Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
HE only lasted three games and probably only turned on the style in one match, but Zimbabwe international forward Khama Billiat appears to have left a lasting impression at the 2017 Nations Cup finals, with the Mamelodi Sundowns’ star continuing to receive rave reviews.
The 26-year-old was the star performer for the Warriors when they came within eight minutes of staging the first biggest upset of the 2017 AFCON finals by beating Algeria in the opening match of Group B in the Gabonese city of Franceville.
Billiat had a booming volley, which would have been a contender for one of the Goals of the Tournament, touched to the post by the Algerian ‘keeper in the first half of that match.
Then, in the second half of the battle, Billiat went on a mazy run, taking on three Algerian defenders with both pace and artistry before creating a pocket of space for himself only for the ‘keeper, not for the first time that evening, to produce a wonder save.
Although the Senegalese and Tunisian coaches appeared to have found a way to deal with Billiat’s threat by either double or triple marking him and thereby cutting the space where he thrives, the Zimbabwean still was heavily involved in the Warriors’ second goal against the Carthage Eagles in Libreville.
After escaping his markers, Billiat drove into the heat of the Tunisian defence and threaded a pass to Knowledge Musona, with the ball then being pushed into the path of Tendai Ndoro, who struck with aplomb.
Sadly, the Warriors were beaten 2-4 in that match and crashed out of the tournament at the group stage.
But after the completion of the group matches, the online version of authoritative British daily newspaper, Daily Mail, picked the seven stars who impressed in Gabon who could move to England.
Billiat is only one of the two players picked from countries that failed to make it to the quarter-finals, with exciting Gabonese forward Dennis Bouanga being the other.
“The Africa Cup of Nations always offers a chance for some of the continent’s lesser-known players to shine,” Mailonline noted in their AFCON group report.
“Two years ago Eric Bailly, now of Manchester United, and Didier N’Dong, Sunderland’s record signing, both emerged as stars before going on to move to the Premier League.
“Sportsmail’s Jonny Singer has been in Gabon casting his eye over the action during the group stages and has picked out seven players who could earn Premier League moves . . .
1. KHAMA BILLIAT – ZIMBABWE
“Where is he now? The 26-year-old forward plays in South Africa with Mamelodi Sundowns, who he helped win the African Champions League season.
“What does he bring? Pace, silky skills, and terrific footwork. While Zimbabwe may have gone out in the group stage, Billiat was one of their stars of the tournament, particularly impressive against Algeria, where he proved himself against defenders used to playing at the top level in European football.
“Can he improve?
“At 26, Billiat is probably too old to be signed as one for the future. He is fairly lightweight and would probably take time to adapt to the English game. That said, his ability to cope with some dreadful pitches in Gabon and still trick his way past opponents suggests he is more than capable of adapting quickly.
“Who would he suit?
“Probably not a top Premier League side, but a mid-table club looking for a versatile goal-threat could consider Billiat to be worth a try. There is reported interest from clubs in the French and Belgian top flights, but don’t rule out a move to England down the line.”
Mailonline also picked six other players.
“Denis Bouanga (Gabon). Currently playing in France with Ligue 2 side Tours, where he has been a regular starter this season, scoring five times from the wing.
“Bouanga was the shining light as hosts Gabon endured a dreadful tournament, outshining his more illustrious captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His movement is intelligent, his eye for goal sharp, and he twice laid on brilliant chances for Aubameyang — had the Borussia Dortmund forward converted both of them, Gabon would be in the quarter-finals.
“The winger is only 22 and is relatively inexperienced, with a handful of Ligue 1 appearances for Lorient before dropping down a division with Tours. His first international cap also only came in the first game of this tournament. But he showed here that there is more than enough to work with for a bigger team.
“At the moment, perhaps his best bet is to remain in France and develop, but he is one for Premier League clubs to keep an eye on. If he isn’t ready for top flight football quite yet, he showed in Gabon that he can’t be far away.”
Christian Bassogog of Cameroon also received their seal of approval.
“After beginning his overseas career in America, Bassogog moved to Denmark in the summer of 2015, where he currently plays for top-flight club AaB,” Mailonline said.
“A winger who is more than capable of cutting inside or playing as a central forward, Bassogog has been something of a surprise star in a Cameroon side performing beyond expectations. He was named man of the match in their second game, against Guinea-Bissau, and was arguably the Indomitable Lions’ best player in all three group fixtures.
“His performances in Gabon have been superb and he has become a regular starter in Denmark, scoring three times this season, which all suggests he has already taken significant steps since his move. But at 21 he has plenty of time to continue developing.
“Worth a punt for a Premier League club who want a bargain to bolster the squad. Rather like Clinton N’Jie moving to Spurs, these deals don’t always come off, but he seems more robust than N’Jie and has kept his place while the Tottenham flop has not for Cameroon.”
Congolese forward Junior Kabananga has also caught the eye.
“Having spent most of his career in Belgium, Kabananga moved to Kazakh side Astana in 2015 and has improved dramatically since then. A little bit of everything. A willing runner, capable of cutting in from either wing, going down the outside, or playing down the middle, Kabananga has been the star quality in a DR Congo side missing Yannick Bolasie,” Mailonline noted.
“Good in the air and with a powerful physique, he is also a constant goal threat, leading the tournament’s scoring charts with three.
“Kabananga is 27, but seems to just be hitting his stride. He has grown as a player hugely in the last year, so while he may be approaching his ceiling, he is still getting better.
“Any side that play a 4-3-3 could use him cutting in off the wing, while his strong work ethic means he is ideally suited to the Premier League.
“Perhaps West Brom or Crystal Palace, where his physical qualities would be appreciated, would be best.”
Balde Keita, the 21-year-old Senegalese playmaker who destroyed the Warriors, has also been named among the stars who could move to England.
“A star in the making at Lazio, having moved there following time at Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy. A superb dribbler, Balde is quick and dangerous on the wing. More of a provider than an out and out goalscorer, he can be relied upon for assists, and striking fear into the heart of a defence,” Mailonline said.
“He is still a rough diamond, but one that, with a little bit of polishing, could be genuinely world class. He’s already not far off that tag, and he’s only 21.
“He has already been linked with huge clubs. Manchester United, PSG and AC Milan is a decent list to be getting on with, though his style of play and excellent understanding with Sadio Mane, might make Liverpool another reasonable option.”
Ghana’s Thomas Partey and Egyptian defender Ahmed Hegazy were the other stars tipped to make a move to England.
Article Source: The Herald