U23 Afcon: Top five players to watch

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The best of Africa’s young talent

The U23 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Cairo on Friday, with hosts Egypt taking on Mali in their opening Group A counter.

As well as crowing Africa’s U23 champions, the competition will also decide the continent’s three representatives for the 2020 Olympics in Japan, and represents an ideal showcase for the best of the continent’s young talent.

Here are Ed Dove’s top five players to watch at the upcoming tournament.

  1. Ramadan Sobhi HD

    Ramadan Sobhi

    On paper, Sobhi is a player on the downward slide.

    He moved to Europe, and Stoke City, after two fine seasons with Al-Ahly back in 2016, but returned to Egypt earlier this year after failing to make his mark either with the Potters or at Huddersfield Town.

    Nonetheless, he remains a superb talent—boasting immense technical qualities and dribbling skills, and this could be the tournament where he reaffirms his class.

    Ghana coach Ibrahim Tanko has identified the wideman as the best player at the tournament.
  2. Habib Mohammed of Ghana during the 2019 WAFU Nations Cup match between Ghana v Gambia at the Stade Lat Dior, Thies on the 31 September 2019

    Mohammed Habib

    The only player from Ghana’s Wafu Cup squad to make the cut for the U23 Nations Cup is Habib, who impressed during the Black Stars’ run to the final of the regional showpiece.

    He’s a fine athlete, and boasts all the qualities to be an excellent centre-back, even if his game-reading and anticipation needs work.

    The defender will also have learned from his recent continental exploits with domestic giants Asante Kotoko, even if they failed to reach the Caf Confederation Cup group stage.
  3. Nigeria U17 v Mexico U17
    ANFP Chile

    Kelechi Nwakali

    Few players arrive at the Nations Cup with more of a point to prove than Nwakali, whose career trajectory has changed significantly in recent months.

    The attacking midfielder, once seen as the future of Nigerian football, hasn’t played a competitive game since March, and left Arsenal for the Spanish second tier in September following an underwhelming loan spell at FC Porto B.

    The Nations Cup represents the ideal opportunity for this one-time wonderkid to get his career back on track.
  4. Tercious Malepe, South Africa, June 2019

    Tercious Malepe

    Malepe, captain of South Africa’s U-23 team, is another player with a point to prove, having been deemed surplus to requirements by Orlando Pirates earlier this year.

    At club level, the midfielder is building himself back up on loan at Chippa United, and has talked openly about how he’s using the likes of Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi as role models as he looks to work his way to the pinnacle of the game.

    Malepe initially looked like he was set to miss out on the tournament, but a red card sustained on club duty which rules him out for two domestic games, prompted United to permit the tenacious operator to head to Egypt.

    Bafana will be much stronger for his arrival.
  5. Christian Kouame Genoa
    Getty Images

    Christian Kouame

    There isn’t a player at the U23 Nations Cup who’s enjoying a better run of form in one of Europe’s major leagues than Kouame, who might be the hot pick for the tournament’s Golden Boot.

    He currently has five in 11 in Serie A so far this season for Genoa, with two goals and two assists in his last three outings—including a strike against Juventus.

    The youngster impressed in the top flight last term, delivering particularly memorable and eye-catching displays against AS Roma and Fiorentina, and he may well prove too much for the defences at the U23 tournament