Africans in European football: the best of 2010-2011?
It's been another momentous year for African footballers, with players from the continent involved in title-winning sides in Spain, Italy, France and Germany. Others have won a domestic cup, although the biggest trophy on offer ended up in the hands of Mali's Seydou Keita after his Barcelona side destroyed Manchester United at Wembley on Saturday.
It's been quite a challenge selecting a best African XI for the 2010-2011 European season. It would have been much easier to play four or five up front (given the performances of some African strikers this year), but in a loose 4-3-1-2 formation here's my pick of the best for what's been an enthralling season.
Goalkeeper - Carlos Kameni (Espanyol/Cameroon):
The easiest choice of the lot. African keepers are in short supply in Europe's top leagues, with Richard Kingson - who had his ups and downs - only getting an extended run here in England after Blackpool's regular stopper was injured. Meanwhile, Kameni enjoyed a fine season with Espanyol, making a number of crucial saves which helped his team to their highest La Liga finish since his debut season with the club in 2004/2005.
Right Back - Sam Inkoom (Dnipro/Ghana):
If there's a better African right back out there, I'm not sure I've seen him. The Black Star left Swiss side Basel in January as the Ukraine's ambitious Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk forked out big money for the 21-year-old. Adept in defence, and with a love of marauding forward, the Under-20 World Cup winner should not be burying his talents under a Ukrainian bushel.
Centre Back - Mehdi Benatia (Udinese/Morocco):
Benatia, 24, has been a revelation in his first season in Italy since joining from the French second division. Fast and physical, he has become a pillar of defence as Udinese secured only the second Champions League qualification. Italian football followers don't give out labels like the 'Moroccan Maldini' cheaply - and Benatia's season has been so good he's being linked with Maldini's old club Milan, Real Madrid and Liverpool among others.
Centre Back - Karim Haggui (Hannover 96/Tunisia):
A whisker away from relegation last year, Hannover have had a miraculous season - finishing fourth to earn a Europa League spot. While Ivory Coast forward Didier Ya Konan ensured their attack was on fire, a much-improved defence has been crucial to their successful season. The Tunisian performed so well Hannover extended his contract mid-season to keep him at the club until 2014.
Clockwise from top left: Carlos Kameni, Sammy Inkoom, Mehdi Benatia, Karim Haggui, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, 'Dede' Ayew, Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita, Gervinho, Papiss Demba Cisse and Samuel Eto'o.
Left Back - Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Tottenham Hotspur/Cameroon):
This may come as a surprise to some, especially given Taye Taiwo's season with Marseille - one which so impressed Milan that they snaffled up the Nigerian. But would Milan have been so interested in the Super Eagle had they not picked him up on a free transfer? Either way, I've never been wholly convinced by Taiwo's game - which is why I'm plumping for the corn-rowed Cameroonian. A model of consistency with excellent passing, Assou-Ekotto was ever present in the group stages and knock-outs as Spurs stunned Inter and Milan to reach the Uefa Champions League quarter-finals.
Midfield - Andre 'Dede' Ayew (Marseille/Ghana):
Off the back of an impressive World Cup, Abedi Pele's son settled straight into action with the defending French champions - his energetic, all-action style endearing him to both fans and coach Didier Deschamps. The 21-year-old also added goals to his game, netting a personal best of 11 in a season where he tasted Champions League football for the first time. After being loaned out to Lorient and Arles-Avignon, this was Ayew's coming of age at Marseille - and once again, his performances attracted the attention of Europe's top clubs. Never gave up as Marseille were pipped to the title by champions Lille.
Midfield - Yaya Toure (Manchester City/Ivory Coast):
Kolo's younger brother arrived at Man City for big money and, it emerged, with an enormous wage packet. For a while, fans were wondering what all the fuss was about but as the season progressed, the Ivorian became ever more influential. Seen by many as a holding midfielder before he arrived, Yaya has impressed with not just his tackling and positional sense but also his box-to-box runs, eye for a pass and hidden-away finishing skills. With a different role, he scored more goals in a season with City than he did throughout his Barca career - with the most important saved for the FA Cup. Not content with seeing off treble-chasing United in the semi, he fired home a sweet match-winner against Stoke in the final. Despite his salary, I can't imagine his employers are complaining.
Midfield - Seydou Keita (Barcelona/Mali):
He may not be an automatic starter but Keita is the man Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola regularly turns to whenever Xavi or Andres Iniesta are out of action or when he needs to shore up a game late on. Although 19 of his 33 league appearances came off the bench, the versatile Malian is still a sub for a club side many respected critics are calling the greatest in history - and so to fit in seamlessly is testament to his talents. Despite lacking wow factor, Keita is an utterly reliable performer at Barcelona. Respected within the dressing room, the man who scored the goal that secured Barca's title won a second Champions League winners' medal last Saturday. Why on earth isn't he in Mali's squad?
Midfield/Striker - Gervinho (Lille/Ivory Coast):
A man with arguably the worst hairstyle in football (which would be some feat admittedly), the creative Gervinho has been key to Lille's surprise championship - their first since 1954. Having struggled to impose his undoubted creativity in years gone by, the 23-year-old has become more consistent this year - netting 15 goals and making 9 others. Often accused of individuality in the past, the Ivorian has become a very important piece to the Lille puzzle, alongside Yohann Cabaye, Eden Hazard and Moussa Sow. With great feet and a terrific workrate, a player long tipped for the top has started to back up the claims.
Striker - Papiss Demba Cisse (Freiburg/Senegal):
Choosing between Lille's Sow, the top scorer in France with 25 goals, and his Senegalese compatriot Cisse was no easy task. For Sow's goals lifted Lille to an historic league and cup double. However, I've opted for Cisse with the reasoning that it's easier to score lots of goals in a championship-winning side than it is for one used to battling relegation. This season, Freiburg achieved only their third top-half finish in Bundesliga history - and they surely wouldn't have achieved that without Cisse's 22 goals. He scored over half his side's league tally, which is why he has inched his way past Sow into this XI.
Striker - Samuel Eto'o (Inter Milan/Cameroon):
Doing it season upon season doesn't make Eto'o's goalscoring feats any less impressive. After being played out of position in his first season, he has been a more central figure this campaign - and responded by becoming the first African, by my reckoning, to ever score 20 league goals in an Italian season. How they helped in an Inter side shorn of last year's performances and consistency. Nonetheless, both Inter and Eto'o finished the season on a high, as his double helped win the Coppa Italia as the nerazzurri beat Palermo 3-1. A class apart, the Cameroonian is surely Africa's greatest ever footballer.
Subs: Moussa Sow (Lille/Senegal), Osaze Odemwingie (West Brom/Nigeria), Kevin-Prince Boateng (AC Milan/Ghana), Kwadwo Asamoah (Udinese/Ghana), Asamoah Gyan (Sunderland/Ghana).