African XI of the season

A selection of Africa's best 11 players in the 2021/22 season, from Europe's top five leagues.

Victor Osimhen

The Champions League Final this weekend will bring the curtain down on the European club season, and what a campaign it has been.

From AC Milan's unlikely title triumph, to Manchester City pipping Liverpool to the post, to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich finishing well out in front in La Liga and the Bundesliga, there was no scarcity of excitement and intrigue.

African stars were, naturally, central to much of the drama, and so here is a selection of 11 standout performers, in a good old-fashioned 4-4-2, from Europe's top five leagues only. (Sorry, Sebastien Haller)

Sevilla’s season ended in disappointment, as a projected title charge fell apart on account of attacking underperformance. At the back though, Julen Lopetegui’s side could count on the heroics of goalkeeper Bono.

The Morocco international was named La Liga’s outstanding African player at the midway point of the season, kept the fourth-most clean sheets in La Liga and excelled as Sevilla secured a top-four finish and a place in the Champions League. He also marshalled the league’s meanest defence, which says something about his leadership qualities.

Rennes came up short in their bid for a Champions League place, but this was ultimately a highly successful season. Captain Traore had a thing or two to do with that.

His calm but firm brand of leadership has made him a huge fan favourite in France. At 30, he is also one of the league’s finest right-backs, with three goals and 10 assists to his name in the just-concluded Ligue 1 season. His performances have attracted interest from abroad, with Borussia Dortmund said to be interested in his services.

Matip has been a rock at the back for Liverpool. The Reds ultimately came up short in their pursuit of the Premier League title, but they pushed Manchester City all the way, conceding only 26 goals and losing just twice.

Key to that was the composure and passing of Matip, who complements Virgil Van Dijk beautifully in the heart of the defence. His ball-carrying and anticipation are particular feathers in the cap for the former Cameroon international, his distribution is not shabby either, and he pitched in with his fair share of towering headers from set-pieces.

The Napoli man just keeps getting better and better. Individually, he was the most dominant centre-back in Italy, and he marshalled the Azzurri defence to the joint-best defensive record in Serie A.

Napoli ultimately could not sustain their challenge, but their falling away was really on account of a paucity of goals. And even on that front, Koulibaly did more than his fair share making runs into the final third to create space and add extra attacking threat. Difficult to believe he is still in Naples at this poitnt in his career.

Hardly an outstanding year for African left-backs, it must be said. Watford’s Hassane Kamara almost made it in on account of half a season at Vicarage Road, but in the end Bensebaini gets the nod for here.

Borussia Monchengladbach had a forgettable season, but Bensebaini was at least a model of consistency. Sometimes a left-back, sometimes stationed at centre-back, the Algerian’s aggression and technical quality shone through just the same.

How cruel it would have been had his penalty miss at West Ham had ultimately doomed Manchester City’s title charge. Thankfully, it did not; it is a lot easier to appreciate Mahrez’s outstanding season in that light.

It has been a slow trek up the mountain for the Algerian at the Etihad, but he finally seems to have earned Pep Guardiola’s trust. It coincided with his best ever season in terms of output in English football: 24 goals in all competitions is a superb return for a player who did not always even start.

Atletico Madrid’s title defence was a deeply disappointing one, but Kondogbia was one of the few bright spots.

The Central African Republic international was a titan in the centre of midfield, winning duels and overpowering opponents with ease, while at the same time distributing the ball with poise and accuracy. While there were doubts over the desire and professionalism of some of his teammates, Kondogbia left no one in doubt as to his hunger or ability.

Fofana was voted the best African player in Ligue 1, which should tell the story quite eloquently. A dynamic, two-way midfielder, Fofana has been a tremendous presence in the Lens midfield.

Ten goals in all competitions, for a box-to-box midfielder, is nothing to sniff at. Add to that the fact he is captain of the side, and that he started every single league match for Franck Haise’s side, and you get a feel for just how crucial he was to their seventh-placed finish.

Often played in a more central role this season, but Mane was as influential as ever when asked to start on the left. The Senegal international shone on the big stage, especially in the latter rounds of the Champions League and the domestic cups.

Manager Jurgen Klopp has already called for Mane to be awarded the Ballon D’Or if Liverpool win the big one in Paris against Real Madrid, and while the instinctive reaction would be to object, it is not an outlandish shout by any stretch.

He has not quite been the same player since Egypt missed out on Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) glory and a place at the World Cup. However, in the first half of the season, Salah was legitimately the best player in the world.

More than simply his goals, he was on point laying them on as well, and looked to be going to a new level in his productivity. His season could get even better still, especially if he is able to find the revenge he so clearly craves against Real Madrid in Paris.

No one scored more headed goals in Serie A than Osimhen, and he was deservedly named the best under-23 player in the league. On his day, the Nigeria international is as unplayable as they come; an absolute nightmare for defenders. His pace, agility and leap exact a huge toll on opponents.

There is still some way to go before he is the finished article, but he certainly is trending upward. Eighteen goals in all competitions is a more than healthy return, and with Lorenzo Inisgne leaving, Napoli is set to be his team now.

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