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AFCON Group Stages: What we learned

Villarreal allowed all four of their qualifying African representatives to go to the African Cup of Nations for 2022’s instalment of the competition, here’s how they got on during the group stage and what it means for the Yellow Submarine.

Samuel Chukwueze ~ Nigeria

Samuel Chukwueze is one of the most exciting players that Villarreal have on their books; he’s direct, he’s quick, he’s skilful and he’s youthful. At 22 years of age, Samu has made 19 appearances for the Super Eagles, making his debut in November 2018 and scoring 3 times since then. He started 3 out of the 4 games that Nigeria played at 2022’s African Cup of Nations, scoring a tidy goal in the 3rd minute of a 3-1 win against Sudan, Nigeria’s second game of the group stage.

While the Villarreal winger didn’t set the tournament alight in terms of goals and assists, he proved to be dynamic outlet for his nation out on the right-hand side, radiating confidence with his willingness to positively move with the ball at pace while also offering another passing option for his teammates out wide. The youngster recieved a healthy sum of minutes over the course of Nigeria’s journey in Cameroon, playing 193 minutes out of an avaliable 360 before Nigeria fell to Tunisia in the Round of 16 on Sunday.

It’s fair to say that the Yellow Submarine missed the services of Chukwueze while he was out representing his nation. During his absence, Villarreal were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by Sporting Gijón, failed to hang on to a lead at home to Atlético de Madrid and also lacked a creative spark in a loss away at Elche. It’s true that an injury has hindered the Nigerian’s output and playtime this season, but his 2 goals, 1 assist and imagination on the flank could’ve been the difference in the games that Villarreal had played during his absence, especially in the horrendous showing away at Elche that was in dire need of some inspiration. Villarreal now wait until February 6th to be tasked with the visit to the Benito Villamarín, but the allocated break allows Chukwueze to return, reintegrate and prepare with the squad for this fixture as it will be crucial for Villarreal’s hopes of renewing their stay in Europe for next season.

Boulaye Dia ~ Senegal

Senegal managed to top Group B despite only managing 1 goal over the 3 games against Guinea, Malawi and Zimbabwe (a 90th minute penalty courtesy of Sadio Mane in the first group game against Zimbabwe). Villarreal’s Boulaye Dia started in all three of these games and evidently couldn’t find the back of the net, but it must be said that Aliou Cisse utilised Dia on the right-wing for 2 of the three games, something he doesn’t experience under Emery.

Despite not finding the net, Dia didn’t necessarily do anything wrong; he was substituted late in all three of the group games, showing the trust that his coach has in him and he maintained a proficient passing accuracy percentage throughout the three games too as he looked to supply his team from the right. Let’s not forget, the entire team only scored one goal, so it would be unfair to put it all down to Boulaye, of course.

With both Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcácer out through injury until February and Villarreal looking unlikely to pick up a new striker after allowing free-agent Bakambu to sign for Marseille, it’s obvious that Dia would slot right back into the starting XI at this moment in time. He hit domestic form right before his departure for AFCON, putting 2 past Alavés and grabbing one against Levante, so if Senegal fail to progress beyond Cape Verde on Wednesday, Villarreal could have a relatively in-form striker returning to Spain that would instantly find his way onto the team sheet.

Aïssa Mandi ~ Algeria

Along with Chukwueze, Aïssa Mandi will also be returning to the Ciutat Esportiva Villarreal during the short LaLiga break after Algeria finished bottom in Group E. Mandi played every minute over the group stage for the previous winners and he even provided an assist for Sofiane Bendebka in Algeria’s 3-1 loss to Serge Aurier’s Ivory Coast, but it just wasn’t to be this time around for Les Fennecs.

Mandi’s only piece of career silverware was 2019’s AFCON title, so it’s certain that he will be returning feeling disappointed as his nation were arguably favourites to win the tournament again this year, but he will be returning to a Villarreal team that is feeling optimistic with an important fixture list ahead.

Mandi’s last appearance in yellow was against Rayo Vallecano, a performance in which saw the Algerian play the full 90 minutes and grab the first goal in a 2-0 win at home. Playing every possible minute for Algeria at AFCON would’ve definitely benefited the defender despite his nation’s shock exit and hopefully we can see him get some game time soon to give him the opportunity while also handing a well-earned rest to the regulars, Pau Torres and Raúl Albiol.

Serge Aurier ~ Ivory Coast

As already mentioned, Ivory Coast convincingly took out champions Algeria along with topping Group E and Villarreal’s Serge Aurier played a fundamental role in helping his nation towards the end of the group stage. An onerous task against Egypt on Wednesday beckons as Ivory Coast look to win their third AFCON, their first since 2015.

Aurier didn’t feature in the opener against Equatorial Guniea as he was unavailable due to suspension, but he played the full 90 minutes in a 2-2 draw against Sierra Leone. He then started once again against Algeria following a solid showing against Sierra Leone and he provided an assist to Ibrahim Sangaré for the second goal in a 3-1 win that would subsequently send Aurier’s colleague Aïssa Mandi back to Vila-real.

Juan Foyth suddenly picked up a hamstring injury in recent weeks that shouldn’t keep him out for an extensive period of time, but if Serge Aurier happens to return home any time soon, there could be a vacancy in the starting XI open for him with Mario Gaspar currently filling in for the 24-year old Argentine. Aurier’s performances on the international stage of late have proven that his signature was an intelligent acquisition from Emery as he seemingly provides instrumental depth to Villarreal’s back-line and unquestionable quality up and down the pitch.