Romain Saïss Morocco Maybe Saïss can no longer be described as underrated after his manager at Wolves, Bruno Lage, proclaimed him to be “the Moroccan Maldini” but the 31-year-old still tends not to get a mention in discussions of the Premier League’s most reliable and inspirational defenders despite his continued excellence this season. His quality has long been recognised in Morocco, whom he has captained since 2020 and hopes to lead on a better campaign than their disappointing past two appearances in the Cup of Nations. They will certainly not be allowed to ease their way into the 2022 edition, since they face Ghana in the first group game. While Saïss drives his team on from the rear, assisted by the wonderful Paris Saint-Germain full-back Achraf Hakimi, Morocco are likely to look to Ryan Mmaee to make the difference for them up front. The 24-year-forward, who plays for Ferencvaros, has made a thrilling impact since declaring for Morocco last year, his speed and dribbling helping him to score four goals – and create another four – in four matches. Born in Belgium to a Moroccan mother, he – and his brother Samy, who could partner Saïss in central defence – will be aiming for glory in Cameroon, the birthplace of their father. That would be a lovely family story and also help vindicate the decision of the manager, Vahid Halilhodzic, to leave out Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech for a perceived lack of commitment.
Ismaël Bennacer Algeria Djamel Belmadi was a hothead as a player but his serene leadership since becoming his country’s manager in 2018 is the chief reason why Algeria are the favourites to win the tournament and retain the crown they claimed in 2019. The manager has brought order where there had been disarray, finding a way to turn an array of gifted individuals into a powerful collective. There is much more to Algeria than Riyad Mahrez. Milan’s Bennacer, voted player of the last tournament, is not as spectacular as the Manchester City magician but is a dynamic, clever and constant influence in midfield, where Saïd Benrahma can also be expected to create regular problems for opponents – and chances for Youcef Belaïli, a striker who is seeking a new club after being let go last month by his Qatari employers a day after, coincidentally, scoring for Algeria to knock Qatar out of the Arab Cup.
Sébastien Haller Ivory Coast This striker is not defined by the past. He was a youth international for France and a flop for West Ham. Now, with Ajax, he is top scorer in the Dutch league and he set a record this season by scoring 10 goals in the Champions League group stage. He hopes to take that form into the Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast, whose attack he has been leading since scoring on his debut in November 2020. In addition to one of European football’s most in-form strikers, the Elephants boast, with Franck Kessié and Ibrahim Sangaré, one of the strongest central midfields at the tournament. They could seriously complicate things for Algeria, whom they meet in the group stage and maybe later, too.
Hannibal Mejbri Tunisia The midfielder, who turns 19 this month, has made one senior appearance for Manchester United, a fact Ralf Rangnick has suggested he hopes to change after Mejbri returns from his latest international adventure. He impressed at last month’s Arab Cup, where he helped Tunisia to finish as runners-up. There he demonstrated not just his technical finesse but also his personality, as he fended off occasional attempts to rough him up and took plenty of creative initiative. Reaching the final in Cameroon will be much harder but with Mejbri helping Wahbi Khazri to add ingenuity to a well-drilled side, Tunisia could go far.
Steven Caulker Sierra Leone Caulker’s only appearance for England, in 2012, is not easy to forget: the defender scored by heading in a free-kick from Steven Gerrard, who was making his 100th appearance, but that was rather overshadowed by four goals from one of the forwards he was tasked with subduing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (although Caulker was on the pitch for only one of them). That was all in a friendly, however, and since Caulker did not appear again for England, he is free to celebrate his roots by representing Sierra Leone, where his paternal grandfather was born. When he makes his competitive debut at the Cup of Nations, it will be a moment to savour for the 30-year-old, who has overcome mental illness to continue to enjoy his career. The former Liverpool and Tottenham defender plays for Gaziantep in Turkey, on loan from Fenerbahçe. Sierra Leone are underdogs in a difficult group but making it to the tournament is a commendable achievement for the country and for Caulker.
Chidera Ejuke Nigeria Nigeria’s spluttering performances over the past year led to the dismissal of Gernot Rohr, who had been the country’s longest-serving manager until being jettisoned last month. The preparations of the interim coach, Augustine Eguavoen, have been hampered by the loss of key forwards: not just the brilliant Victor Osimhen but also Emmanuel Dennis and Odion Ighalo, whose Saudi club, Al Shabab, refused to let him go on similar grounds to those that enabled Watford to keep hold of Dennis. All of which is likely to increase the pressure on Kelechi Iheanacho to provide goals. He can expect high-class assistance from the wonderful winger Samuel Chukwueze but also from central areas if Eguavoen’s plan to deploy the CSKA Moscow wideman Ejuke as a No 10 pays off. Ejuke’s extravagant skills and impressive speed make him a delight when on song and suggest he could run the Super Eagles’ show, which starts with a blockbuster against Egypt on Tuesday. Paul Doyle