JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – English Premier League sharpshooters Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah flew to Africa this week, seeking goals as 2021 Cup of Nations (CAN) qualifying kicks off.
New Arsenal captain Aubameyang has claimed eight league goals this season and Liverpool duo Mane and Salah seven and six respectively, putting the trio among the top 10 scorers.
The form of Gabonese Aubameyang, Senegalese Mane and Egyptian Salah will encourage their nations as they face two matches each between today and next Tuesday.
Mane, who is looking good to succeed two-time winner Salah as African Footballer of the Year, will be first into action with Senegal hosting Congo Brazzaville in Thies tonight.
Having scored for Liverpool in a 3-1 triumph over reigning champions Manchester City last Sunday and travelled to Dakar on Monday, Mane will have little time to prepare for the Group I clash.
Fortunately for 2019 Cup of Nations silver medallists Senegal, whose defence is marshalled by Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, Congo have not impressed recently.
Any outcome other than a comfortable win for Senegal would be surprising as the nation currently ranked first in Africa launch another attempt to win a maiden Cup of Nations title.
Aubameyang and Salah play tomorrow with Gabon away to central African neighbours the Democratic Republic of Congo in Group D and Egypt at home to Kenya in Group G.
Salah will work with recently appointed Egypt coach Hossam el Badry for the first time, having missed a warm-up win over Botswana last month because of an injury.
El Badry succeeded Mexican Javier Aguirre, who was sacked after the Pharaohs flopped as 2019 Cup of Nations hosts, losing to South Africa at the last-16 stage.
Another Premier League star available to the new coach is Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ Hassan, who scored for Aston Villa in a weekend defeat at Wolves.
Kenya appeared at a Cup of Nations this year for the first time since 2004 and edged Tanzania between group losses to eventual champions Algeria and runners-up Senegal.
Aubameyang, the son of a former international, and Gabon have unhappy memories of recent Cup of Nations.
They could not win any of three 2017 group matches despite being hosts and made a humiliating first round exit before faring even worse in the following edition by failing to qualify.
Aubameyang struggled for form in Africa and refused to travel from Gabon to South Sudan for a 2019 qualifier because he believed the chartered aircraft was unsafe.
Only a handful of countries leave DR Congo capital Kinshasa with maximum points and a realistic target for new Gabon coach Patrick Neveu would be a draw.
Algeria star Riyad Mahrez has managed only two Premier League goals for Manchester City this season and was an unused substitute at Liverpool.
The ‘Desert Foxes’ hope this will not affect his performance when the trophy-holders host shock 2012 African champions Zambia, who failed to qualify for the last two Cup of Nations, in Group H.
Nigeria, third at the 2019 Cup of Nations, have called up Premier League midfielders Alex Iwobi of Everton and Wilfred Ndidi from second-place Leicester City to face Benin in Uyo.
Saudi Arabia-based captain Ahmed Musa returns for the Group L match after missing a friendly draw with Brazil in Singapore due to injury.
Although Ghana are the third most successful country in the Cup of Nations with four titles, the last came 37 years ago when Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew was a teenager.
Now retired after an illustrious career, he will watch England-based sons Andre and Jordan tackle unpredictable South Africa in Group C in Cape Coast.