Liverpool’s January exit will cost them the title

It’s that time again. The African Cup of Nations starts on 14 January and the Premier League will be without some of its top African players for up to three weeks. But could this (rather awkwardly timed) international tournament have an effect on who wins the Premier League title?

Arguably the biggest loss will be to Liverpool, who will be losing their Senegalese top scorer Sadio Mane, and with their title challenge being as fragile as a chocolate teapot already, this will be a bitter blow to the Kop faithful.

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Liverpool’s recent good form has no doubt been influenced by Mane’s pace, energy and goals, and with the EFL Cup semi-final, a Premier League match against bitter rivals Manchester United and a long trip to Plymouth for an FA Cup replay coming up, you can be sure Klopp would rather have had the Senegalese dangerman in his selection options.

The 24-year-old attacking midfielder is Liverpool’s leading goalscorer with nine goals so far this season, all coming in the Premier League. And with four assists also to his name he has become a vital component to the Reds rich vein of form. Any Liverpool fans that claim he won’t be missed are probably quietly weeping inside.

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Jurgen Klopp’s current first choice striker – Divock Origi – has only netted four times in 12 appearances in the Premier League this season and has struggled to endear himself to the Merseyside faithful. So, Mane’s absence could seriously damage Liverpool’s end of season ambitions.

Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham all avoid losing players to AFCON – held this year in Gabon. This will surely only help Chelsea’s recent near perfect form and could see them extend their lead at the top of the table.

Arsenal will be without their holding midfielder Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian international seems to have split opinion in his short time in the capital – is he a no-fuss, just-goes-about-his-business type of player, or does he actually not have much influence on the outcome of a game? It must be said that I doubt he will be missed, and it’s usually about this time of the season that Arsenal tend to fall out of the title race anyway.

Eric Bailly being missing from the Manchester United squad seems to have been a regular occurrence this season without the need for a tournament hosted halfway through the league season, in 40-degree heat in an entirely different continent. And United fans will be confident of their team’s defensive capabilities without him, having conceded just seven goals in their last 12 games in all competitions, and still having no hope of being title contenders come the end of the season – with or without the Ivory Coast international.

If anything, AFCON will prove to split the top six into two categories: the genuine title contenders (Chelsea, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool) and the title pretenders (Arsenal and Manchester United). With full squads at their disposal Chelsea, Spurs and City should extend their dominance in the Premier League. Meanwhile, without Mane, Liverpool will struggle for goals, and Arsenal and United don’t look convincing enough to go for the long haul.

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