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Six stars
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 06 - 2019

The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is just around the corner and this edition of the tournament promises to be one of the best ever given what we saw from our African stars this season across the big leagues.
The likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Hakim Ziyech, Wilfried Zaha, Riyad Mahrez and Kalidou Koulibaly are taking their respective leagues by storm and are certainty ready to do more of the same on Egyptian soil as they aim to lead their nations to the title.
Starting with Salah, the Egyptian superstar who moved to Liverpool at the beginning of last season, just finished his second domestic season with Liverpool as the league's top scorer for the second season running. Yes, you read it right. Salah managed to beat established stars like Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane to retain the Golden Boot but this time he had to share it with fellow African stars Mane and Arsenal and Gabon's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Given that Salah was the third best player in the world last season after Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo and given that he raised the bar so high thanks to last year's exploits, people can be forgiven for thinking it's absolutely normal for Salah to retain the Golden Boot of the Premier League. However, what people need to know is that Salah is the first ever winger to win the league's scoring title for two consecutive years. Not even Cristiano Ronaldo managed to do so and this alone shows the magnitude of Salah's incredible achievement.
Going into this season, Salah knew he was in for a very tough ride after notching 44 goals in his first season with the Reds and guiding the team to the final of the Champions League. The expectations were extremely high and every single team in the league or in the Champions League started treating Salah differently, giving him extra attention which made life difficult for the Egyptian goal machine. However, he still managed to finish the league as the top scorer with 22 goals alongside Mane and Aubameyang as well as notching four Champions League goals to help his team reach the final for the second year running.
On 1 June in Madrid against Tottenham in the final, Salah scored the opener from a penalty on the way to a 2-0 victory for Liverpool, becoming the first ever Egyptian to win the Champions League.
Salah now turns his attention to the Africa Cup of Nations where he will try to lead his nation to the title. The expectations will once again be very high and he'll certainly be under immense pressure to deliver in front of his fans especially after losing in the final of the last edition. But Salah has become used to pressure and has showed time and time again that he thrives when put under the spotlight. Egypt's group include DR Congo, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
Leaving Salah and moving to his teammate Mane, the Senegalese superstar is having arguably his best ever season. Two goals in the final league game of the season meant he was able to share the Golden Boot with Salah and Aubameyang in addition to finding the back of the net four times in the Champions League like Salah.
Senegal is certainly one of the favourites to lift the AFCON cup and like Salah, Mane is the key man for his nation and given his brilliant form and 26 goals this season, Senegalese fans will be hoping he can fire them to glory in Egypt. The Reds' No 10 will have to overcome Algeria, Kenya and Tanzania in the group stage.
Moving to Ajax and Morocco's Ziyech, he is without a shadow of a doubt the hottest property in African football as we speak. Ziyech is not that young and he's actually the same age as Salah and Mane but we can be forgiven for saying he's the hottest property in African football these days after enjoying a breathtaking season with Ajax where he won the league and cup as well as reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League where he was two seconds away from facing Liverpool in the final.
The 26-year-old has just won Ajax's player of the season for the second year running after scoring 21 goals and setting up another 24. You have the absolute right to get blown away by his stats. Playing a hand in 45 goals this season across the league, cup and the Champions League made him the talk of Europe and is set to join one of the European giants either in England or Spain, according to Ajax's sporting director Marc Overmars.
To be more precise, the skillful winger contributed to 101 goals in 130 games since joining Ajax in 2016.
Rumours have it that Manchester United and Arsenal are the favourites to land the Moroccan magician whose release clause is only 25 million pounds sterling, an absolute bargain for a player of this caliber. Ziyech also scored 12 goals in just 23 games for Morocco and will certainly be hoping to cap off a magnificent season by leading his nation to their second ever African cup and their first in 43 years. Will Ziyech leave Ajax before the AFCON or will he wait and showcase his talents on the international level and leave after the tournament is the talking point of his fans at the moment.
Another African Premier League star who's set to leave his team after the African cup is Ivory Coast's Zaha. Zaha is currently playing for Crystal Palace and helped them avoid relegation thanks to his most prolific season in his career so far. The electric winger scored 10 league goals in 34 games and managed to set up another 11 goals to send the right message to Europe's big teams as he eyes an exit from Palace this summer. He already told the board of the club he wants to leave to a Champions League club and will certainly see the AFCON the perfect venue to showcase his already known talents. Côte d'Ivoirestill have not found a player of Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure's caliber since they both retired internationally but Zaha promises to be that man in coming years and once again the Africa Cup of Nations will be the perfect venue to prove so.
Still in the Premier League, we now move to Mahrez who just won his second Premier League title in four years after helping Manchester City seal the title in the final week of the season at the expense of Liverpool. Some people might argue that Mahrez didn't play a key role for his team this season as the likes of Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva were preferred on the wing but still the Algerian mega star managed to make 43 appearances across all competitions and scored 11 goals as well as assisting on another eight.
Playing a hand in 19 goals in all competitions is not a bad return in your first season with a club full of world class players. Mahrez was obviously disappointed to start only 14 league games out of the 38 and making another 12 appearances off the bench but Pep Guardiola assured his record signing that he's very much part of his plans going forward. But the competition at City is very tough which makes it impossible for each player to play in every game regardless of the name or status.
Still, Mahrez will surely be happy to be part of the first team in the history of English football to win the local treble consecutively. He can now turn his attention to the Africa Cup of Nations where he'll be hoping to help Algeria get back to their best after some frustrating years when they failed to live up to the high potential of their squad. Some rumours also indicate that Mahrez might think of leaving City this summer if he isn't promised more playing time by Guardiola and once again the Africa Cup of Nations is the perfect chance for Mahrez to show Europe's big teams what he can offer in case any of them forgot.
Last but not least is Senegal and Napoli's Koulibaly. Koulibaly is the only defender included in our list of potential Africa Cup of Nations stars and the strong man certainly earned the right to be included. Koulibaly has established himself as one of the best defenders in Europe in the last few seasons and this season was no different as he helped Napoli finish second in the league behind Juventus.
The fans adore him at Napoli but there's every possibility he could be on the move this summer after five years in Italy. It's is rumoured that Manchester United are ready to pay 60 million pounds sterling for his services but he's made it clear he's focused on the Africa Cup of Nations for now and that any decision regarding his future will be taken after the tournament as he believes that his nation can lift the title thanks to their young and hungry squad.

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