After a lengthy break, the UEFA Champions League returns to action this weekend. AFKSports provides you with a slideshow of twelve African players to keep an eye on in these knockout stages.
1. Aymen Abennour – Centre-Half – Monaco
Twice voted into UEFA.com’s team of the week, Aymen Abdennour has finally come into his own at Monaco. The Tunisian centre-half initially struggled to hold down a starting spot after moving to the Principality from Toulouse. He and his comrades understand the difficulty of the task ahead of them in the Round of 16. Speaking to L’Equipe, Abdennour said, ‘Arsenal are a great team, actually one of the best. We have a young team with a lot of quality and ambition. We will fight to qualify.’
2. Mehdi Benatia – Centre-Half – Bayern Munich
Mehdi Benatia became the most expensive African defender in history, when the German champions bought him for a whopping thirty-nine million US dollars last August. Pep Guardiola saw the technically adept centre-half as one of the final pieces necessary to mount a European title challenge. The Bavarians will face off against Shakhtar in next stage of the competition, and Benatia knows he must be wary of Luiz Adriano and the rest of the Ukranian champions’ strikeforce. Speaking to UEFA.com, Benatia said, ‘It doesn’t matter who the opponent is – we have to be focused, ready to play aggressively and give our opponents a tough game.’
3. Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting – Winger – Schalke
In Germany, there is no debating the signing of the summer transfer period. Schalke snapped up Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting from Mainz for free, and he has since grown into an integral role in Gelsenkirchen. The highly touted Cameroonian forward has scored 40% of his team’s goals in the league, but must focus on bringing the same energy and determination to Europe where he has not been as prolific. In the next round Roberto Di Matteo’s men will face-off against Real Madrid. Schalke’s manager will look to a determined Choupo-Moting to make the difference. Speaking to AS.com, Choupo-Moting declared, ‘Madrid are not unbeatable. Everything and anything can happen and that’s why footbal is so special.’
4. Yacine Brahimi – Winger – Porto
Yacine Brahimi was one of the veritable revelations of the Champions League group stages. The Algerian technician scored four goals and notched two assists in Porto’s first six matches, which was enough to earn him a place alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in UEFA.com’s team of the round. His production on the European stage has drawn plaudits from around the continent. Rumours of a marquee move to Manchester City or Manchester United from Porto have been reusable fodder for Britain’s tabloid rumour mill. Brahimi now faces Basel in the knockout stages, where he will have the chance to further showcase his abilities.
5. Serey Die – Defensive Midfielder – Basel
Fresh off of an Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) victory with Cote D’Ivoire, a highly motivated Serey Die will look to continue progressing with Basel. The Swiss side were not expected to advance from Group B which European giants Real Madrid and Liverpool also contested. The Swiss champions now face Porto who have, in their ranks, a vast array of attacking arsenal. Die will be assigned the worrisome task of keeping Yacine Brahimi, Oliver Torres, and Ricardo Quaresma in check. His contribution will be key to overcoming this new challenge and progressing to the quarter-finals.
6. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Striker – Borussia Dortmund
Dortmund’s domestic campaign began catastrophically. By the winter break, the 2013 UEFA Champions League finalists found themselves in the relegation zone. But Aubameyang’s return from the Nations Cup has been a catalyst for Jurgen Klopp’s renaissance. Since the Bundesliga restarted, Dortmund have improved, winning against Freiburg and Mainz. The Gabonese striker has scored three goals and managed an assist in those two wins as he continues to be one of the few positives for Dortmund.
7. Yaya Toure – Midfielder – Manchester City
Often criticized in Africa for not being able to replicate his club performances with Cote D’Ivoire, Yaya Toure returns to England a continental champion. Far from attaining satisfaction with his vast achievements, Toure recently told Canal+ that he was a player that always looked to progress and reach new milestones. Manchester City have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time in their history. If the four-time African Player of the Year can help his team past Barcelona, it will have been another significant tick in his sizeable book of career accomplishments.
8. Didier Drogba – Striker – Chelsea
In 2012, Didier Drogba helped Chelsea become the first side from London to win a Champions League title. At the time he was Chelsea’s main striker, but after a stint in Turkey with Galatasaray, Drogba returned to a fringe role. He understands that Diego Costa is Jose Mourinho’s primary targetman, but Drogba’s winning mentality will be pivotal to Chelsea mounting another title challenge.
9. Nabil Dirar – Fullback – Monaco
Originally a winger, Nabil Dirar’s conversion to wingback has been tremendously successful. Coach Leonardo Jardim must be credited for Dirar’s renaissance as he originally decided to deploy the Moroccan in defence. Dirar’s work rate was always industrious, but the re-positioning was far from obvious. Monaco now benefit from width in possession that opens up lanes of attack for midfielders and strikers.
10. John Obi Mikel – Defensive Midfielder – Chelsea
The arrival of Nemanja Matic from Benfica and Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona, has relegated John Obi Mikel to the status of perennial substitute. However, Jose Mourinho’s midfield have recently been criticized for being imbalanced. Fabregas often roams, neglecting his defensive responsibilities and isolating Matic. Chelsea know they cannot afford to field such a porous midfield against passing sides like Bayern Munich or Barcelona. Obi Mikel may then yet have a crucial role to play in Chelsea’s Champions League campaign, alongside Matic.
11. Serge Aurier – Fullback – Paris Saint-Germain
Serge Aurier was personally at fault for the first two goals Cote D’Ivoire conceded against Guinea and Mali. Ahead of the final group stage match, coach Herve Renard pulled Aurier aside and emphasized the importance of defending before bursting forward to join the attack. For the remainder of the tournament, the buccaneering fullback played shutdown defence, helping Cote D’Ivoire to their second-ever AFCON title. Ahead of Paris’ crunch match against Chelsea, Aurier must recall and implement Renard’s advice as undisciplined defending will not pass unpunished against the English league-leaders.
12. Wilfried Bony – Striker – Manchester City
On the 11th of January Wilfried Bony became the most expensive African player of all time when Manchester City purchased his services for forty-three million US dollars. The former Swansea striker was brought in to provide an alternative attacking threat to Sergio Aguero. Bony is not cup-tied so City will immediately benefit from his services against Barcelona, who are particularly susceptible to aerial duels – one of the Ivorian’s strong suits.