The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) starts this weekend and as many as 30 Premier League players could be involved for their respective countries in the tournament in Cameroon.
We’ve already detailed who will be away and when but now we switch focus to the players who could profit from their teammates’ absence while they’re away.
Ultimately, we’re probably only talking about two Gameweeks here, possibly three for those players making the AFCON third-place play-off or final.
But with a decent-sized ‘double’ predicted for Gameweek 22 and some of us considering playing our Free Hit or Wildcard chips to capitalise on the extra fixtures, some leftfield FPL targets may emerge in the short term.
There are 16 teams affected by their players heading off to Africa over the next month or so, with Leeds United, Newcastle United, Norwich City and Tottenham Hotspur the quartet of clubs who aren’t impacted.
The absences of Mohamed Salah (£12.8m) and Sadio Mane (£11.8m) would seemingly ensure starts for Diogo Jota (£8.2m) and Roberto Firmino (£8.7m) in Gameweeks 22 and 23, injury and illness permitting; the Brazilian missed Gameweek 21 after a positive Covid-19 test but his isolation period will end a good time before the Reds take on Brentford in mid-January.
Who joins Jota and Firmino in the front three is the next question.
Divock Origi (£4.8m) is currently sidelined with a knee injury while Takumi Minamino (£5.1m) missed the draw with Chelsea because of a muscle issue but is nearing a return.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£5.8m) and Curtis Jones (£5.0m) are names to monitor, too: the former has played in the front three on a number of occasions this season, while the latter has been touted by local media as a possible solution.
Luckily, we will get to see two Jurgen Klopp starting XIs – one in the EFL Cup, one in the FA Cup – before Gameweek 22 rolls around, which should give us a clue (again, Covid permitting) as to who he favours a week on Sunday.
Chelsea have only one player in AFCON action but it’s a big name: Edouard Mendy (£6.2m).
A cut-price Kepa Arrizabalaga (£4.7m) would ordinarily be a Free Hit option considering that Chelsea have a good chance of having a Double Gameweek 22 but a quick look at the fixture list dampens enthusiasm, with Manchester City guaranteed to be one of the two fixtures.
And the Blues’ own form is also patchy, with just one clean sheet arriving in the last nine league games.
Leicester have four players heading to Cameroon, although one of them, Nampalys Mendy (£4.3m), wasn’t part of the Foxes’ Premier League squad anyway.
It’s the absence of Kelechi Iheanacho (£6.9m) that is of particular interest, especially as Jamie Vardy (£10.4m) and Patson Daka (£7.1m) are currently sidelined through injury.
“Jamie will be out. It could be the next three to four weeks. It’s a hamstring. He could soldier on, which is what he wanted to do, but the scan has shown up as that.
“Patson [Daka] will not be going to AFCON. He’s not fit. He will stay and hopefully within the next two to three weeks will be back again.” – Brendan Rodgers, speaking on December 30th
Vardy looks set to miss Gameweek 22 at least, then, with Daka only a possibility to return. The Zambian forward would be an interesting differential if the Foxes were to get a ‘double’ in the next Gameweek (Burnley (a) and Norwich (h)) would be a great twosome) and he’s passed fit but if he isn’t going to be ready until later in the month, then Ayoze Perez (£5.7m) or Harvey Barnes (£6.5m) are possibilities to spearhead the attack in his stead.
Wilfred Ndidi (£4.8m) and Daniel Amartey (£3.8m), the unlikely makeshift centre-half pairing who kept out Liverpool in Gameweek 20, are also off to AFCON, so the Foxes are really badly affected at the back going into the Gameweek 21 match against Everton and beyond, with Caglar Soyuncu (£4.9m) and Jonny Evans (£5.4m) also currently out injured.
It wouldn’t take much for another one of their games to be postponed, with Rodgers close to the threshold of having 13 senior outfielders and one goalkeeper available.
Above: A possible Leicester set-up without their injured and AFCON-bound players
There’s only one City player going to Cameroon: Riyad Mahrez (£8.7m).
It’s been a three-way battle for minutes on the City right flank this season, with the Algerian, Gabriel Jesus (£8.6m) and, latterly, Raheem Sterling (£10.7m) competing for that wide role.
|Player||PL starts on right flank (via Transfermarkt)|
Sterling has scored in each of his last three starts on the right, last featuring there in Gameweek 16. Jesus has only played once in that role in the last two months, meanwhile, at Brentford last week.
Wolves have been in superb defensive form of late but they’ll have to do without one of their first-choice centre-backs for the first time in 2021/22.
Romain Saiss (£5.1m) will be off to represent Morocco at AFCON so, in the absence of injured understudies Willy Boly (£4.9m) and Yerson Mosquera (£4.4m) and under the assumption that no new signings arrive over the next fortnight or so, the bargain-bin Marcal (£4.2m) or midfielder Leander Dendoncker (£4.8m) will have to drop into the back three to cover – or else Bruno Lage will have to move away from his trusty 3-4-3 set-up.
A move to centre-half for Marcal would help to accommodate the more attack-minded Rayan Ait-Nouri (£4.3m) at wing-back, something that is worth keeping an eye on especially if Wolves get a Double Gameweek 22.
Above: Rayan Ait-Nouri was fifth among defenders for final-third touches during his spell in the first team from Gameweeks 9-16, and second for crosses.
Four Gunners will be away in Africa over the next month but three of them have been peripheral of late anyway: Mohamed Elneny (£4.4m), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (£9.6m) and Nicolas Pepe (£6.9m) haven’t started a single league match between them in the last seven Gameweeks.
Ghana international Thomas Partey (£5.0m) is very much a part of Mikel Arteta’s plans and his place will presumably be taken by Albert Sambi Lokonga (£4.8m), not an FPL target by any stretch but something that perhaps weakens Arsenal’s spine in the short term.
Michael Olise (£5.4m) grabbed two attacking returns as a substitute in Gameweek 21 and the winger may now get his big chance from the start, with Jordan Ayew (£5.8m) and Wilfried Zaha (£6.9m) absent over the next two Gameweeks.
On a share of set plays, Olise has the best minutes-per-chance-created average (45) of any Palace player this season.
While not someone you’d likely target with free transfers given the short-term nature of his appeal, he’s a fifth midfielder option on a Free Hit if a Double Gameweek 22 does materialise for the Eagles – as seems possible.
Cheikhou Kouyate (£4.5m) is also off to the Africa Cup of Nations and it was Luka Milivojevic (£5.3m) who took the Senegal international’s spot during his illness-enforced absence against West Ham, something to bear in mind regarding Conor Gallagher (£6.1m) given that it will further diminish the Chelsea loanee’s role at set plays.
WEST HAM UNITED
Said Benrahma (£5.9m) is West Ham United’s sole representative at AFCON and his absence rather conveniently frees up a role for Pablo Fornals (£6.0m) to occupy down the Hammers’ left flank, providing the Spaniard hasn’t any lingering after-effects of the Covid infection that forced his absence over New Year.
The Hammers are among four clubs, along with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, who definitely won’t have a Double Gameweek 22.
Emmanuel Dennis (£6.1m) won’t be going to the Africa Cup of Nations this week but William Troost-Ekong (£4.3m), Adam Masina (£4.3m) and Imran Louza (£5.3m) will be, so injury-hit Watford will be further decimated by the time they play Newcastle (good news for the Magpies) in Gameweek 22 – and we FPL managers aren’t going to be interested in the likes of Christian Kabasele (£4.3m) and Tom Cleverley (£4.8m) as their replacements.
Aston Villa pair Trezeguet (£5.4m) and Bertrand Traore (£5.7m), Manchester United’s Eric Bailly (£4.9m), Southampton’s Moussa Djenepo (£5.2m) and Everton’s Alex Iwobi (£5.8m) had all been bit-part players at their respective clubs anyway so their absences won’t be keenly felt.
And Thomas Frank has a wealth of options in central midfield to replace Frank Onyeka (£4.7m), all of whom are footnotes from an FPL perspective.
The loss of Burnley’s Maxwel Cornet (£5.9m) to AFCON duty is a blow to those of us who would have considered the Ivorian for possible Double Gameweek 22 duties and it has curiously been Aaron Lennon (£4.9m) who has started in place of his Cameroon-bound teammate in the last two Gameweeks, with the veteran winger starring and scoring at Old Trafford last week.
Brighton haven’t really got a like-for-like replacement for Yves Bissouma (£4.4m), with Adam Lallana (£5.3m) tasked with deep-lying duties in the five matches the Mali international has already missed in 2021/22. In case anyone thinks Bissouma’s absence weakens Albion defensively, however, three of their six clean sheets this season – and one of their best performances, at home to Arsenal – were banked without their midfield shield.
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