Sunday, 17 January 2010

African Cup of Nations - What's the big deal?

Chelsea 7-2 Sunderland. It's what English newspapers would refer to as a cricket score - though only one in which the opening batsmen will have failed miserably (a test match involving England, for example).

Well done to Chelsea for putting seven goals past Premier League opponents who were challenging for the European places only a few weeks ago, and who had held Manchester United to a draw at Old Trafford whilst beating Arsenal and Liverpool at home this season. Okay, Sunderland put in a shocking defensive performance, but isn't this the kind of awe-inspiring display we should expect from Chelsea?

Hang on a minute, though. Weren't we all being told this season that Chelsea were going to struggle without Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel, who are all absent at the African Cup of Nations?

'African Nations Cup could ruin Chelsea's season' opined that sage of the game, Franck Leboeuf. Matt Lawton, who already featured in The Cynical Challenge last week (fingers crossed for a hat-trick eh Matt), predicted a crisis at Chelsea as a result of their 'African exodus'. 'Chelsea facing striker crisis' screamed Simon Johnson in the London Evening Standard.

Well if seven goals against Sunderland are a striker crisis, one dreads to think what Chelsea might have managed with their Cup of Nations players in the side.

It's time to end this to-and-fro surrounding the departure of players to the African Cup of Nations. As the shocking events in Cabinda last week demonstrated, our primary concern should be with the welfare of players and their security arrangements. And as the savaging of Sunderland's back four on Saturday demonstrated equally (without wishing to diminish the seriousness of events in Angola), suggestions that Europe's top clubs are unfairly crippled, nay, emasculated during the African Cup of Nations are pretty much hot air.

The proof of this particular pudding is in results on the field. And strangely enough, few of those predicting that leading clubs would have it tough during the tournament seem to have bothered to gather supporting evidence from previous iterations of the Cup of Nations.

Back in 2008 Chelsea, missing the same four players as this year, went unbeaten throughout the duration of the tournament. Indeed, their most disappointing result of the season came a couple of weeks after the return of Drogba et al, when they lost 1-0 away to Barnsley in the FA Cup. In 2006 Chelsea gained two draws and beat Liverpool whilst missing Drogba and Mikel, though the latter had yet to start a game for the club at the time. In both years they remained top of the Premier League throughout.

And this, admittedly rather rough-and-ready, measure of performance translates across other clubs and other leagues too. In France in 2008 Marseille lost four players, the most in Ligue 1 - André Ayew, Modeste Mbami, Mamadou Niang and Taye Taiwo - yet still jumped five places in the table in their absence. Two years earlier second-placed Bordeaux lost three players - Armand Tchami, Naby Diarso and Marouane Chamakh - yet only dropped points away to table-toppers Lyon, who were only missing Lamine Diatta.

Clearly it's pushing the point too far to suggest that losing players to the African Cup of Nations makes no difference at all. Clubs with smaller squads and at the wrong end of the league table struggle without their players during the tournament. Take Portsmouth who, in 2006, had to cope without Collins Mbesuma, Kanu, Lomana Lua Lua and Benjani and ended up shipping 11 goals in four matches, gaining just one point. Similarly Rennes dropped four places to fourteenth in Ligue 1 in 2006 when missing John Utaka, John Mensah, Abdeslam Ouaddou, Youssef Hadji and Cheick N'Diaye.

But the point still stands - the clubs at the top, playing with confidence and with deep squads to delve into, barely bat an eyelid come Cup of Nations time. Meanwhile it's the strugglers who suffer the loss of players hardest.

Still, what with papers to sell, don't expect to read the headline 'Table-toppers will coast along during African Nations' any time soon.

* big shout out to www.statto.com for enabling me to compile the above article.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James