The African Cup of Nations kicks off in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon next week and while Italy is losing fewer players than other leagues in Europe, the competition is a headache for one Serie A manager. Fiorentina, Inter and Genoa have few absentees, but high-flyers Udinese are preparing themselves to lose the services of Kwadwo Asamoah (Ghana), Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Ghana) and Mehdi Benatia (Morocco) to the tournament. Benatia and Asamoah have been mainstays in Udinese’s starting lineup this season, while Agyemeng-Badu has had to settle for a few starts in the Serie A featuring more so in the Europa League.
The talented midfielder is an integral part of the Udinese midfield and helped them to a 4th place finish in the 2010/11 Serie A season. He plays in a left-central midfield role in Francesco Guidolin’s 3-5-2 formation and is influential to the Zebrette’s counter attacking game with his bustling runs from deep to join the attack. The 23-year old also utilizes his strength and stamina to help out in the defensive phase often providing cover for the attack minded left wing back Pablo Armero.
Only aged 21, the defensive midfielder (pictured above) is definitely one for the future. When called on, his role at the club entails sitting in front of the back three, breaking up attacks and providing defensive cover for marauding midfielders. In the offensive phase, he is a good source of the outlet pass, averaging 2.9 long passes per game which fits well with the Zebrette direct play.
Nominated for the Best Defender in Italy award in his debut Serie A season. The Morrocan has in his sophomore year helped Udinese boast the record of having the stingiest defence in the league thus far (10 goals conceded in 17 matches). He plays on the right side of the three man defence and his strengths lie in his reading of the game and his great use of the ball when in possession.
How will the Zebrette cope? Francesco Guidolin wasted no time and dipped in to the transfer market and signed Gelson Fernandes on loan from AS Saint-Etienne as cover for Asamoah. The Swiss international, similar to Asamoah, combines a great work ethic with superb technique and loves to break forward to support the attack from deep positions (as he did when he scored against Spain at the World Cup)
Agyemang-Badu’s absence would leave the team short of midfield options and less flexible tactically. His loss would mean there is no defensive alternative for the attack-minded Giampiero Pinzi, who although averaging 4.9 tackles and 1.8 interceptions for the season lacks defensive discipline of the Ghanaian.
Benatia will most likely be replaced by Damiano Ferronetti who has deputized for unavailable defenders in the past. New recruit Gabriel Silva, just brought in from Palmerias, may also be called on to fill his spot.
However Udinese’s loss is Africa’s gain with Ghana’s starting lineup at the tournament likely to boast the Udinese duo. Asamoah’s energy and technical ability would be needed to compensate for the losses of both Michael Essien and Kevin-Prince Boateng to injury and ‘retirement’ respectively. Agyemang-Badu’s physicality and defensive capabilities would help the 2010 runners-up continue their great run of conceding just one goal in six matches during the qualifiers. The pre-tournament favourites, along with Cote d’Ivoire, will be aiming for at least a spot in the final and anything less will be classified as a disappointment.
Benatia’s Morroco, similar to Ghana, are suberb defensively (two goals conceded during qualification) and will look towards him and co. to put in some stellar performances to help the Moroccans advance. The Lions of Atlas plays with a back four of which Benatia plays centerback. The North Africans are tipped to qualify out of Group C along with Tunisia but their further progress seems to hinge on if they can win their group. In doing so, they will avoid Ghana at the quarter-finals stage making a semi-final berth a possibility.
The bi-annual tournament often leaves managers across Europe shorthanded due to its clashing with the European football calendar. However, Francesco Guidolin is prepared and hopeful that his Udinese can try and defend their splendid position and push on to not only qualify for the Champions League but compete for the Scudetto.