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Bayer Leverkusen stars and technical attackers: Five young players to watch at AFCON 2023

Neel Shelat
Victor Boniface, Bilal El Khannouss
© ProShots

The 34th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will kick off on Saturday, with hosts Ivory Coast tackling Guinea-Bissau.

Although the biennial tournament is often perceived negatively in European football circles as many clubs’ key players leave at the most hectic time of the season, the importance of it to those on the African continent cannot be overstated.

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Even for those with a sole interest in European football, this tournament offers a great chance to scout the best of Africa’s talent. This time is no exception, so we have picked out five players born after the turn of the century who are enjoying a great season so far and could go on to play a decisive role in their nations’ quest for African glory.

Victor Boniface – Nigeria

Victor Boniface
© ProShots – Victor Boniface

Birth Year: 2000

Club: Bayer Leverkusen

Position: ST

Estimate Transfer Value (ETV): €22.7M – €37.8M

You would have to be living under a rock to have avoided hearing of Victor Boniface’s exploits this season.

The Nigerian international moved to Bayer Leverkusen in the summer and has proceeded to instantly tear up Bundesliga defences, returning with 10 goals and 7 assists in just 16 league appearances. He has been developing at an incredible rate since joining Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in the summer of 2022 and is projected to get better yet.

Victor Boniface’s SciSkill index development and projection
© SciSports – Victor Boniface’s SciSkill index development and projection

According to our friends at SciSports, Boniface is already among the very best strikers in Africa. Scarier yet for Nigeria’s opponents, his strike partner Victor Osimhen is right up there too. Although the 23-year-old forward has operated as a lone striker at Leverkusen, he spent his time in Belgium as a part of a two-striker system so he should be capable of excelling in either.

The Super Eagles’s attack will be a real force to reckon with and could well fire them to the title if they manage to get the balance of the team right.

Odilon Kossounou – Ivory Coast

Odilon Kossounou
© ProShots – Odilon Kossounou

Birth Year: 2001

Club: Bayer Leverkusen

Position: CB

ETV: €19.9M – €33.2M

Bayer Leverkusen will hope that their title charge is not derailed too much in the next month, because they are also losing defenders besides their star striker. Among the departures in that department is Odilon Kossounou, who has quietly had an excellent season so far.

Odilon Kossounou’s pizza chart in the 2023/24 German Bundesliga season so far
© Neel Shelat – Odilon Kossounou’s pizza chart in the 2023/24 German Bundesliga season so far

On the right side of Bayer Leverkusen’s back three, the Ivorian defender has been a great asset both in and out of possession. On the ball, he has been an excellent progressor through both passing and carrying, while he has excelled defensively through his excellent positioning and strength in the tackle.

As the hosts, the Ivory Coast certainly are one of the favourites for the title. A strong defensive record will be paramount if they hope to realise their dreams, so Kossounou could well prove to be the key player in the team.

Bilal El Khannouss – Morocco

Birth Year: 2004

Club: Genk

Position: AM

ETV: €11.7M – €19.4M

Having become the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals, Morocco might not want to change a successful formula too much, but they will want to consider giving Bilal El Khannouss more game time.

Indeed, they have done so in their recent World Cup qualifiers, as the Genk number 10 started in midfield in both of those matches. Even though he is just 19 years old, El Khannouss has established himself as a regular starter for his club over the last couple of seasons, standing out with his excellent reading of the game and on-ball creativity.

Bilal El Khannouss’ pizza chart in the 2023/24 Belgian Pro League season so far
© Neel Shelat – Bilal El Khannouss’ pizza chart in the 2023/24 Belgian Pro League season so far

Even at such a young age, the Moroccan international has shown a great understanding of Genk’s tactical system to play an advanced midfield role where he often finds himself moving into pockets of space to receive the ball, after which his excellent close control enables him to wriggle his way out and look for teammates.

Against mean defences, El Khannouss’ creativity could prove decisive for Morocco as they aim to lift the AFCON for the first time since 1976.

Mohamed Amoura – Algeria

Birth Year: 2000

Club: Royale Union Saint-Gilloise

Position: LW/RW/ST

ETV: €3.9M – €6.6M

Not to be outdone, Algeria have an exciting young attacker of their own playing in Belgium.

Everything Mohamed Amoura touches is seemingly turning into gold this season, as he has 13 goals to his name in 15 league appearances so far this season. Often being brought on as an impact substitute, he has shown great movement and work-rate off the ball by buzzing around the striker before delivering killer blows from in and around the box.

Mohamed Amoura’s shotmap in the 2023/24 Belgian Pro League season so far
© FotMob – Mohamed Amoura’s shotmap in the 2023/24 Belgian Pro League season so far

Algeria will be keen to impress after their group stage exit from the last AFCON and absence from the recent World Cup, so they will hope to see the new youngsters in their squad like Amoura and Fares Chaibi chipping in with significant contributions.

Salis Abdul Samed – Ghana

Salis Abdul Samed
© ProShots – Salis Abdul Samed

Birth Year: 2000

Club: Lens

Position: DM

ETV: €21.1M – €35.2M

Salis Abdul Samed might not be the most eye-catching player in the Ghana squad, but he could well be the most important one.

The Black Stars have often struggled with the balance of their side in midfield in recent times, so Abdul Samed could have a key role in that respect. At Lens for the last couple of seasons, he has operated as the deepest midfielder in a role that demands positional discipline and very secure passing.

So, the 23-year-old midfielder’s stats might not look impressive for club and country but do not let that deceive you about the quality and security he brings to the table in midfield.

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