This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of World Gaming magazine.
In January the 16 best teams in Africa will contest the Africa Cup of Nations; half of those teams play in the second week, and the final is held on the 31st. The National squads are allowed to call players up two weeks before the tournament start on January 10, so some Premiership teams lose players for four or five games.
Struggling Portsmouth is the hardest hit, losing six players from their already skeletal playing staff of 22. That leaves boss Avram Grant unable to field a full squad, unless he dips into the transfer market as soon as the window opens in January. There are no easy games for Pompey this year, but Fulham and Manchester City away look even more daunting without their strong African contingent. Birmingham and West Ham at home provide scant relief, and it may be a very tough start to the New Year on the south coast.
Chelsea and Hull both lose four players, and while the Chelsea quartet of Essien, Drogba, Kalou and Mikel may look irreplaceable, Hull may miss theirs more. Chelsea have a much larger squad, but the fixture list has been kind to them – they face Hull, Sunderland, Birmingham and Burnley in January, and Ancelotti’s main concern will be for his stars to return uninjured for the sterner tests to come. The fixture list has been rather less kind to Hull who face Chelsea, followed by Spurs and United away. By the home game against Wolves they have some of their players back, but Phil Brown must be quaking in his boots.
Everton can ill-afford to lose anybody at the moment, and their fans will be hoping that Phil Jagielka is back to his best to cover for Joseph Yobo when they face Arsenal, Manchester City, Sunderland and Wigan. Yobo and fellow Nigerian Yakubu will be hoping to go far in the Cup of Nations, so Everton may lose them for the whole month. They will need them back and on song for the Merseyside derby at Anfield on February 6.
Arsenal face United at the end of January and should have Alexandre Song, who has excelled in the midfield holding role this season, back from duty with Cameroon. Teammate Emmanuel Eboue will want to still be in Angola with Cote D’Ivoire, who have hopes of going all the way. This may give youngsters Ramsey or Wilshire a chance, but Wenger also has Nasri and Denilson so they shouldn’t be overstretched for games against Everton and Bolton. After that they play Villa and United in January, followed by Chelsea and Liverpool in nine days – a real test for Arsenal’s title ambitions.
Manchester City will miss Kolo Toure, and Burnley Andre Bikey, but with most sides losing one or two players the overall effect shouldn’t be too dramatic. Manchester United, Liverpool and Birmingham are the only teams unaffected. Birmingham face United first, but will be hoping to benefit from playing reduced Chelsea and Portsmouth sides before Spurs at the end of the month. United will expect three wins coming into the Arsenal game, and Liverpool will be more tested in early February when they have Everton and Arsenal in three days.
In Africa, Angola will be hoping to make their home advantage pay; while Egypt, Cameroon and Algeria will be looking to go far – but it’s Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Nigeria who everybody else will be trying to avoid.