Ilias Chair – Midfielder, 24, Morocco/Queens Park Rangers
Chair is a lively attacking midfielder with a repertoire of dribbles, drags and rolls. He is the sort of player who is easy to fall in love with.
Chair made his international debut midway through 2021 but has made his case to be a starter with increasing ferocity since then.
His performances during Qatar 2022 qualifying late last year will no doubt stand him in good stead when the starting lineup is selected for AFCON.
Yves Bissouma – Midfielder, 25, Mali/Brighton and Hove Albion
At Brighton, Bissouma is a mobile, energetic screen in front of the defence.
However, for Mali, he plays a more expansive, overtly creative role as a box-to-box midfielder capable of dribbling into advanced areas and shooting powerfully from distance.
The Eagles are another under-the-radar team to whom most should pay attention, and Bissouma is the gleaming gem at the heart of it all.
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa – Midfielder, 26, Cameroon/Napoli
Cameroon keep the ball extremely well and are solid in defence. Both of these functions require the presence and quality of Zambo Anguissa.
The Napoli man, for so long an under-appreciated analytics darling while yo-yoing up and down league divisions in England, has blossomed since joining Serie A side Napoli last summer.
He has also flourished internationally, providing incisive passing, intensity and physicality in midfield.
While Cameroon have a number of options in central midfield, the smooth gliding of Zambo Anguissa is set to stand out.
Musa Barrow – Forward, 23, The Gambia/Bologna
The Gambia are making their first appearance at AFCON and they would want to be just making up the numbers.
Forward Musa Barrow is part of a growing Gambian football diaspora in Italy, and has been in tremendous form throughout the first half of the season.
Barrow can play all across the front three, but what makes the 23-year-old so watchable is his willingness to try the unexpected.
When it comes off, it can be quite spectacular. Considering The Gambia are not favourites to advance from Group F, they will be grateful for any moments of magic they can get from Barrow.
Umar Sadiq – Forward, 24, Nigeria/Almeria
Injuries and withdrawals have conspired to hand Spain-based Umar Sadiq a unique opportunity.
The Almeria man has more than earned it, however. Sadiq has been in good form for Almeria for close to two seasons now as the Andalusian club chase promotion to La Liga.
Watching him play is never dull. A volatile personality, combined with his height and physical build, makes him difficult to predict. It can unsettle defenders but also frustrate fans and teammates.
Mohamed Bayo – Forward, 23, Guinea/Clermont
Newly promoted Clermont are punching above their weight in Ligue 1 and much of that is owed to the form of Bayo, who is already attracting interest from the Premier League.
A powerful centre-forward who excels at link-up play and is a strong finisher, Bayo has also taken to international football quickly.
A striker of his profile, who does more than simply hang on the shoulder of defenders waiting for service, could make a massive difference for Guinea and carry them far in the competition.
Kamaldeen Sulemana – Forward, 19, Ghana/Rennes
Everyone loves a dribbler and Sulemana is one of the more aesthetically pleasing and unpredictable ones out there.
Signed by Rennes last summer from Nordsjaelland, the winger is already showing his worth outwitting defenders in Ligue 1.
He is also a part of Ghana’s shift in emphasis, as the Black Stars are pivoting more towards youth.
If Sulemana can bring his best form to AFCON, it would help coach Milovan Rajevac’s system fit together that much more neatly, and provide Ghana with some much-needed invention in attack.
Manager in the spotlight: Aliou Cisse, 45, Senegal
The former Teranga Lions captain is highly revered back home but has been mandated to win the elusive tournament in Cameroon or face the sack.
Cisse replaced Frenchman Alain Giresse in 2015 and his first AFCON tournament in 2017 ended in a quarterfinal exit.
Despite promising so much at the 2018 World Cup, his side failed to come out of the group.
The following year, he suffered an agonising 1-0 defeat to Djamel Belmadi-led Algeria in the AFCON final.
Having captained his nation as it roared to the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals, Cisse is aware that his COVID and injury-hit squad must go one step better than it did in Egypt, to earn the right to lead the West African nation in March’s 2022 World Cup qualifying playoff.