How AFCON hits Premier League clubs as Arsenal, Liverpool and Man Utd face mixed fortunes

No Covid suspension for Premier League – reports

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Despite ECA/FIFA-led postponement pushes and crisis meetings galore, the delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations gets underway in Cameroon next month. Around 40 Premier League players could jet off to represent their nations in the new year, with some of them potentially absent until mid-February.

The 24-team tournament was initially scheduled for the summer but will run from January 9 to February 6, 2022, meaning some top-flight clubs could be without key names for over a month.

Leeds United, Newcastle United, Norwich City and Tottenham Hotspur will evade disruption, given they have no players from AFCON nations in their squads.

But the next several weeks could be stressful for the other 16 Premier League clubs, with concerns over rising Covid-19 cases and the potential quarantine measures to come not helping settle the widespread anxiety.

Express Sport analyses who should be most worried and what implications players’ absences could have at different areas of the table.

Liverpool will be sweating the most among the league’s leading clubs, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane already announced for Egypt and Senegal, respectively.

Naby Keita will likely join them with Guinea, but while he isn’t part of Jurgen Klopp’s favoured midfield three, Salah and Mane’s exits mean he’ll be missing two-thirds of his first-choice attack.

Therefore, it could be a pivotal period in the title race as, despite Manchester City losing top goalscorer Riyad Mahrez to reigning champions Algeria, Pep Guardiola has the attacking depth to cover him.

Chelsea will have to go without Edouard Mendy (Senegal), giving £75million backup Kepa Arrizabalaga a run of games. However, Hakim Ziyech has been excluded from Morocco’s squad amid an ongoing dispute with manager Vahid Halilhodzic, which will be music to Thomas Tuchel’s ears given recent injury troubles.

In the race for the top four, Tottenham won’t be affected while Manchester United will wave off Ivory Coast defender Eric Bailly – not a nightmare for Ralf Rangnick given his current fringe status.

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Raphael Varane is returning to action at the right time, dropping Bailly back down to fourth-choice. Amad has been snubbed and could therefore seal a January loan move away after an ill-timed injury prevented a summer switch to the Netherlands for more senior minutes.

West Ham United face losing Said Benrahma, who will join Mahrez in an exciting Algeria attack after helping David Moyes guide his side to fifth after 18 games.

Arsenal should suffer the most out of the quartet vying for fourth, though, with Mohamed Elneny (Egypt), Thomas Partey (Ghana), Nicolas Pepe (Ivory Coast) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon) all set for involvements.

Partey is currently the most established figure in Mikel Arteta’s squad and could be a significant loss, but Aubameyang’s leave is well-timed after being stripped of the captaincy and training alone at London Colney in the build-up.

Meanwhile, Pepe showcased what he can offer in attack with his impressive antics in Arsenal’s 5-1 Carabao Cup quarter-final triumph over Sunderland on Tuesday.

Outside contenders Leicester City and Wolves are also losing big names in Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi (both Nigeria) and Roman Saiss (Morocco).

At the other end of the table, Watford’s survival hopes are likely to suffer, with notable names temporarily unavailable throughout the team.

Claudio Ranieri will have to go without defenders William Troost-Ekong (Nigeria) and Adam Masina, midfielder Imran Louza (both Morocco), and more gut-wrenchingly, attacking pair Ismaila Sarr (Senegal) and Emmanuel Dennis (Nigeria).

Elsewhere, the term quality over quantity rings true negatively for Brighton and Burnley, who will lose Yves Bissouma (Mali) and Maxwel Cornet (Ivory Coast), respectively.

Crystal Palace join Arsenal as the joint-second worst-hit club after Watford, numbers-wise, as Cheikhou Kouyate (Senegal), Jeffrey Schlupp, Jordan Ayew (both Ghana) and Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast) are all set to jet off.

Depending on how nations fare in the competition, some players could miss as many as eight games in total (six in the Premier League and two FA Cup ties).

Many will link up with their respective camps after the fixtures on December 26 and 27, in line with FIFA rules stating: “players must be released and start travel to their representative team no later than Monday morning the week preceding the week when the relevant final competition starts.”

In a massive boost for Liverpool, though, Egyptian journalist Ismael Mahmoud reports Salah’s national team have granted the Reds permission to keep him until January 2.

So Klopp’s star man should be available for the new year trip to Chelsea, a game of immense stakes in the title race, but it will now be interesting to see if other clubs follow suit with requests.

There are other eye-catching fixtures at both ends of the table happening in the opening days of 2022, including Arsenal v Man City, Leeds v Burnley and Southampton v Newcastle, so Salah’s delayed departure could cause a stir.

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