Predictably, the lion’s share of the coverage of the African Cup of Nations in Western media has focused on players English football media already knows. The presence of Premier League stars like Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mané—as well as the absence of others, such as Joël Matip and Yannick Bolasie—sometimes overshadows those who contribute the most. Ahead of the semifinals tomorrow, here are just a few of the lesser-known players who have earned a closer look:
1. Junior Kabananga, DR Congo
Despite the absence of Bolasie and Bournemouth’s Benik Afobe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo won Group C. A different goalscorer, Junior Kabananga, has wowed fans with an uncanny ability to sneak behind the defense and score. His three goals in three matches for DR Congo made all the difference in the group stage.
He saved his country a crucial point by scoring their second goal in a 2-2 draw with the Ivory Coast after coming out of nowhere to give his nation all three points in its opening match with Morocco:
He also opened the scoring against Togo, jump-starting a 3-1 victory over that assured the Congo of a trip to the knockout round. The 27-year-old has had stints in Europe with Anderlecht and Cercie Brugge and currently plays for FC Astana of Kazakhstan’s Premier Liga, though perhaps not for much longer.
2. Wahbi Khazri and Naïm Sliti, Tunisia
Two attacking midfielders, one a veteran and one an up-and-comer, formed a dynamic duo for Tunisia. Their pace and ability to link up with one another were instrumental in the two wins that put the Eagles of Carthage through to the group stage. Tunisia’s outlook was bleak after an opening loss to Senegal, but Wahbi Khazri and Naïm Sliti were in fine form the rest of the group stage.
Each man contributed greatly to Monday’s 4-2 thrashing of Zimbabwe, which ensured that Tunisia made it out of Group B. A deflection off a Khazri corner resulted in a fortuitous early goal for Sliti, who set up a Youssef Mskani goal a short time later. Khazri put the cherry on top of Tunisia’s four-goal half with a penalty in the 45th.
For Khazri, the tournament must have been a welcome change from Sunderland, the floundering club where he has had little impact since his move to the Premier League from Ligue 1. Sliti, on the other hand, has scored and added two assists in ten appearances for his club, Lille OSC. Currently on loan from Ligue 2’s Red Star 93, the young winger stock’s is rising.
3. Denis Bouanga, Gabon
As the hosts sought to maximize home field advantage, all Gabonese eyes were supposed to be on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the electrifying forward who has made a name for himself at Borussia Dortmund. However, it was 22-year-old Denis Bouanga who came closest to avoiding Gabon’s unfortunate early exit.
In addition to creating numerous chances, the winger did his utmost to add his own name to the score sheet. A series of excellent saves from Kouakou Hervé Koffi denied him what could have been at least a brace in a 1-1 draw Burkina Faso, and in Gabon’s final match no one came closer to getting his team three points than Bouanga. After forcing an acrobatic save from Cameroon’s keeper off a free kick, he nearly saved the day in added time with a powerful strike that clattered off the goalpost. The rebound itself became an opportunity for Didier N’Dong, but it was expertly denied.
The match finished scoreless, and Gabon left the tournament winless.
Though Bouanga’s passing, presence of mind, and ability to test keepers won’t be on display any more in this tournament, FC Tours will be glad to have them back. On loan from Lorient, Bouanga has scored five goals with five assists in 18 Ligue 2 fixtures this season and appears to have a future in top-flight action even if Lorient finish the season where they are now, at the bottom of the table.
4. Essam El Hadary, Egypt
Essam El Hadary has spent most of his career in Africa and, at 44 years old, probably isn’t looking to change that, but there are a few European teams who could use a keeper of his caliber. When the Pharaohs’ starting goalie went down with an injury 25 minutes into their first Cup of Nations match, El Hadary stepped in to take his place, becoming the oldest player ever to compete in the tournament.
The veteran has done more than simply fill a vacancy. Thanks to near-perfect defending, Egypt topped Group D with seven points despite only scoring two goals. Not counting the first 25 minutes, El Hadary led the defense to three straight clean sheets, and it wasn’t always easy. As Egypt clung to a 1-0 lead over Ghana in their final group match, El Hadary blocked a missile from Jordan Ayew in the 89th minute, giving the Pharaohs the points. He notched four saves and kept yet another clean sheet in Egypt’s quarterfinal victory over Morocco, again proving he is still very much up to the challenges of the Cup of Nations.