Football Features

2021 Africa Cup of Nations: The best forwards

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 18:11, 3 January 2022

The first major international tournament of 2022 gets underway on January 9 when Cameroon hosts the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Algeria are the defending champions and they will be looking to win the final on February 6 to become the first nation since Egypt, in 2010, to successfully defend their crown.

Djamel Belmadi’s men are stacked with brilliant footballers across the pitch, especially in attack. But, they’re not the only nation with eye-catching forwards. Below are five of Africa’s very best in the final-third department, including some household names.

Mohamed Salah (Egypt)

Club: Liverpool

International caps/goals: 73/45

Very few will dispute the notion that Mohamed Salah is head and shoulders the best forward coming into this year’s championship. He’s currently the Premier League’s leading marksman on 16 goals, while creating a further nine for his Liverpool teammates, which also puts him in pole position to be crowned ‘assist king’ this season.

Pressure to succeed at Anfield is one thing, but it cannot be compared to living up to Egypt’s rich past. The Pharaohs are the most decorated nation in Afcon history with seven titles. However, the most recent came in 2010, a year before Salah’s international debut. Since then it’s been two appearances in five editions — failing to qualify in 2012, 2013 and 2015 — with their 2017 runners-up finish being their best performance.

During that aforementioned run, Salah has managed two strikes. He’s since added two more in 2019’s edition, and given the way he’s been playing, Carlos Queiroz could have a monster on his hands. That being said, Salah does come into the competition having blanked in each of his previous five international outings, though he managed to create three goals across that barren scoring spell.

Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)

Club: Manchester City

International caps/goals: 70/26

If anyone is to push the spectacular Salah it’s Riyad Mahrez, who is also his nation’s skipper and talisman. More or less a squad player for Manchester City this season, having started only eight of their 21 league matches, the France-born winger has nevertheless managed six goals and four assists. His last four efforts have come in back-to-back games across December and City’s first win of the New Year against Arsenal — in three of those matches he’s also chipped in with an assist.

As touched upon, the Fennec Foxes are reigning champions after winning their second Afcon crown in 2019, and first since 1990. Across that historic campaign Mahrez contributed with three goals, including the stoppage time semi-final winner against Nigeria.

As things stand, Mahrez is Algeria’s fifth-most prolific scorer on 26 goals — 11 of those were netted across his last 12 international appearances — which leaves him two behind the legendary Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi, with current national teammate Islam Slimani of Lyon leading the way on 38 strikes.

Sadio Mane (Senegal)

Club: Liverpool

International caps/goals: 80/26

Not to be outshone is Sadio Mane, who rounds off this Premier League trio. In his own way the Sedhiou native also carries the hopes of an entire nation on his shoulders and he currently finds himself four away from surpassing Henri Camara’s national team record for most goals.

Since emerging rapidly at Red Bull Salzburg (initially coming through at Metz), which earned him a Southampton transfer in 2014, Mane has continued to make the case that he’s Senegal’s greatest player. Though of late, Mane hasn’t been troubling defenders while representing Liverpool; scoring just once in his last eight Premier League games. An international break, therefore, might do him the world of good.

What’s missing for Senegal is a title. The Lions of Teranga have previously taken part in 15 Afcon tournaments, reaching the final on two occasions: losing to Cameroon in 2002 and Algeria last time out. Mane, during that most recent run in 2019, managed three goals across six tournament appearances, but none were scored from the quarter-final onwards, though he did assist Idrissa Gueye’s winner against Benin, which sent them into the semi-finals.

Sebastien Haller (Ivory Coast)

Club: Ajax

International caps/goals: 8/3

Before this season’s Champions League many banked on Robert Lewandowski to be leading the way after the group stages. He’s lived up to his end of the bargain having bagged an impressive nine goals, outscoring every player in the competition, bar one. It’s not Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, but none other than Sebastien Haller who, up until this season, had never taken part in Europe’s premier knockout tournament.

His incredible start began with four goals against Sporting, subsequently becoming the first player since Marco van Basten in 1992 to score that many in a Champions League debut. He would then go on to score in each of Ajax’s group stage matches, equalling Cristiano Ronaldo’s feat, which he managed in 2017/18. On top of that, Haller became the fastest player to 10 goals in the competition’s history.

Having represented France at every youth level during the early stages of his career, he chose to represent Ivory Coast in November 2020 and since then, he’s scored three goals across eight outings. Aside from his impressive Champions League numbers, Haller comes into Afcon 2021 on the back of registering 12 league goals for Ajax across 17 appearances in the Eredivisie this term.

Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia)

Club: Saint-Etienne

International caps/goals: 62/22

An early contender for Ligue 1 ‘goal of the season’ belongs to Wahbi Khazri, who struck from 68 metres for Saint-Etienne against Metz in October, which happened to be the fourth consecutive game he found the net. Following that he has since gone seven matches without scoring. Recent drought aside, though, Khazri has already equalled last season’s Ligue 1 total and he’s now only six behind matching his best ever top-flight return (13 in 2018/19).

Just like at club level there’s also no great expectation on his national team, Tunisia, going all the way at Afcon this year. The Eagles of Carthage, who famously won Afcon in 2004 (their only success), reached the semis last time out, with the ex-Sunderland man finding the net just once (vs Mali on matchday two).

Capable of playing across the front line, though he’s almost exclusively played at centre-forward for Tunisia, Khazri comes into this latest Afcon tournament having bagged three goals across his previous six international appearances.

Honourable mentions

But that’s not all. Here are a few more names worth keeping an eye on.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon): Although he’s in the doghouse at Arsenal, due to disciplinary issues, he remains a potent threat when everything is clicking. Before losing his spot under Mikel Arteta, he managed four Premier League strikes across 14 appearances this term. Aubameyang’s immediate focus will be looking to add to his 29 international goals.

Taiwo Awoniyi (Nigeria): It’s fair to say Nigeria are blessed with strong attacking options, with the Super Eagles able to call upon Ahmed Musa, Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho and even Samuel Chukwueze, but there’s another option in the guise of Union Berlin forward Taiwo Awoniyi, who so far in this Bundesliga season has netted nine goals, and 14 overall in all competitions. Not a bad ace up the sleeve.

Mohamed Bayo (Guinea): Senegal are expected to win Group B but there’s a battle for runners-up with Guinea banking on the likes of Mohamed Bayo, who only recently made his international debut, to help them through. The 23-year-old has looked in good nick for Clermont Foot in Ligue 1 this term. He has so far managed nine strikes — only Wissam Ben Yedder (10) and Jonathan David (12) have scored more — while creating a further two in 17 league matches.

Habib Diallo (Senegal): Mane will not have to do it alone for Senegal, who can also call upon Habib Diallo. The 26-year-old forward has so far done good business with Strasbourg this season, namely by netting eight Ligue 1 goals, which again keeps him in the conversation for this season’s Golden Boot. At international level, though, he’s only earned 10 caps so far and during his limited time donning Senegalese colours, Diallo has struck twice. But it’s fair to say, he comes into the Cameroon finals riding the crest of a wave at club level.