The Africa Cup of Nations may well shape the course of the Premier League title race as English clubs lose key players for several weeks at a critical time in the season.
Premier League managers have grumbled about the timing of Africa’s biennial championship for years, complaining about the fact that the tournament deprives them of players just when the fixture list is at its busiest, but this year’s tournament, which kicks off in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea on Saturday, could have an even bigger impact in England than normal as clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Newcastle United grapple with several absentees.
Nowhere is the Cup of Nations more unpopular than at Eastlands, where City manager Roberto Mancini is resigned to the loss of Ivorian brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure when his team can least afford it.
In many respects, the loss of the Toure duo has already been felt by City, who have led the league for much of the season.
Since the players departed to link up with the Ivory Coast squad earlier this month, City have lost key games against Manchester United in the FA Cup and Liverpool in their semi-final first-leg match in the League Cup.
More pertinently, City were comfortable 3-0 winners over Liverpool in the League on Jan. 3, with Yaya Toure influential throughout, before losing 1-0 in the League Cup a week later when the midfielder was missing.
“I have tried to find another Yaya in my squad, but there isn’t another Yaya,” Mancini said recently. “He is a very important player. For this reason, January is a big month. If we can stay on the top of the table after January then I think we have a very good chance to win the league.”
City’s nearest challengers in the title race, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, are not affected by the Cup of Nations. None of the Africans in Spurs squad, including Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor, represent Cup of Nations qualifiers, while the lone African on United’s books, Mame Biram Diouf, has been overlooked by Senegal.
Yet while Spurs and United are primed to pounce on any slipups by City, other sides near the top of the table have not been so fortunate.
Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas will be hoping that Spanish striker Fernando Torres finds his goalscoring boots sooner rather than later as the club bids farewell to Ivory Coast duo Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou.
The absence of Drogba, who is at loggerheads with Chelsea over his future, will become even more acute should Torres fail to rediscover his best form.
Chelsea’s challengers in the race for a top-four finish, Arsenal, could also suffer from the absence of the Ivory Coast’s Gervinho and, to a lesser extent, Moroccan international Marouane Chamakh.
Chamakh has remained a peripheral figure at the Emirates this season, but Gervinho has been a key source of assists during Robin van Persie’s scoring run.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes the impact of the Cup of Nations will be felt for several weeks after its conclusion.
“It is the equivalent of a player here going to the European Championship. They are under immense pressure,” Wenger said. “It is a different climate [over there]. Usually we have snow in February here, so they come from a big temperature difference. Most of the time, they are dead [afterwards].”
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, meanwhile, is hoping his team can maintain their impressive start to the season — which has seen the Magpies climb to sixth place — in the absence of star striker Demba Ba and midfielder Cheick Tiote.