1. Franck Kessie (Ivory Coast)
Kessie is among the stars of the Serie A season so far, with his performances in the centre of Atalanta’s midfield capturing the attention of Premier League outfits including Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United according to reports.
Dynamic, powerful and technically gifted, the 20-year-old’s drive in the engine room will be vital if Ivory Coast are to succeed in this year’s competition without Yaya Toure.
2. Aymen Abdennour (Tunisia)
The Cup of Nations provides a welcome escape from Valencia’s horror show for Aymen Abdennour, who may be hoping that some strong displays in Gabon lead to a permanent departure from Mestalla.
Chelsea, Everton and Marseille are among the sides supposedly considering a bid for his services, with the central defender revealing last month that he held talks with unnamed English outfits in the summer.
3. Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo)
A free agent since leaving Crystal Palace in the summer, Emmanuel Adebayor’s determination to represent Togo in the Cup of Nations contributed to the collapse of a Lyon move in September. The former Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City striker was a major disappointment at Selhurst Park and will be keen to show prospective buyers that he still has plenty left to give even as his 33rd birthday approaches.
4. Bertrand Traore (Burkina Faso)
Burkina Faso exceeded expectations by reaching the final of this competition four years ago, when they were narrowly beaten by Nigeria in Johannesburg. The Stallions will probably be quietly confident again after being drawn in a favourable group, particularly as the bulk of the 2013 squad remains intact.
Chelsea’s Bertrand Traore is one of the newcomers – although he made his international debut at the age of 15, the forward was not included in the travelling party to South Africa – and will be looking to add to the three goals he’s scored for his country since 2011. On loan at Ajax until the end of the season, Traore will also be out to convince the Chelsea hierarchy that his long-term future lies at Stamford Bridge.
5. Mario Lemina (Gabon)
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is undoubtedly Gabon’s star man, but Juventus’s all-action midfielder Mario Lemina will also be essential to the host nation’s chances of a successful tournament.
The 23-year-old has struggled for game time in Turin this term, though, starting only six matches in Serie A. But while his principal focus will be on his country in the next few weeks, he may also be looking to catch attention from England (Arsenal, Stoke and Leicester have previously been linked) and Germany via RB Leipzig, who are thought to be keeping tabs on the former France Under-21 international.
6. Vincent Aboubakar (Cameroon)
Cameroon’s pre-tournament preparations haven’t been the smoothest, with Liverpool’s Joel Matip, West Brom’s Allan Nyom and five other players rejecting a call-up to Hugo Broos’ squad last month. Vincent Aboubakar is one man who will be involved, though, and with Samuel Eto’o no longer around the 24-year-old will be relied upon for goals.
Currently on loan at Besiktas from Porto, Aboubakar was linked with a permanent switch to Everton last summer and will be out to impress any club scouts who are deployed to Gabon to watch him.
7. Keita Balde Diao (Senegal)
Senegal are many pundits’ tip to lift the trophy in Libreville next month, and Lazio forward Keita Balde Diao is set to form one third of an electric frontline alongside Sadio Mane and Mame Biram Diouf.
The former Barcelona youth product is a speedy and tricky dribbler with an eye for goal – he’s found the net five times in 16 league appearances for his club this term – and will be watched closely by apparent admirers Manchester United, Milan and Liverpool.
8. Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast)
Ivory Coast triumphed in the 2015 edition and are among the favourites to claim the title in Gabon this time around. Not only will Serge Aurier be central to the Elephants’ efforts, some positive performances could also help to determine his future at club level: the PSG right-back is reportedly attracting interest from Barcelona, while Milan have also identified him as a leading target.
The 24-year-old’s talent isn’t in doubt, but disciplinary issues off the pitch mean potential suitors will have to think long and hard before launching a bid for his services – in February 2016 he was suspended by his club for abusing team-mate Angel Di Maria and manager Laurent Blanc in an online video Q&A; then, in September he was found guilty of assaulting a police officer and missed a Champions League trip to Arsenal after the UK government revoked his visa.
9. Molla Wague (Mali)
Now in his third season on loan at Udinese from sister side Granada, who themselves acquired him from Caen in 2014, central defender Molla Wague is allegedly a transfer target for West Ham, Southampton and Watford. Born in the north of France, the 6ft 3in stopper made two appearances for les Bleus’ U19s before switching his international allegiance to Mali in time for the 2013 Cup of Nations in South Africa.
10. Rachid Ghezzal (Algeria)
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Another player who was eligible to represent France at senior level, Rachid Ghezzal chose Algeria instead and is set to make his first tournament appearance for the North Africans in Gabon. Atletico Madrid, Everton, Tottenham, Liverpool and West Ham are just some of the clubs who have been mentioned in relation to a move for the Lyon winger in the last few months, with the 24-year-old seemingly ready to take the next step in his career.
Having said that, he may opt to wait until the summer – when he will be a free agent – before seeking pastures new, particularly as there is a good chance that the Algerians will advance to the latter stages of this competition.
11. Thomas Partey (Ghana)
Thomas Partey has been on the pitch for only 40 minutes of Atletico Madrid’s La Liga campaign and looks set to move on sooner rather than later. The Ghanaian midfielder, who is adept at regaining possession in the centre of the park and carrying the ball forward, has been linked with Watford and Southampton.
First, though, he’ll be looking to help the Black Stars to their first AFCON trophy since they defeated hosts Libya in the 1982 final.
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