with his guile and creativity.
Salah, despite ending last season as the Golden Boot winner and PFA Players’ and PFA Fans’ Player of the Year, has something to prove after his noticeable decline after the Egypt‘s Africa Cup of Nations final defeat at the hands of Mane’s Senegal.
His form in the tail end of 2021 was Ballon d’Or worthy — he had a hand in 28 goals in all competitions between late August and mid-December — but his failure in the big finals, and an inability to maintain his consistency, ultimately cost him in the race to win the African Player of the Year award.
Liverpool’s African supporting cast — including Naby Keita — also need to play their part if the Merseysiders are to win their second title of the Premier League era, and the battle between Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate for the right to partner Virgil van Dijk in defence could be one to watch.
The remainder of last season’s top six appear unlikely to break the Liverpool-Manchester City duopoly at the top of the table, although each of Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United will hope at least to keep pace with the top two for as long as possible.
Spurs appear best placed, with Antonio Conte bolstering each area of his squad during the offseason.
The arrival of Yves Bissouma from Brighton & Hove Albion not only gives Spurs a proven Premier League talent with his best years ahead of him, but it also means they can rotate their midfield options without a significant drop-off in quality.
Bissouma and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg had the most tackles and interceptions combined in the top flight over the past two seasons (294 and 272 respectively), and they will ensure Spurs’ engine room is tenacious and committed this term.
The competition in midfield appears to suggest that newly crowned African Young Player of the Year Pape Sarr needs to move in order to get game time, while Iyenoma Destiny Udogie could give Spurs another asset going forward if their reported interest in the Udinese left-back comes to fruition.
Things appear less controlled than usual at Chelsea, who have much rebuilding still to do between now and the transfer window closing.
Koulibaly finally arrives on English shores after numerous transfer windows of speculation, and he’ll be looking to continue his excellent international partnership with fellow Africa Cup of Nations winner Edouard Mendy at Stamford Bridge.
He should forge a strong pairing with Thiago Silva, but Chelsea surely need more defensive cover after the departure of Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger; how long can the 37-year-old Brazil great be expected to maintain his high level of performance?
Hakim Ziyech had a hand in just seven goals during 21-22 — a disappointing return for a player who should be in his prime — and rumours of a move to Manchester United add extra uncertainty to his future.
For United’s current African stars, loan moves away from Old Trafford appear the best way for them to get game time; Hannibal Mejbri, Amad Diallo and Shola Shoretire are among those being tipped for a move away.
And what of Eric Bailly?
He penned a new contract under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but the arrival of Lisandro Martinez from Ajax puts him fifth in the pecking order, at best, under Eric ten Hag. Sevilla and AS Roma are both understood to be monitoring his situation.
Nicolas Pepe has featured for Arsenal during pre-season, but hopes of him ever recreating his Ligue 1 form in the Premier League have all but been extinguished.
He’s linked with a move away from the Emirates Stadium, but Eddie Nketiah has appeared revitalised at times during pre-season after signing a new contract with the North Londoners and reaffirming his desire to build a legacy at the club.
Could this be the campaign in which he finally proves to be a season-long threat in the top flight?
The European Hopefuls
Wilfred Ndidi and Wesley Fofana‘s return from injury will come as a massive boost for Leicester City as they look to defy pre-season pessimism resulting from their lack of business in the transfer market.
Jamie Vardy continues to fire consistently at 35, but Brendan Rodgers will hope that Kelechi Iheanacho and, particularly, Patson Daka contribute more than their combined nine league goals last season.
Upwardly mobile Crystal Palace rely on African talent more heavily than most, with no fewer than nine African internationals (or players eligible to play for an African team) in their first-team squad.
Wilfried Zaha — entering the final year of his contract — is the pick of the bunch, and he has produced outstanding goal-laden performances during pre-season to give hope he will hit the ground running despite tricky opening fixtures for the Eagles.
Enock Mwepu and Tariq Lamptey (Brighton) and Said Benrahma and Nayef Aguerd (West Ham United) will all look to build on their team’s impressive campaigns last term, while Frank Onyeka at Brentford will want to prove he does possess Premier League quality after an iffy debut season.
Sold by Liverpool last summer, he smashed his career-best goalscoring record by netting 15 for 1. FC Union Berlin in the Bundesliga last season — helping them to the highest league finish in the club’s history (fifth) — to prompt a swifter-than-expected return to English football.
Forest shelled out approximately £17.5 million for his services, and he’s expected to spearhead a remodelled side that features, to date, 12 recruits.
The other two promoted sides will also be heavily reliant on African talent.
Bournemouth will be desperate for Dominic Solanke — 29 goals in the Championship last term — to display his predatory instincts in the top flight having failed to do between 2018 and 2020, while Tosin Adarabioyo, Neeskens Kebano and Josh Onomah are getting another shot at the Premier League with Fulham.
Frank Lampard is the early favourite in the sack race, but he did at least prompt an improvement in Iwobi last season, with the ex-Arsenal man’s late winner against Newcastle United in March one of the few highlights of a bleak Everton season.
Aribo’s quality at Rangers last term — not least as they reached the UEFA Europa League final — and as his outrageous goal for Southampton against Villarreal in pre-season have prompted optimism that he’ll be a real asset for the Saints.
However, Southampton need a proper overhaul, and an excellent midfield of Aribo and James Ward-Prowse may not be enough to keep their heads above water.
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