Kepa Arrizabalaga, Chelsea, Africa Cup of Nations absentees
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Africa Cup of Nations absentees: 4 players who could benefit

| 09.01.2022

Contenders to fill the voids left by AFCON call-ups

The Africa Cup of Nations begins this weekend and that means some top Premier League players will be on international duty for the next month.

Not everyone will be sorry to see players jet off to Cameroon, though, and the absentees mean more opportunities for players who may otherwise have been limited to time on the bench.

Here we look at which players could benefit most from Africa Cup of Nations absentees at their clubs.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has joined up with the Senegal squad but left a lasting impression with his final performance in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool, when only a string of stunning stops kept the Blues in the contest.

Now Arrizabalaga will step up, with the chance to cement his recent return to top form under Blues boss Thomas Tuchel. A fine string of performances now could allow Kepa to bury his 2019 League Cup final low point for good.

The Spaniard clashed with then-manager Maurizio Sarri in a mix-up in refusing to be substituted in favour of Willy Caballero for the penalty shoot-out with Manchester City.

City went on to win 4-3 and Antonio Rudiger had to stop Sarri confronting Kepa. A redemption story almost three years in the making will be complete should Kepa seize a defining role in the semi-final against Tottenham.

Michael Olise

The 20-year-old has been carefully managed by Crystal Palace boss Patrick Vieira since a summer switch from Reading, where his displays earned him the 2020-21 Sky Bet Championship Young Player of the Season award.

Olise produced an impressive cameo in Saturday’s 3-2 defeat at home to West Ham, firstly assisting Odsonne Edouard before grabbing his second goal for the club with a free-kick late on.

While it was the attacker’s 13th appearance of the campaign, only two have been starts and yet his record of a goal or assist every 63 minutes is the best in the Premier League this season of players who have played at least 300 minutes.

Jordan Ayew and Wilfried Zaha are amongst Palace’s Africa Cup of Nations absentees for the next month and the London-born playmaker is primed for more game time.

“It will be up to Michael,” Vieira said. “He will have the space obviously with Jordan and Wilfried going to internationals and it will be up to him to show how good he is and to take his chances.

“The plan is to work with him and to make him progress but against West Ham he showed all his talent.

“Hopefully the plan is for him to play more games in the second half of the season but the number of games he will play will be up to him and what he shows in training.”

Ayoze Perez

Few clubs, if any, have seen their squad stretched to the limit quite as much as Leicester and they are without a recognised striker for this weekend’s FA Cup tie against Watford.

Kelechi Iheanacho is one of their Africa Cup of Nations absentees while fellow forwards Jamie Vardy and Patson Daka are both sidelined with injuries.

It means the Foxes have gone from having one of the best attacks in the Premier League to the prospect of having to use a player out of position or give debuts to some untried youngsters.

The best solution for manager Brendan Rodgers could be to use Perez in a more attacking role.

Perez has only started three Premier League matches this season and been on the pitch for just 217 minutes, having seen more action in the Europa League.

That is in contrast to last season when he made 36 appearances in all competitions and was in the starting line-up for the FA Cup final win against Chelsea.

Perez has played as a striker before, most notably at this time last year when Vardy was injured, but has a tendency to drop deep.

He could play as a ‘false nine’, with Harvey Barnes and Ademola Lookman offering support, but whatever Rodgers chooses, this looks set to be a big month for Perez if he is to get back in favour.

Jay Rodriguez

Burnley start the new year languishing in the relegation zone so losing Maxwel Cornet to the Africa Cup of Nations is a blow they could have done without.

The Ivory Coast international has been one of the few bright spots in a dismal campaign so far, with the striker scoring six of Burnley’s 16 Premier League goals following his arrival from Lyon in the summer.

His absence could open the door for Rodriguez to partner Chris Wood up front assuming manager Sean Dyche sticks with his preferred 4-4-2 formation.

This will be a big month for Rodriguez if he is to remain at his hometown club.

He is out of contract in the summer and has made just two league starts this season, with his other 11 appearances coming off the bench.

He is yet to find the net although his four goals against Rochdale in the Carabao Cup in September were a reminder of his talent.

Whether he can earn a new contract or simply do enough to secure a decent move in the summer, Rodriguez will hope to make the most of Cornet’s absence.

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Andrew McDermott

Andrew is a sports betting content journalist at PA Media. He is a lifelong Huddersfield Town fan but when he isn't reminiscing about their Premier League days he is also a junior cricket coach and enjoys cycling.