Egyptian hopes are on the shoulders of Liverpool striker Mo Salah
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations gets underway when hosts Egypt take on Zimbabwe on Friday night.
Preparations for the tournament have been far from plain sailing, Cameroon having been stripped of hosting rights back in November.
The new format has seen the number of teams participating increase from 16 to 24, bringing it closer in line with the European Championships.
Timing has also proved a bone of contention. The start date was moved back six days to allow players who had fasted during Ramadan to recover, but more pertinently, AFCON has been transferred to the summer months, where it used to take place in January and February.
That will come as a major boost to Premier League clubs with African players in their ranks, as they have traditionally been used to losing them mid-season every other year.
English clubs have several representatives at the Cup, with Liverpool trio Mo Salah (Egypt), Sadio Mane (Senegal), and Naby Keita (Guinea) among the most notable.
Côte d’Ivoire also boast Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Tottenham’s Serge Aurier, while Senegal are taking Everton’s Idrissa Gueye, and Algeria pin their hopes on Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez.
There will be no appearance from Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after Gabon failed to qualify.
However, the Premier League’s enthusiasm at the AFCON moving to June-July will be balanced by trepidation at the effect it could have on fitness levels.
It is one thing for Victor Wanyama, whose Kenya did not play at last year’s World Cup and who has made just 13 league appearances all season, but quite another for the likes of Salah, who heads home to Egypt at the end of an utterly hectic campaign.
The Reds forward has played 56 games for club and country in the last 12 months, all off the back of that infamous shoulder injury which was given little time to heal properly. Similarly, Mane has played 54.
There were widespread concerns in the regular season too about fatigue. While the strain on players is just one aggravating factor, it can’t be overlooked that Premier League teams suffered a combined 608 injuries over the 2018/19 season.
The three worst-hit clubs were Manchester United, Liverpool, and Tottenham, all of whom had droves of first-team players out in Russia.
Amidst changes to the competition, one of the main reasons for it being held in the New Year seems to have been largely forgotten. Egypt is hot, so hot in fact that on Friday, there will be highs of 37°C and it is likely to still be pushing 30°C at kick-off.
All this for a tournament which, in its early stages at least, now risks playing second fiddle to the concurrent Copa America, rather than being allowed to shine in its own right.
Premier League players at AFCON 2019:
🇪🇬 Salah, Elneny, Elmohamady
🇨🇩 Masuaku, Bolasie
🇳🇬 Balogun, Ndidi, Iwobi, Onyekuru
🇸🇳 Mane, Gueye, Kouyate
🇨🇮 Kodjia, Zaha, Aurier
🇬🇭 Ayew, Atsu, Agyepong