The beauty of tournaments like the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is the discovery of young exciting talents that are not household names. These youngsters light up the show. At AFCON 2019, a 21-year-old Ismael Bennacer put in terrific displays in the center of the park as Algeria won the title in Cairo, Egypt. He was voted the best player at the tournament, becoming the second-ever Algerian to win the award after Rabah Madjer in 1990. His performances earned him a move to AC Milan. He has been impressive for the Rossoneri. Krepin Diatta was voted the best young player at the tournament. The dazzling right-winger tore many left-backs a new one at the tournament and established himself as an exciting young talent.
With AFCON 2021 set to kick off later today, we look at ten young players to keep an eye on during the continental showpiece.
10 exciting U23 footballers to watch out for at AFCON 2021;
- Mohamed Bayo (Clermont, Guinea)
- Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen, Burkina Faso)
- Kamaldeen Sulemana (Rennes, Ghana)
- Mohammed Kudus (Ajax, Ghana)
- Achraf Hakimi (PSG, Morocco)
- Pape Matar Sarr (Metz, Senegal)
- Odilon Kossounou (Bayer Leverkusen, Ivory Coast)
- Hannibal Mejbri (Manchester United, Tunisia)
- Bamba Dieng (Olympique Marseille, Senegal)
- Ilaix Moriba (RB Leipzig, Guinea)
Hannibal Mejbri (Manchester United & Tunisia)
The 18-year-old attacking midfielder was the star man as Tunisia sailed to the final of the Arab Cup. He took home some man-of-the-match awards for his riveting performances. This achievement will not be new to anyone who follows Manchester United’s U23s. Hannibal has been fantastic for them, and despite injuries threatening his season, he is finding joy with the ball again. Ralf Rangnick even spoke about incorporating him into the senior setup upon his return from AFCON 2021. Hannibal is a classic number 10. He loves to receive the ball between the lines and advance it with smart passes or quick dribbling. He delivers wicked setpieces too as Egypt found out firsthand at the Arab Cup. The Pharaohs struggled to cope with his crosses throughout the game. Hannibal is one to watch out for at this tournament and beyond.
Ilaix Moriba (RB Leipzig & Guinea)
For whatever reason, Ilaix Moriba left Barcelona when he started to finally get game time at the Catalan club. He jumped ship to Die Bullen where his development has stagnated. Ilaix has made only 6 appearances this campaign under Jesse Marsch and Domenico Tedesco. The 18-year-old was getting minutes towards the end of last season under Ronald Koeman, and things would have gotten even better for him under Xavi.
Despite the setback, Guinea head coach Kaba Diawara has called up Ilaix for the tournament. It is the perfect opportunity for the La Masia graduate to put behind club woes and strut his stuff. He is a powerful young midfielder with long legs that love to tackle. Ilaix also has very good technique like most La Masia graduates. A box-to-box gem, he reminds one of a more conservative Paul Pogba.
Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen & Burkina Faso)
The Burkinabe defender tested positive for Covid-19 earlier today, and he’ll be a huge miss for his side in the tournament’s opener against Cameroon. Only Bayern left-back Alphonso Davies has had more progressive carries than Tapsoba in the Bundesliga since the beginning of the 20/21 season. The Bayer Leverkusen man is also a tidy yet progressive passer. Tapsoba records 4.4 progressive passes per game, putting him in the 84th percentile for players in his position. He has made only one error leading to a goal since he joined Bayer Leverkusen in January 2020 from Portuguese club Vitória Guimarães. Tapsoba is an excellent tackler, although he could use his 6ft4 frame better in both boxes. He wins 55% of his aerial duels, but he should be winning more. Tapsoba is a fantastic talent, and we hope that talent is on full display at AFCON 2021.
Odilon Kossounou (Bayer Leverkusen & Ivory Coast)
Bayer Leverkusen paid a Belgian record fee to sign 21-year-old Kossounou from Club Brugge last summer. Strong on the ground and imperious in the air, Kossounou should develop into a very fine player in the Bundesliga. Despite his lanky frame, you will not beat him in a match for strength. He also wins 68% of all his aerial duels. Kossounou reminds viewers of a young Kolo Toure. He will be one of the youngsters to monitor at the continental showpiece.
Pape Matar Sarr (Metz & Senegal)
Metz finished their 20/21 campaign in 7th, only three points away from European places. It was a distant improvement from their 15th place finish in the 19/20 season. A huge driving force behind the improvement was 19-year-old Pape Matar Sarr in midfield. The Senegalese youngster has the tenacity/drive to push his team from the center. His performances earned him a move to Tottenham but he remained in France on loan. Despite breaking through the ranks as a ball-winning general, his on-the-ball skills have allowed him to play further forward for both club and country. He strikes the ball so well, and he is a good progressor of play. Metz are relegation candidates this campaign with the club in 18th, and the youngster has not shown his best version. However, AFCON 2021 could be the change of environment he needs to show again what he is made of.
Mohammed Kudus (Ajax & Ghana)
If Mohammed Kudus can stay fit, he will be a top player in a few years. He can do just about anything you can ask from a footballer. He started as a prolific striker before playing on the wings and then in midfield. Kudus is elusive under pressure and can pick incredulous passes. He has a wicked shot on him with technique and guile to match his impressive physical strength. Kudus has it all, but injuries have not allowed the kid to put a consistent run together since his 9 million Euros move from FC Nordsjælland to Ajax. Erik Ten Hag’s hesitance to field him whenever he returns from injury is also a worry. Hopefully, Kudus can have a fine tournament and show the precocious talent that he has in abundance.
Bamba Dieng (Olympique Marseille & Senegal)
The 21-year-old has been thrown into the deep end with Arkadiusz Milik underperforming under Jorge Sampaoli. He has scored just 4 goals and assisted 1 more, but he makes for an interesting watch. What he lacks in front of goal, he makes up for with tenacity and good footwork. He is learning essentials like hold-up play. His versatility also allows him to play anywhere across the frontline. Senegal is blessed with a sparkling selection of forwards, but with Ismaila Sarr out, Bamba Dieng should get some game time under Aliou Cisse. He is one to keep an eye on at the 33rd AFCON.
Achraf Hakimi (PSG & Morocco)
The rampaging wing-back moved to PSG after a wonderful adventure in Italy where he won the Serie A title with Inter Milan. He started well, but a lack of structure under Mauricio Pochettino has left him exposed. On his day, Hakimi is a roadrunner that can stretch any defense with his frightening pace and bung-bursting runs. There is no Hakim Ziyech with coach Vahid Halilhodžić still feuding with the Chelsea attacker. His tendency to drift inside and use Hakimi as a decoy is a potent weapon that they could miss. Ziyech’s absence notwithstanding, Hakimi is a dangerous fellow to have marauding the right flank. He can whip in dangerous crosses, find good pull-backs for people in the box, and he has a devastating shot to boot. His game stepped up a notch into world-class territory under Antonio Conte, and it will be exciting to see those levels at AFCON 2021.
Kamaldeen Sulemana (Rennes & Ghana)
The 19-year-old electric left-winger is an unpredictable gem of a player. He can pull off ridiculous skills and drive his team forward with his brilliance on the ball. His form has cooled off after some terrific showings, but AFCON 2021 will give the former FC Nordsjælland attacker the platform to excite the continent and global spectators. Sulemana is the third youngest name in the Ghana squad for this tournament. He has been far from prolific with four goals and two assists in over 996 minutes of Ligue 1 football, but scoring is not where his strengths lie. They lie in carrying the ball to the opposition half and causing havoc. The dynamic winger has 23 shot involvements from ball carries. That number is the second-best average in Ligue 1 at one every 43 minutes. Only Kylian Mbappé has a superior rate.
If given the chance, Sulemana is a must-watch for every footballer lover.
Mohamed Bayo (Clermont, Guinea)
Only Jonathan David and Wissam Ben Yedder have more goals than Mohamed Bayo in Ligue 1 this campaign. His nine goals are the primary reason Clermont are one point above the drop zone with two games in hand. He has scored 45% of his side’s league total so far in the 2021-22 campaign. Bayo scored 22 goals to help them gain promotion to Ligue 1, and they’ll need him to keep them there. The stocky striker is finishing better now. His 6 big chances missed pale in comparison to his 25 last season. Bayo has the makings of a complete striker, and he won’t be at Clermont much longer. His speed belies his 6ft2 build. He has made the switch from winger to striker seamlessly and he is not someone to leave unmarked in the box.
Bayo has shown that he can bring that form for Guinea too. He has scored three goals in six for Guinea, showing that the club form is no fluke. Bayo opened the scoring in Guinea’s latest friendly against Rwanda heading home a corner. The 23-year-old is one of the prime candidates for the golden boot.