/ 25 October 2012

Africa Cup of Nations: Meet the new wave

Saladin Said
Saladin Said

Kwadwo Asamoah (Ghana, 23)
The Juventus midfielder wowed us as a 21-year-old upstart with a sweet left peg in 2010. Now he's approaching his peak and ready to boss the show for the Black Stars. During four formative seasons with Udinese, Asamoah won rave reviews with his power, technique and vision – and his confidence has soared this season since entering the charmed circle of Andrea Pirlo's Juventus midfield. Deployed on the left wing at the Old Lady, Asamoah may be used in a more central role by Ghana coach Akwasi Appiah. But Appiah's whiteboard will need resketching if the resurgent Michael Essien is coaxed back into the Black Stars fold and if Sulley Muntari returns to fitness in time for the cup. Whatever transpires, Asamoah will be pivotal to Ghana's urgent quest for Nations Cup gold. It has been 30 years. No pressure.

Younes Belhanda (Morocco, 23)
Atlas Lions coach Rachid Taoussi has a luxury problem at number 10: he has two world-class players in the position. Adel Taarabt of Queen's Park Rangers may be the more extravagant talent, but Younès Belhanda is arguably a more balanced and effective playmaker. He cooked a banquet of delicious assists to bag a league title for Montpellier last season and brings a robust defensive effort, thanks to his early service in a holding midfield role. His club coach, René Girard, likens him to Robert Pirès and France coach Didier Deschamps must be wishing Belhanda, who was born in Avignon, hadn't chosen to play for his ancestral homeland. Newcastle manager Alan Pardew doesn't have to wish – but he does have to pay. The Moroccan is under contract until June 2014 and Montpellier will demand many millions to let him go in January.

Victor Moses (Nigeria, 21)
When Moses was 11 and playing footie in a Kaduna street, he heard that his parents had been murdered in a religious riot. Soon afterwards, he went to the United Kingdom as an asylum seeker and hasn't stopped playing since. There was much emotion in Nigeria when Moses committed his international future to his homeland – despite a plausible future with England – and returned home to a rapturous reception. The love was deepened this year when he left Wigan to join Chelsea (the best-supported English Premier League side in Nigeria) before netting the final goal in Nigeria's 6-1 clobbering of Liberia to clinch qualification this month. A bustling, intelligent forward, he offers Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi an effective option on either wing or as a shadow striker. Keshi has other top prospects in attack, not least former Mpumalanga Black Aces striker Emmanuel Emenike, who amassed 39 goals in 33 games for Spartak Moscow last term. But there's a rare spirit about Moses that could spark Nigeria's long-awaited return to power.

Wilfried Bony (Ivory Coast, 23)
They call him "The African Hulk" in Holland, but his temperament is far cooler than that moniker would suggest. Born in Abidjan and groomed at the respected Cyrille Domoraud Academy, the muscle-bound Bony failed a trial with Liverpool in 2007 before making his name with Sparta Prague. His haul of 25 goals for Eredivisie side Vitesse Arnhem, plus his Drogbaesque ability to hold the ball up, have alerted the likes of Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Vitesse want at least £10-million for his services. Elephants coach Sabri Lamouchi should unleash Bony from the bench if his starting forward trident is to comprise Didier Drogba, Gervinho and Arouna Kone. With the beanpole striker Lacine Traore also in form, Lamouchi has no worries up front. His problems lie in his defence – Manchester City's Kolo Toure and Paris Saint-Germain's Siaka Tiene are rich extras at their clubs.

Saladin Said (Ethiopia, 23)
As Bafana Bafana can testify, the rampaging Said is a different animal to his erratic compatriot Fikru Lemasse. Said's impressively taken goal against South Africa in a World Cup qualifier in Rustenburg triggered Pitso Mosimane's exit as national coach, and he has the quality to torment the Nigerian and Zambian defences in group C. He's currently employed by Egyptian mid-table outfit Wadi Degla, but do not be surprised if he blazes a trail into Europe soon. Apart from Said and Lemasse, who earns his keep in Vietnam, all of Said's teammates are home-based. Few expect them to get out of group C alive, but they are already thrilled by their first finals in 30 years – and thrilled footballers can do serious damage.