Headache gets worse for English clubs


African Nations Cup: Chelsea's request for Michael Essien to commute by private jet has been rejected; Yakubu Aiyegbeni would rather stay on Teesside than play for Nigeria; Mido could lose out on a long-term contract at Tottenham if he returns injured; and now Joseph Yobo has admitted he is too preoccupied with helping Everton to think about representing Nigeria. There appears to be no end to the problems created by the African Nations Cup.

Yobo, still reeling from Everton's defeat to Liverpool, claims his priority is on Merseyside and not in Nigeria at the moment.

"With the way things are going for us, I'm not looking at the national team," said the central defender. "Each time we lose like this, it is very depressing and makes it even harder for me to think about going away. I am committed to my club and obviously I don't want to leave until I feel better. I will only go to the African Nations Cup when I have to."

He is one of 24 Africans expected to swap the English Premiership for Egypt next month. Only six top-flight clubs will not be affected by the tournament, which gets under way on January 20th. Bolton will suffer more than most, with Jay-Jay Okocha, Abdoulaye Faye, El Hadji Diouf and Radhi Jaidi missing up to six matches.

Chelsea's squad will also be depleted, though the champions have the resources, unlike Bolton, to cope with the absence of players such as Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Geremi.

Indeed, Sam Allardyce, who believes there should be a two-week winter break to relieve the pressure caused by the tournament, envisages he will have to use academy players in late January and early February if his squad is stretched by injuries and suspensions.

"Before, when not so many clubs had as many African players, it was not as big a problem," the Bolton manager said yesterday, "but everywhere in the Premiership now there is an African Nations Cup player leaving the club and going somewhere else.

"We have got five, reduced to four because one has not been selected. It has a devastating effect on the club because it doesn't leave me with enough players to cope.

"It devalues what we can achieve and it devalues your own league, really, because it means that somebody who's in danger of getting relegated can get three points easier against us than somebody else who could get relegated.

"Does that become a major issue? Does it mean that we lose three points that stops us qualifying for the Uefa Cup or the Champions League? If that is the case, you are absolutely devastated by it."

There is similar unrest elsewhere, with many clubs challenging Fifa's regulations that require players to be released two weeks before the tournament. Chelsea have yet to reach a compromise with Ghana over Essien, who will not be allowed to travel back in between matches as the champions had hoped, though Tottenham's negotiations with the Egyptian Football Association over Mido's return to his homeland have paid off.

Yesterday Spurs announced that the striker will be available for the Liverpool match on January 14th, after appearing in Egypt's friendly against Nigeria. Manager Martin Jol has, however, warned Mido that there is "no chance" of him completing his move from Roma if he returns from Egypt injured or out of form.

Other clubs fear the absence of key players will imperil their Premiership status. West Bromwich Albion must make do without their top scorer, Nwankwo Kanu, and Portsmouth have become reliant on Lomana LuaLua's talismanic qualities. Both will be expected to play a crucial role in staving off the threat of relegation when they return.

There is, of course, a simple solution to this problem: avoid buying African players in the first place. Allardyce, though, points to the "fantastic value" they represent as a reason for his forays into the transfer market, before adding that a winter break, following the example of many other European nations, would solve the many problems posed by the tournament.

"You are just going to finish a period now of four games in eight days," added the Bolton manager. "Immediately after that it's the FA Cup third round, which is always the first Saturday in January. But then you could shut the league up for two weeks. It lets your players have a much needed recuperation period and your African Nations people could go away. Of course, the Premier League will say, 'Where can it fit the fixtures in?' The answer to that is, it is very difficult."

Indeed there is no answer, according to the Premier League's chief spokesman, Dan Johnson. "It's a nice idea, but logistically impossible," he said.

However, Reading defender Ibrahima Sonko has come up with an alternative. The Senegal international, much like Aiyegbeni, has taken the problem out of his manager's hands by rejecting his national team's overtures.

"I felt I owed Reading something," said Sonko. "I want to play in the Premiership with them and we are doing so well. I would have missed five Championship matches if Senegal had gone far in the competition and it was too many."

Allardyce and his Premiership counterparts know the feeling.

Guardian Service