By Jerrad Peters (World Football staff writer)
Watch the five African stars to watch during the 2014 FIFA World Cup playoffs.
Saphir Taider, Algeria
Saphir Taider’s season with Inter Milan has been the embodiment of the Nerazzurri’s campaign to date: irresistible one day, disappointing the next.
Then again, Taider is only 21 and still settling in at the San Siro, having completed a €5.5 million move from Bologna in August.
A versatile midfielder who can play everywhere from the left to a defensive role to the hole behind the striker, Taider was also eligible to represent France and Tunisia but with The Fennec Foxes is part of a compelling side where most of manager Vahid Halilhodzic’s key players are under 30 years of age.
Taider’s defensive instincts will also serve Algeria well against a Burkina Faso outfit that likes to get forward.
Kwadwo Asamoah, Ghana
Kwadwo Asamoah’s goal-scoring record for Ghana might not be as prolific as he’d prefer, but in a crucial group-stage match against Zambia the 24-year-old managed his fourth international tally—and it just happened to be the match winner.
An important part of back-to-back Scudetto wins at Juventus, Asamoah is the sort of midfielder who can move the ball from the defensive third to the attacking goalmouth by himself in a matter of seconds.
A speedster who prefers the dribble on the left flank, he can also operate in the middle and has the sort of defensive instincts that have earned the trust of Bianconeri boss Antonio Conte.
And given the small circle of players Conte counts on for results, that’s high praise.
Gervinho, Ivory Coast
Sometimes a simple change of scenery can do wonders for a player’s career.
Since an August move to AS Roma from Arsenal, where his performances had stagnated, Gervinho has flourished, helping the Giallorossi to a perfect record from seven matches.
He has so far scored three goals since his arrival in Serie A and has run defenders ragged on the right of the Roma attack.
He’ll flank Didier Drogba in Ivory Coast’s match against Senegal on Saturday, and given his purple patch of form his side should have little trouble creating chances in Abidjan.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Cameroon
The absence of Samuel Eto’o leaves a gaping hole in the Cameroon attack, and if The Indomitable Lions stand any chance of toppling Tunisia they’ll need Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to fill it.
A 10-goal scorer in his first season at Mainz in 2011-12, he missed much of 2012-13 through injury but in the current campaign has scored twice and contributed two assists in eight matches.
Against Hoffenheim last weekend he came off the bench to inspire a come-from-behind draw and was virtually unmanageable for the opposition defenders.
At 6’2″ he provides a sizable target for the build-up play, but he is also quick and fancies the dribble, a combination Cameroon will be counting on against The Carthage Eagles.
Mohamed Aboutrika, Egypt
He is one of the greatest players to have never played in Europe—one of the best African footballers of all time.
At 34, this is Mohamed Aboutrika’s final World Cup cycle and it’s one he’d prefer to see run its course in Brazil nine months from now.
Iconic, political and, most importantly, prolific, the four-time African Champions League winner has been rejuvenated under manager Bob Bradley, scoring four times this calendar year—three of them in World Cup qualifying.
But Aboutrika has never played in a World Cup finals, and despite a trophy case that includes those Champions League crowns, seven league titles and a pair of African Footballer of the Year gongs (nevermind more than 100 caps for The Pharaohs), an appearance in Brazil would top off a career that has been nothing short of legendary.