Premier League set for African Cup of Nations exodus
Mikel, Essien and Drogba will be missing for Chelsea in January
By Alistair Magowan
Signing African players has always represented something of a gamble for Premier League bosses.
As well as the player's pedigree and their ability to adapt to new surroundings, the manager must also consider whether losing them to the African Cup of Nations for up to six weeks will unbalance his team's equilibrium.
This season, though, they might have thought the biennial tournament, which runs from 10-31 January, had been relegated to a footnote with Africa's first World Cup looming on the horizon.
Try telling that to Didier Drogba.
"We are going to play the African Cup of Nations because we do everything to promote our continent," the Chelsea and Ivory Coast striker told BBC Sport. "This competition is really important to us."
NUMBER OF PLAYERS IN ANGOLA
Four: Chelsea, Portsmouth
Two: Man City, Hull City, Arsenal, Everton
One: Aston Villa, Bolton, Burnley, Fulham, Tottenham, Sunderland, Wigan
None: Man Utd, Liverpool, West Ham, Wolves, Birmingham, Blackburn
*Full player list below
At one point about 30 players were set for Angola in January desperate to dethrone reigning African champions Egypt. That number has since dropped 23 because of injuries.
Yet while the departure of Drogba and team-mates Michael Essien, John Mikel Obi and Salomon Kalou might only put Chelsea's title ambitions slightly off track, for other Premier League teams the tournament could lead to a full-on derailment.
Depriving any team of the likes of Drogba and Essien, who is already injured, will of course leave it poorer. Yet fortunately for Chelsea their absence comes at a time when the team faces Watford in the FA Cup, followed by Hull, Sunderland, Birmingham and Burnley in the league.
It is a challenge that the Premier League's top scorer thinks they can overcome.
"I'm not worried about losing four players during the Cup of Nations because the squad is big," Drogba said. "We saw it against Arsenal when Paulo Ferreira came in, he hasn't been playing for a while but he came in and did well.
"The team is strong and I know that we have the squad to be champions. We could put two teams in this league and they would perform well."
Rivals Manchester United have no African players in the tournament and with countries able to call-up their players from 27 December, it is just as well given their current injury crisis.
But BBC Sport football pundit Alan Hansen says that when it comes to the title race Manchester United will be hoping rather than expecting Chelsea to slip up during this period.
"Drogba will be a massive loss to Chelsea but I think you'd pair him and Essien in that category," said the eight-time league winner with Liverpool.
"There's no doubt about it, they will certainly be missed, but you have to temper that with the strength in depth which Chelsea have.
"If Drogba and Essien were away and Manchester United were playing Chelsea at Old Trafford then the champions would be a little bit more confident. That might also be the case if Chelsea were playing Liverpool, Arsenal or even Tottenham away.
"But with the fixtures they've got, and there will never be any sort of complacency, it would suggest that Chelsea could come through that period unscathed.
"Sir Alex Ferguson will tell his players to keep winning though because ultimately it will come down to pressure. If Manchester United can do that, the pressure will be on Carlo Ancelotti's team and they haven't been in this position for a while."
Chelsea, who play Arsenal on 6 February, are one of 14 teams who will lose players for the 27th edition of the tournament.
But while they, and Manchester City - who will have to do without Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor - can mine their almost infinite resources, teams at the other end of the division are less well enriched.
Drogba plays down African Cup effect
Everton, who have also suffered many injuries this season, could lose the Nigerian talents of Ayegbeni Yakubu and Joseph Yobo with Victor Anichebe already a long-term casualty.
It will also be interesting to see how Hull cope without Daniel Cousin and Seyi Olofinjana.
The team which could suffer most, though, is Portsmouth who, rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, will see four of their team travel to Angola.
They include Ivorian Aruna Dindane who is their top scorer in the league, as well as Hassan Yebda, Nwankwo Kanu and Nadir Belhadj.
Even Portsmouth boss Avram Grant, who became the manager in November, has admitted he needs the strengthen the team despite the club's financial problems.
He is not a fan of the competition being played in January but has been boosted by the news that Kevin-Prince Boateng nor John Utaka have been called up by their countries. Grant said of his missing players: "We can do nothing about this. All we can do is think about the solution and we are doing this."
Hansen is less positive. "The African Cup of Nations might be the end of the line for Portsmouth," he said.
"They haven't got tremendous strength in depth, are struggling confidence-wise and until recently results have not been going their way. It could signal Championship football for them.
"Even if they get some good results before they go and then they lose those players, that's not too clever either so it's all doom and gloom for Portsmouth, I'm afraid."
The African Cup of Nations might be the end of the line for Portsmouth
BBC football pundit Alan Hansen
Pompey's plight brings into question whether signing a significant number of African players is wise.
Yet it has not stopped teams doing so in the past, with three-quarters of Premier League teams sending scouts to watch matches at the 2008 Cup of Nations.
"The gamble to buy African players depends on what sort of player they are," stated Hansen. "The thing is, it's not like they are suddenly taken from you, or they are injured.
"You know at the start of the season that this will happen so those with the resources can prepare for it. Teams like Chelsea can cope, it's the ones like Portsmouth where, if the African players represent the core part of your team, then obviously you've got problems."
The timing of the tournament, particularly in a World Cup year, also reheats the debate of whether it needs to be held every two years.
"I think the Cup of Nations should go to every four years, the same as the European Championship," added Hansen.
"When you have a tournament every two years it takes something away from it. The World Cup and the Euros are perfect. Every four years you look forward to it and it's like a new beginning."
If that sounds like a British-biased view Drogba agrees.
"Maybe we should put the Cup of Nations when they have the European Championship," he stated.
"I think that it would be good for us to play in January and then the European players play in June. It would be a good solution."
In Portsmouth's case this season, that option cannot come soon enough.
Updated number of players at the African Cup of Nations
Four: Chelsea - Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, John Mikel Obi; Portsmouth - Nadir Belhadj, Hassan Yebda, Nwankwo Kanu, Aruna Dindane
Two: Arsenal - Alex Song, Emmanuel Eboue; Everton - Joseph Yobo, Ayegbeni Yakubu; Man City - Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor; Hull City - Daniel Cousin, Seyi Olofinjana
One: Aston Villa - Moustapha Salifou; Bolton - Danny Shittu; Burnley - Andre Bikey; Fulham - Dickson Etuhu; Sunderland - John Mensah; Tottenham - Benoit Assou-Ekotto; Wigan - Richard Kingson
None: Man Utd, Liverpool, West Ham, Wolves, Birmingham, Blackburn, Sunderland, Stoke
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.