Top 15 Players to Watch in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations

| December 27, 2021 12:21 pm PST

The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations is right around the corner. Between January 9 and February 6, many of the world’s best soccer players will be on show in Cameroon.

All of Europe’s top clubs have at least one African star in their ranks. Leagues such as the EPL and Serie A are teeming with African talent – and many of the continent’s star performers are set to light up AFCON 2021.

I have already produced a betting guide for AFCON 2021. If you’re planning to wager on the tournament, you will find tons of useful tips and information on that page.

In this post, however, I will be discussing the best players to watch in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. The chances are that some of your favorite soccer stars feature below.

So, join me as I rank the top 15 players to watch at AFCON 2021.

15. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting

  • Nation: Cameroon
  • Club: Bayern Munich
  • Position: Striker
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting

It’s safe to say that Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s rise to stardom has been unconventional. After starting his career in Germany, he moved to English side Stoke City in 2017 before securing a dream move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Following two years in France, Choupo-Moting was signed by Bayern Munich in 2020. Now, he will aim to fire Cameroon to AFCON glory on home soil.

Of course, Choupo-Moting lives in Robert Lewandowski’s shadow at Bayern. But having bagged 17 goals and four assists in 44 appearances for the Bavarians, he will be confident of adding to his international goal tally.

14. Naby Keïta

  • Nation: Guinea
  • Club: Liverpool
  • Position: Central Midfield
Naby Keïta

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Naby Keïta is the only Guinean on my list of players to watch at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.

Other notable Guinea internationals such as Amadou Diawara (AS Roma), Mohamed Bayo (Clermont Foot 96), and Saïdou Sow (AS Saint-Étienne) deserve a mention. But Keïta is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch.

The dynamic midfielder is closing in on a century of appearances for EPL giant Liverpool. With 44 international caps under his belt, he will be the heartbeat of his team at AFCON 2021.

13. Joël Matip

  • Nation: Cameroon
  • Club: Liverpool
  • Position: Center-Back
Joël Matip

Over the past few years, Joël Matip has become one of the best center-backs on the planet. Alongside Keïta at Liverpool, the 30-year-old is an integral part of Jurgen Klopp’s team.

After helping Liverpool to win the UEFA Champions League in 2019, Matip played a key role in the Reds’ Premier League triumph in 2020. Could he add the AFCON title to his list of achievements?

Best known for his aerial ability and tough tackling, the 6ft 4in defender is extremely difficult to get past. If he can carry his domestic form onto the international stage, he could help Cameroon to go all the way.

12. Thomas Partey

  • Nation: Ghana
  • Club: Arsenal
  • Position: Central Midfield
Thomas Partey

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Thomas Partey has yet to fulfil his true potential at Arsenal. Last year, the Gunners paid Atlético Madrid €50 million to acquire his services, but he has flattered to deceive.

Still, there is no denying that Partey is among the top AFCON players to watch. The combative midfielder could dominate games from start to finish, so don’t be shocked if he lights up the tournament.

With more than 200 top-flight appearances to his name, Partey is Ghana’s star player. He loves scoring for his country, too, having netted 12 goals in 34 international outings.

11. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

  • Nation: Gabon
  • Club: Arsenal
  • Position: Forward
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

We all know that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not the player that he once was. Yet, when it comes to discussing the best Africa Cup of Nations players to watch, you simply cannot leave Aubameyang out of the conversation.

The lethal forward has bagged 29 goals in 71 matches for Gabon. On top of that, he has managed to rack up almost 250 goals in less than 400 appearances for Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal.

Aubameyang was recently stripped of the Arsenal captaincy following a disciplinary breach and is currently training alone. Needless to say, he will be eager to prove a point to Mikel Arteta when AFCON gets underway.

10. Sébastien Haller

  • Nation: Ivory Coast
  • Club: Ajax
  • Position: Striker
Sébastien Haller

Believe it or not, Sébastien Haller will head into the last 16 of the Champions League as the competition’s top scorer. The Ajax striker has netted a whopping ten goals in six UCL games this season, emphasizing his ability.

In truth, Haller has been on fire ever since he joined Ajax. The 27-year-old has racked up 33 goals and 13 assists in 46 matches across all competitions for the Dutch giant.

Having represented France at various youth levels, Haller pledged his allegiance to Ivory Coast in 2020. He will now aim to make his Ivorian mother proud on African soccer’s biggest stage.

Men – Most Medals Won (All Time)
Player Club Goals
Sébastien Haller Ajax 10
Robert Lewandowski Bayern Munich 9
Christopher Nkunku RB Leipzig 7
Mohamed Salah Liverpool 7
Cristiano Ronaldo Manchester United 6

9. Franck Kessié

  • Nation: Ivory Coast
  • Club: AC Milan
  • Position: Central Midfield
Franck Kessié

Ivory Coast manager Patrice Beaumelle has a host of top players at his disposal. Along with Haller, stars like Nicolas Pépé (Arsenal), Odilon Kossounou (Bayer Leverkusen), and Eric Bailly (Manchester United) are destined to shine in Cameroon.

However, I believe that Franck Kessié is the Ivory Coast’s star performer – and that makes him one of the best players at AFCON 2021.

At just 24, the box-to-box midfielder already has 200 games for AC Milan under his belt. If he brings his A-game to Cameroon, he could guide his country to a fifth AFCON final in the space of three decades.

8. Victor Osimhen

  • Nation: Nigeria
  • Club: Napoli
  • Position: Forward
Victor Osimhen

When Victor Osimhen sustained multiple facial fractures last month, it looked as though he would not feature in the Africa Cup of Nations. Thankfully for Nigeria – and the tournament as a whole – the Napoli forward has announced that he is ready to play again.

Having spent the past couple of months sidelined with nasty injuries, Osimhen will be rusty. But if his goalscoring record is anything to go by, it shouldn’t take him long to get back up to speed.

This season, the 22-year-old scored nine goals in 14 games for Napoli before getting injured. With a record of ten goals in 18 matches for Nigeria, he is bound to find the back of the net in Cameroon.

7. Wilfred Ndidi

  • Nation: Nigeria
  • Club: Leicester City
  • Position: Defensive Midfield
Wilfred Ndidi

While Osimhen is Nigeria’s main goal threat, Wilfred Ndidi holds everything together. The Leicester City star is widely regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the game.

Just like Osimhen, Ndidi has struggled with injury recently. But if he can stay healthy between now and the start of the tournament, he will undoubtedly be one of the top players to watch at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Since making his international debut back in 2015, Ndidi has earned 43 international caps for the Super Eagles. With Ndidi in the heart of their midfield, they could soar to a fourth AFCON title.

6. Hakim Ziyech

  • Nation: Morocco
  • Club: Chelsea
  • Position: Attacking Midfield
Hakim Ziyech

Morocco’s sole AFCON triumph came all the way back in 1976. If the Atlas Lions want to claim their second title, they will need Hakim Ziyech to carry the team through the tournament.

Famed for his immaculate technique and unrivalled passing range, Ziyech is one of the most gifted midfielders on the planet. Although he has struggled to nail down a spot in Chelsea’s starting XI, there is no doubting his quality.

Ziyech racked up 49 goals and 81 assists for Ajax before joining Chelsea in 2020. He has since won the Champions League with the Blues and will now aim to guide his country to AFCON glory.

HAKIM ZIYECH’S CLUB CAREER BY THE NUMBERS
Club Games Goals Assists
Ajax 165 49 81
Twente 76 34 30
Chelsea 57 9 8
Heerenveen 46 13 11
Total 344 105 130

5. Édouard Mendy

  • Nation: Senegal
  • Club: Chelsea
  • Position: Goalkeeper
Édouard Mendy

Édouard Mendy is the only goalkeeper on my list of players to watch at AFCON 2021. That tells you everything you need to know about this guy’s ability.

Back in 2018, Chelsea parted ways with a whopping €80 million to sign Kepa Arrizabalaga – making him the most expensive goalkeeper in history. Two years later, the Blues paid just €24 million for Mendy – and he is now Thomas Tuchel’s undisputed No. 1.

After leading Chelsea to UCL glory last term, the supreme shot-stopper kept seven clean sheets across his first 11 EPL appearances this season. Remarkably, he has also achieved nine shutouts in 15 games for Senegal.

4. Kalidou Koulibaly

  • Nation: Senegal
  • Club: Napoli
  • Position: Center-Back
Kalidou Koulibaly

Not only do the Lions of Teranga boast the best goalkeeper in Africa, but they also have the continent’s best center-back in their ranks. It goes without saying that Senegal will be difficult to beat at AFCON 2021.

Over the past few years, Kalidou Koulibaly has been linked with just about every major European club. Although a move away from Napoli has yet to materialize, he is still viewed as one of the best defenders in the game.

Sure, Mendy and Koulibaly are excellent players. But I haven’t even mentioned Senegal’s best player yet. No prizes for guessing who that is!

3. Riyad Mahrez

  • Nation: Algeria
  • Club: Manchester City
  • Position: Right Winger
Riyad Mahrez

Algeria will be hoping to defend its AFCON crown in Cameroon, having triumphed back in 2019. Riyad Mahrez bagged three goals during the previous tournament – and he will almost certainly make a big impact on the upcoming competition.

The Fennec Foxes are blessed with numerous top players, including Saïd Benrahma (West Ham United), Adam Ounas (Napoli), Sofiane Feghouli (Galatasaray), and Ismaël Bennacer (AC Milan). But Mahrez is undoubtedly their star performer.

The skillful Manchester City winger has scored 26 goals in 70 international appearances. With a record of 90+ goal involvements in just over 150 games for Man City, he is among the best AFCON players.

2. Sadio Mané

  • Nation: Senegal
  • Club: Liverpool
  • Position: Left Winger
Sadio Mané

If it weren’t for the “Egyptian King”, Sadio Mané would be the best player at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. However, he will have to settle for the No. 2 spot on my list.

As one of the most valuable soccer players in the world, Mané has established himself among the sport’s elite. He has won both the Champions League and Premier League with Liverpool, scoring countless goals along the way.

Senegal made it all the way to AFCON 2019 final, only to fall to Algeria. Naturally, Mané will be desperate to go one better this time around.

1. Mohamed Salah

  • Nation: Egypt
  • Club: Liverpool
  • Position: Right Winger
Mohamed Salah

What can I say about Mohamed Salah that hasn’t already been said? I mean, few would argue that the 29-year-old is not the greatest player on the planet right now.

Since joining Liverpool in 2017, Salah has broken all kinds of records. He has chalked up over 200 goal involvements in less than 230 appearances for the club and has taken his game to an even higher level this season.

Salah’s international record is immense, too. Having netted 43 goals in 73 games for Egypt, he is among the leading contenders for the 2022 Ballon d’Or.

More AFCON Players to Watch

With 24 teams set to compete in the upcoming tournament, there are tons of world-class players to keep an eye on at the Africa Cup of Nations. I ranked my top 15 in this piece, but I could have gone on forever.

Here is a list of more top AFCON players to watch. You will probably recognize many of these names if you follow the EPL and other major European leagues.

  • Yves Bissouma – Mali
  • André-Frank Zambo Anguissa – Cameroon
  • Karl Toko Ekambi – Cameroon
  • Samuel Chukwueze – Nigeria
  • Saïd Benrahma – Algeria
  • Wilfried Zaha – Ivory Coast
  • Kelechi Iheanacho – Nigeria
  • Daniel Amartey – Ghana
  • Alex Iwobi – Nigeria
  • Frank Onyeka – Nigeria
  • Mohamed El-Shenawy – Egypt
  • Emmanuel Dennis – Nigeria
  • Cheikhou Kouyate – Senegal
  • Ismaïla Sarr – Senegal

Personally, I can’t wait for the Africa Cup of Nations to get underway. With many of the world’s best soccer players competing in the tournament, we are set for a thrilling month of action.

Remember – if you’re planning to wager on AFCON 2021, be sure to use only the best Africa Cup of Nations betting sites.

Ben Morris
Ben Morris

Ben is a sportswriter and tipster who specializes in soccer. Currently based in the UK, he has traveled all around the world watching – and betting on – his beloved sport.

Alongside his regular soccer content, Ben publishes blogs and picks for cricket, Formula 1, Aussie rules, darts, and various other sports.

Ben is a diehard fan of Nottingham Forest and England, so he hasn’t had much to cheer about in recent years!

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