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African All Stars

Iheanacho, Moses & Daka: Europa League group stage set for gripping denouement

09:37 GMT+3 24/11/2021
Patson Daka and Kelechi Iheanacho of Leicester City.
Europe’s secondary club competition resumes this week, and GOAL looks at some of the Africans who could make the difference

The Europa League may play second fiddle to Champions League football, but some of the group stage narratives have set things up for an exciting conclusion.

Group C is undoubtedly the best place to start, with all four teams still in with a chance of progressing to the next round heading into match-day five. Napoli top the group with seven points from their opening four games, yet a three-point advantage over Spartak Moscow in fourth can easily be erased if they suffer defeat in Russia on Wednesday.

Luciano Spalletti’s men will have to navigate this week’s encounter and the rest of the group stage without attacking spearhead Victor Osimhen, who suffered multiple displaced facial fractures on his left cheekbone in Sunday’s defeat by Inter Milan and is out for an extended period.

They will have to attack differently without the former Lille marksman, possibly turning to the club’s record scorer Dries Mertens or seldom-used Andrea Petagna to lead the line.

The situation is not ideal, even for someone as flexible as Spalletti and the Partenopei will have to find solutions without a player who has contributed to 36 percent of the Serie A side’s goals despite starting only once in his three appearances.

The added blow of losing Andre Zambo Anguissa to an adductor injury for a few weeks means the Napoli boss is left with only one of his important African triumvirate — Kalidou Koulibaly — possibly for the next two games.

Indeed, previous questions over the Naples outfit’s depth will be tested over the next weeks.

Leicester City and the Azzurri were favourites to go through following the draw and, while both may well advance after the final round of games, few people envisaged the Foxes’ current situation.

Admittedly, Brendan Rodgers’ team could end this match-day top of the group, but they may, just as easily, find themselves fourth if results go against them.

With the group as tight, a keen eye will be kept on the Northern Irishman’s selection in attack for Thursday’s meeting with second-place Legia Warsaw, whom they trail by a point. Will the Leicester boss stick with the pairing of Patson Daka and Kelechi Iheanacho or will he lean on the expertise of Jamie Vardy as the pressure builds?

The Foxes are winless in four games in all competitions, with boos greeting the half-time and full-time whistles in their most recent defeat by Chelsea on Saturday.

While you expect them to beat an out-of-form Legia side at the King Power Stadium, that eventuality is not a gimme owing to recent performances and results for the East Midlands club.

Regardless of the temptation to start Vardy, there is grounds for hope that Rodgers sticks with Daka and Iheanacho up top as Leicester look to inflict the Polish club’s ninth defeat in their last 10 fixtures in all competitions.

The Foxes, though, winless in both games at the King Power will strive to be third-time lucky on Thursday. Indeed, the 1-1 stalemate with Spartak in early November particularly rankled and the Leicester faithful must be sick of the sight of Victor Moses.

The wing-back may have conceded a 74th-minute penalty in that encounter — saved by Aleksandr Selikhov — but all three direct involvements preceding goals (one goal and two assists) have come against the 2016 Premier League champions…surely, they are pleased to see the back of the ex-Chelsea wideman!

Group C is the only bracket where all four sides can still progress. It is set for a nail-biting finish for those involved, but arguably guarantees the greatest excitement for neutrals with no skin in the game.

Away from all that drama, is the impressive Olympique Lyon the only side with an unblemished record in the competition heading into this week’s fixtures. The Ligue 1 side are away at cellar-dwelling Brondby and the undoubted star is Karl Toko Ekambi, who leads the scoring charts with six.

The Cameroon forward’s eight goal involvements is six higher than any teammate — a four-man group that includes Islam Slimani — and he will look to continue this year’s amazing showing in the competition.

There is plenty of jeopardy for Nigeria’s Leon Balogun and Joe Aribo, whose Rangers host a Sparta Prague side sitting level on points with the defending Scottish champions.

Catching Lyon may no longer be a possibility but the Super Eagles pair, along with Fashion Sakala, will strive to hand new manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst a maiden win since replacing Steven Gerrard.

Groups D and H also appear finely poised. In the former, Henry Onyekuru may still be finding his feet at Olympiacos, but Youssef El-Arabi’s remarkable form in front of goal has seen him score three times from as many shots on target (five shots in total), no player with three goals or more has a 100 percent return from efforts on target in the competition.

Mady Camara, Aguibou Camara and Pape Abou Cisse could all feature for the Greek giants against Bright Osayi-Samuel’s Fenerbahce in the tussle for second spot (both sides are separated by one point) and maximum points for Onyekuru and co. guarantees progress at the Turkish side’s expense.

It’s been mixed feelings for Paul Onuachu and Said Benrahma in the final group.

The Genk frontman has not had the rub of the green since scoring the Smurfs’ winner against Rapid Vienna in round one and was fairly culpable in the 3-0 defeat by West Ham United in London and 2-2 draw with the same opponents last time out, missing presentable opportunities in both fixtures.

By contrast, Benrahma’s pair of goals in Belgium helped to preserve the Hammers’ unbeaten run in Europe and makes him the group winners’ top scorer heading into this week’s meeting at fourth-placed Rapid.

Having endured a frustrating time in front of goal since netting a treble against Seraing in late September, Genk need a big performance from a forward that has netted only once in nearly two months when they visit a Dinamo Zagreb side they trail by two points.

Group C may present the most interesting pre-match storylines heading into this week’s Europa League action, but some of the other brackets hang in the balance.

With Osimhen unable to dominate the headlines this week, another African star will assume pre-eminence as the competition reaches a critical stage.