Afcon may tilt English title race

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LONDON The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) may well shape the course of the Premier League football title race as English clubs prepare to lose key players for several weeks at a critical time in the season.

Premier League managers have grumbled about the timing of Africas biennial championship for years, complaining about the fact the tournament deprives them of players just when the fixture list is at its busiest.

But the 2012 tournament, which kicks off in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea on Saturday, could have an even bigger impact in England than normal as clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Newcastle grapple with several absentees.

Nowhere is the Afcon more unpopular than at Eastlands, where City manager Roberto Mancini is glumly resigned to the loss of Ivorian brothers Yaya Toure and Kolo Toure when his team can least afford it.

In many respects the loss of the Toure duo has already been felt by City, who have led the league for much of the season.

Since the players departed to link up with the Ivory Coast squad earlier this month, City have lost key games against Manchester United in the FA Cup and Liverpool in the semi-final first leg match of the League Cup.

More pertinently, City were comfortable 3-0 winners over Liverpool in the League on January 3, with Yaya Toure influential throughout, before losing 1-0 in the League Cup a week later when the midfielder was missing.

I have tried to find another Yaya in my squad, but there isnt another Yaya, said Mancini recently.
He is a very important player. For this reason January is a big month.

If we can stay on the top of the table after January then I think we have a very good chance to win the league.

Citys nearest challengers in the title race, Manchester United and Tottenham, will not be affected by the Afcon.

None of the Africans in Spurs squad, including Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor, represent Afcon qualifiers, while the lone African on Uniteds books, Mame Biram Diouf, has been overlooked by Senegal.

Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas will be hoping Spanish striker Fernando Torres finds his goalscoring boots sooner rather than later as the club bids farewell to Ivory Coast duo Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou.

Chelseas challengers in the race for a top four finish, Arsenal, could also suffer from the absence of the Ivory Coasts Gervinho and, to a lesser extent, Moroccan international Marouane Chamakh.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes the impact of the Afcon will be felt for several weeks after its conclusion.

Newcastle manager Alan Pardew meanwhile is hoping his team can maintain their impressive start to the season which has seen the Magpies climb to sixth place in the absence of star striker Demba Ba and midfielder Cheick Tiote.

Senegal forward Ba netted his 15th goal of the season in the 3-0 victory over Manchester United earlier this month, a game in which Tiote dominated in midfield.