The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has confirmed that teams will be allowed to make up to five substitutions in games during the Africa Cup of Nations to help combat the impact of COVID-19 related absences.

Rules also state that teams must play if they have at least 11 players available, even if that does not include a recognised goalkeeper, or else will forfeit the game.

The tournament gets underway on Sunday when hosts Cameroon take on Burkina Faso.

A statement on the CAF website outlined the measures, confirming that: "Each team will be permitted to use a maximum of five substitutes.

"To reduce disruption to the match, each team will have a maximum of three opportunities to make substitutions during the game; substitutions may also be made at half-time.

"If both teams make a substitution at the same time, this will count as one of the three opportunities for each team.

"Unused substitutions and opportunities are carried forward into extra time.

"Where extra time is played, teams will each be allowed one additional substitution, and will have one additional substitution opportunity; substitutions may also be made before the start of extra time and at half-time in extra time."

On rules regarding the minimum number of players required, CAF confirmed that any team unable to field 11 players will forfeit the game with a 2-0 defeat.

"If the result of the COVID-19 PCR test of any player is positive, such player will not be authorised to go to the stadium or participate in the applicable match," the statement continued.

"A team will be required to play a match if they have a minimum of 11 players available who have tested negative. In the event of the absence of a goalkeeper, another player from the team must replace the goalkeeper, provided the total number of available players is at least 11.

"A team that does not have a minimum of 11 players available will be considered to have lost the match 0-2.

"In exceptional cases, the Organizing Committee of the Africa Cup of Nations will take the appropriate decision."

After delays, postponements and date changes aplenty, the Africa Cup of Nations will finally start on Sunday, as hosts Cameroon take on Burkina Faso.

Group A will also pit Ethiopia and Cape Verde against each other on the opening day, with both eyeing up the possibility of staking their claim for a qualification spot behind favourites Cameroon.

But, as may have been expected of a tournament that has had more than its fair share of issues in the build-up, another problem has reared its head on the eve of the big kick-off.

Cameroon v Burkina Faso (16:00 GMT)

Burkina Faso are questioning the validity of the COVID-19 testing that was done on their squad, with "four or five" players and head coach Kamou Malo returning positive results.

They claim an unknown medical team turned up at their hotel to test the team and staff, but they refused to take them after the African Football Confederation (CAF) confirmed the people who had showed up were not sent by tournament organisers.

When the CAF delegation did show up, four positive tests came back and one was inconclusive, with Burkina Faso now demanding new swabs be taken.

Captain Bertrand Traore told reporters: "It's a scandal, we cannot be deprived of first-team players 24 hours before the match.

"The authorities must review the organisation. We cannot accept this decision. We can redo tests of our positive players."

Either way, Cameroon know the pressure is on for them to claim a sixth AFCON title, with this their first tournament as hosts in 50 years.

One to watch: Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (Cameroon)

AFCON has never been short of flair players, and in Zambo Anguissa Cameroon have a player really capable of getting fans off their feet. The Napoli man is a fascinating midfielder to watch due to his ability running with the ball. In Serie A this season, his 65.9 per cent dribble success is bettered by only seven midfielders (min. 25 dribble attempts, 500 minutes played), playing an important role in getting the Partenopei out of tight situations and onto the front foot.

 

Ethiopia v Cape Verde (19:00 GMT)

Four of the six teams to finish third in their group will go through to the next stage, so while that takes away some of the jeopardy for the best teams, it also provides more of a chance for those nations who would not otherwise expect to get far.

With Ethiopia and Cape Verde avoiding Cameroon on matchday one, both will fancy their chances of getting off to a positive start – and three points could be all they need to qualify as one of the best third-placed teams.

Cape Verde have been impacted by a COVID-19 outbreak, though, with coach Roberto Lopes among those infected.

Ethiopia are seemingly in better shape, with coach Wubetu Abate keen to show off their gifted young players.

"We respect our opponents, but we are confident in our talent," he said. "Our goal is not to just participate, but to show the world that Ethiopia has young talented players who can surprise."

One to watch: Amanuel Gebremichael (Ethiopia)

Ethiopia lost talisman – and one of just two foreign-based players – Shimelis Bekele to injury, meaning they will need others to step up. Most of the goalscoring burden is on the shoulders of Getaneh Kebede, but Gebremichael has a skillset that should make him a threat, boasting plenty of speed and the ability to get in behind defences.

Sunday finally sees the start of a tournament that has already been rescheduled twice as the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 begins in Cameroon.

Originally scheduled for last year, organisers decided to move the tournament from the original dates of June and July 2021 forward to January and February due to concerns about the "unfavourable climactic conditions" in Cameroon.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic saw the whole thing pushed back by a year, and so here we are. Third time lucky, and with some of the game's biggest stars ready to create more memories as Africa's best tussle it out for the continent's biggest prize.

On the eve of the competition, Stats Perform takes a look at some previous memories and classic moments from Africa Cup of Nations history, with penalty shoot-outs featuring heavily.

An Englishman won an international tournament (no, seriously)

Referee Ali Bin Nasser oversaw one of the most controversial moments in football history as far as England are concerned, missing the relatively clear handball by Diego Maradona as the great Argentine's "Hand of God" helped dump the Three Lions out of the 1986 World Cup.

One particular Englishman may have been more forgiving about Bin Nasser though as the Tunisian official also took charge of that year's Africa Cup of Nations final, which saw Mike Smith's Egypt side lift the trophy. Perhaps Bin Nasser felt England had already won enough that year by the time he got to Mexico City.

The Egyptians had won the first two iterations of the competition in 1957 and 1959, before finishing as runners-up to Ethiopia in 1962.

However, they had not reached another final before hosting the 1986 AFCON, and so there was plenty of pressure on Smith – a former Wales boss – to deliver.

It did not start well as the hosts lost 1-0 to Senegal in Cairo in their opening game, but wins against the Ivory Coast and Mozambique, and then a semi-final victory against Morocco saw Egypt into their first AFCON final in 24 years.

The reportedly 100,000 in attendance will have feared the worst as the game with Cameroon went to penalties following a goalless encounter, especially with an Englishman in charge, but when Andre Kana-Biyik shot wide for the Indomitable Lions, Smith and Egypt had their hands on the trophy and a famous victory.

A penalty shoot-out is a marathon, not a sprint

Many players know what it is like to take a pressure penalty in a shoot-out and score, some know what it is like to do so and miss, but very few have ever done both, especially in the same shoot-out.

The final of the 1992 AFCON between Ghana and the Ivory Coast had not exactly been a classic, and inevitably went to penalties, where finally some drama occurred.

After seven successful penalties, Ghana's Isaac Asare missed, giving Joel Tiehi the chance to win it. He also missed, and when Tony Yeboah just about scored his penalty, it was back level.

That is how it stayed until every single player, including the goalkeepers, had taken one, now level at 10-10. Ivory Coast's Basile Aka Kouame stepped up to take his second penalty, and hit it straight at Ansah, who somehow failed to stop it.

This meant that Ghana's Anthony Baffoe, who had calmly slotted his penalty at the start of the shoot-out, had to do so again. His second effort was saved and the Ivory Coast had won, leaving Baffoe to come to terms with the rare experience of being both a hero and a villain in the same shoot-out.

Bafana Bafana win maiden tournament

South Africa had actually never played in the AFCON until they hosted in 1996, having been disqualified from the first tournament for refusing to field a multiracial team and subsequently banned during apartheid, before failing to qualify in 1994.

However, with Kenya stripped of hosting duties two years later due to financial irregularities, South Africa were given a place in the tournament after agreeing to step in.

One helping hand in their quest to lift the trophy on home soil was a diplomatic row between Nelson Mandela and General Sani Abacha, the military leader of Nigeria. As a result, the defending champions, who would also go on to win Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996, did not compete.

A crowd of 75,000 in Soccer City watched their historic first AFCON appearance, which was a rather surprising 3-0 win over Cameroon. This was followed by a 1-0 win against Angola, which meant that they topped their group despite defeat to Egypt in their next game.

Six months prior, South Africa's rugby union side had lifted the World Cup on home soil, and now Clive Barker's team were also exciting the nation as they booked their place in the final back at Soccer City after wins over Algeria and Ghana.

They faced Tunisia in front of 80,000, who saw two late Mark Williams goals secure a surprisingly routine win to become the continent's champions.

As it turned out, that remains South Africa's one and only AFCON success to date, having not even reached a final since 1998.

Football is best when it means nothing

With the 2010 AFCON just days away, suddenly, the football did not seem so important.

A terrorist attack on the Togo team bus saw the driver, the team's assistant manager and media officer lose their lives, while several others suffered injuries.

The continent and the game was shaken, but the tournament still went ahead as planned, albeit without Togo who understandably withdrew.

The opening game between hosts Angola and Mali began with a moment's silence, before a frenetic 90 minutes that saw Angola throw away a four-goal lead with only 12 minutes remaining.

Flavio scored twice in the first half, and then a Gilberto penalty and another from former Manchester United striker Manucho gave Angola a seemingly comfortable advantage, only for Seydou Keita, Freddie Kanoute, Keita again and finally Mustapha Yattabare to complete a remarkable comeback.

It was galling for the hosts, though they still ultimately topped the group while Mali went out, but provided a welcome distraction from the horrifying events of days prior.

Zambia's greatest night

Nineteen years after the tragic plane crash that took the lives of all 30 passengers, including 18 players and the team coach of the national team, Zambia returned to Gabon to sensationally win the 2012 AFCON.

The team from 1993 had been on their way to a World Cup qualifier, in a reasonable position to qualify, when the old military plane they were on exploded over the Gulf of Guinea shortly after taking off from Libreville, Gabon. It was a devastating disaster that soured relations between Zambia and Gabon for years.

Fast-forward to 2011, and coach Herve Renard, who had been at the helm for the 2010 AFCON where Zambia were eliminated on penalties by Nigeria at the quarter-final stage, was brought back for another go ahead of the 2012 competition, which was to be held jointly by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

After winning the group, Zambia came through the quarter-final against Sudan with a routine 3-0 win, only for Ghana to await in the semi-final, who had captured the hearts of the world in their journey at the first ever World Cup held in Africa in 2010.

An Emmanuel Mayuka goal with 12 minutes remaining was enough to see them cause somewhat of an upset and advance to the final against arguably the strongest African side at the time, the Ivory Coast, in Libreville, just a few miles from the 1993 crash site.

Ahead of the game, the squad visited a beach nearby and sent an array of flowers floating out to sea.

The opponents' line-up included Premier League stars Salomon Kalou, Kolo and Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora and Didier Drogba, but a spirited young Zambia side matched them, taking them all the way to penalties after a goalless 120 minutes of football.

After seven successful penalties each, Zambia looked to have been handed their moment when Kolo Toure had his effort saved, only for Rainford Kalaba to shoot over.

However, when Gervinho did the same, it came down to Stoppila Sunzu, who smashed the ball into the net to win the trophy for his nation and seal a fitting tribute to those who were lost almost two decades earlier.

Premier League managers are already feeling the strain amid cascading numbers of COVID-19 cases and mid-season injuries. Now many top bosses stand to lose stars to the Africa Cup of Nations.

Africa's greatest football show – now commonly known as AFCON – gets under way on Sunday in Cameroon.

Although the 2019 edition was held in June and July, it has historically been a January-into-February tournament and has returned to that place on the calendar.

A host of Premier League big names are hoping to make an impact during the four-week tournament, which falls slap-bang in the middle of European club campaigns, causing a major clash of competitions.

Premier League clubs certainly cannot complain of a lack of fair warning. It was June 2020 when African football chiefs decided the 2021 edition of the tournament would have to be pushed back by 12 months to a January 2022 start, in the hope the coronavirus crisis would have eased.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at which teams from the English top flight might feel its impact the most.

Can Reds cling on in title battle?

If Liverpool lose no further ground on leaders Manchester City by the time their stars return from AFCON, then Jurgen Klopp would surely settle for that.

The 2019-20 Premier League champions have taken two points from a possible nine to leave the title as effectively City's to lose, and now Klopp is going to have to get by without Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita.

Egyptian striker Salah is the Premier League's leader in goals (16) and assists (9, level with Trent Alexander Arnold) so far this season. He has taken 80 shots in 20 games (38 of these have hit the target), played 12 throughballs and created 40 chances from open play: in each of those categories he is at the top of the Premier League charts for players defined by Opta as forwards.

How do you cope without such a contribution? Having Mane on hand would help, but Mane will be turning out for Senegal, a team who, like Salah's Egypt, are firmly in the mix as serious trophy contenders. Don't expect either back at the end of the group stage.

Mane has eight Premier League goals this term, including the opener at Chelsea recently. That goal return puts Mane joint-second among African scorers in the Premier League this season, level with Watford's Emmanuel Dennis, who is not in Nigeria's squad.

Mane has played 19 throughballs and has made 23 tackles to boot, which is the seventh highest number of tackles by a forward in the league this season, a rarely mentioned attribute of his game. He does not always tackle with his elbow, either.

Keita will presumably be less of a miss, with the Guinean's Anfield contribution remaining underwhelming, but Liverpool have been so hard hit by absentees recently that to lose anybody for up to five weeks is an inconvenience.

They are at least assured of Joel Matip's presence this month. The centre-back last played for Cameroon in 2015 and has retired from international duty. That is bad news for the AFCON hosts but helps Liverpool, given Matip remains a sturdy presence, with a duel success of 69.47 per cent this season ranking him third among Premier League defenders with 10 or more appearances, and a passing accuracy of 88.89 per cent putting him eighth in that metric.

Liverpool only have two league games inked in between now and the end of AFCON, against Brentford and Crystal Palace, but the Reds also have two postponed fixtures to be slipped in somewhere along the line.

Wintertime Blues?

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City hold a 10-point lead over second-placed Chelsea, with Liverpool a point further back but possessing a game in hand on the top two. Reigning champions City have won 11 straight Premier League games and the Citizens have the resources to be able to cope with the short-term loss of Riyad Mahrez, who will captain Algeria.

Mahrez's six goals and four assists this season have come at a startling rate. Given the depth in City's squad, he does not always start, so to appreciate his contribution it is worth looking at his numbers per 90 minutes on the pitch.

The former Leicester City forward is averaging 0.64 goals and 0.43 assists per 90 minutes – impressively close to Salah's return of 0.81 and 0.45 in those categories – and is one of only four Premier League players with 10 or more appearances to average at least 1.00 goal involvements per 90 (Michael Olise 1.43, Salah 1.26, Roberto Firmino 1.24, Mahrez 1.07).

The Blues of Chelsea may have concerns over the absence of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, given the Senegalese's stabilising influence at the back. His save percentage of 77.14 has only been beaten this season in the league by Wolves' Jose Sa (80.82) and Arsenal's Aaron Ramsdale (77.46).

Spaniard Kepa Arrizabalaga struggled in the early stages of his Chelsea career and is now the undoubted understudy.

Yet Kepa's form when given an opportunity this season has not given such cause for concern. The former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper has been chiefly used in cup action, and he has achieved a remarkable save percentage of 81.48, suggesting that for a short run of games, he could be a perfectly able deputy.

Can an exodus to Africa affect the race for Europe?

Will fourth-placed Arsenal miss Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? It seems unlikely now, given he was dropped and stripped of the captaincy after a disciplinary breach before heading off to join Gabon. He has not played for a month. The Gunners won five games in a row without him, including four in the league, before being unlucky to lose to Manchester City.

Cold facts tell us Arsenal have a points average of 1.9 per Premier League game when Aubameyang has started games this season, and 1.5 when he has been either a substitute or out of the team, but those figures may not be significant given the momentum Mikel Arteta's players have built in the recent absence of the 32-year-old. His continuing exile from the first team seems unlikely to cause much consternation.

For manager Arteta to lose Thomas Partey (Ghana) at this point is a blow though, with the former Atletico Madrid player having been excellent in the 2-1 defeat to City, having been slowly building up to such a performance. He had more touches, won more duels, made more tackles and played more successful passes than any other Arsenal player.

Arsenal have a big derby at Tottenham coming up on January 16, and they might feel Partey's absence that day, particularly given Spurs, who currently sit sixth, are sending no current first-teamers away to AFCON.

Splitting the north London rivals for now are West Ham, in fifth, and it will surely have hurt David Moyes to wave off Said Benrahma for a month of Algeria duty. The playmaker has five goals and four assists in the league this season, as well as making 83 ball recoveries and creating 21 chances in open play. That makes him one of only 13 players in the competition to top both 80 recoveries and 20 open-play chances created, and one of only five Premier League stars to tick both boxes and score at least five times. Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha, away with Ivory Coast, is another member of that small group.

Seventh-placed Manchester United will lose Eric Bailly to Ivory Coast too. But with Phil Jones back in the first team, will Bailly be missed? The former Villarreal centre-back has played just 217 minutes in the Premier League this season. United youth prospect Hannibal Mejbri is also away, in his case with Tunisia.

Further into mid-table, Wolves must find an alternative to the excellent Romain Saiss (tackle success rate 72.73 per cent) on the left side of their defence, after he joined up with Morocco. Brighton and Hove Albion powerhouse Yves Bissouma has the highest tackle success rate among midfielders to have made more than 40 such challenges in the Premier League this season (50 attempted, 35 won: 70 per cent hit rate) and he will line up for Mali after ending an international exile.

Leicester City sent away striker Kelechi Iheanacho (2 goals, 4 assists this season) for Nigeria service at a bad time for the Foxes, given injured Jamie Vardy faces several weeks out of action.

Palace are firmly in favour of players heading away to represent their countries, but the Eagles never particularly like to be without Zaha (5 goals, 1 assist, 86 dribbles). Since his return from Manchester United in August 2014, Palace have averaged 1.2 points and a 32.9 per cent win percentage with Zaha in their starting line-up, and 0.9 points and a 24.5 win percentage when he has not been in that matchday XI. The loss of Cheikhou Kouyate (80.56 per cent success rate from 36 tackles) to Senegal duty may also diminish the sturdiness of Patrick Vieira's Eagles spine.

Can Clarets cope without Cornet?

The relegation scrap seems more likely to be affected by transfer market activity than departures to AFCON.

Newcastle United and Norwich City, the league's bottom two, are sending nobody away, while fourth-bottom Watford have kept Dennis (8 goals, 5 assists) and it remains to be seen what happens to Ismaila Sarr (5 goals), who has been absent with injury of late but has headed for checks with Senegal doctors.

Burnley, who sit 18th, are seemingly the team to watch carefully here. Maxwel Cornet, now away with Ivory Coast, has scored six Premier League goals from just 10 shots on target, and Sean Dyche must find a way to make the Clarets impactful without the former Lyon man.

Gabon captain and star player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival at the Africa Cup of Nations.

The Arsenal striker was one of three members of the travelling Gabon party to produce a positive result after the team's flight landed in Yaounde.

It means the Premier League star is set to miss his team's opening Group C game against Comoros on Monday.

The Gabon Football Federation issued a statement on its official Facebook page, with a headline of "Aubameyang, Lemina and Yala positive".

The statement read: "Arriving this morning at Yaounde on a special flight, the Panthers of Gabon submitted, like all delegations, to an antigen COVID-19 test at the Nsimalene airport.

"Captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mario Lemina and assistant coach Anicet Yala have not escaped [COVID-19].

"But as required by the health protocol in this area, they subsequently underwent a PCR test, the results of which will confirm or deny the status of the latter."

Lemina is another key player for Gabon, with the midfielder having played for Juventus, Southampton, Fulham and now Nice.

Aubameyang missed the start of the Premier League season after testing positive for coronavirus.

More recently, his Arsenal future has become clouded by uncertainty after he was stripped of the club captaincy and dropped by manager Mikel Arteta following a disciplinary breach.

Gabon are also due to face Ghana on January 14 and Morocco four days later.

Liverpool are not worried about being without Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita while they are on Africa Cup of Nations duty, according to assistant Pep Lijnders.

The trio all played in Sunday's thrilling 2-2 Premier League draw with Chelsea in their final outing before linking up with their respective national sides.

Mane and Salah were both on target at Stamford Bridge as Liverpool raced into a two-goal lead, while Keita was introduced in the second half after Chelsea had levelled up through Mateo Kovacic and Christian Pulisic.

Key attacking pair Salah and Mane have played in 26 of Liverpool's 29 matches this term – the joint-most of any Reds players, with Jordan Henderson (25) next on the list.

Between them, they have scored 33 of their side's 77 goals in 2021-22, while chipping in with a combined 10 assists.

Liverpool could now potentially be without both players, as well as midfielder Keita, until the second week of February depending on how far their countries advance at the Africa Cup of Nations.

But Lijnders, who filled in for Jurgen Klopp against Chelsea after the German tested positive for coronavirus, is confident others in the squad can now step up.

"You can try to plan it, but you can never prepare it," he said.

"It is not a worry because we have faith in the boys we have and a few boys are coming back as well.

"We know that certain players can play more offensively as well, they have been playing in midfield, but they can play more offensively as well."

Salah and Mane will link up with Egypt and Senegal respectively, while Keita is part of Guinea's squad for the tournament in Cameroon.

Losing three regulars during a hectic period in the season and with others out through coronavirus and injury is not ideal for Liverpool, but Lijnders has wished the trio well.

"I just told the boys that they should try to win the AFCON because it is a prize to catch and the careers are never long and they deserve to fight for each prize," Lijnders said.

"This prize now comes in front of them – it’s a tournament with so much passion, so much culture and it is a really proud situation if you can play for your country.

"If it's England or Germany or Holland or whoever, that's what they have and feel.

"So they are African legends, they are legends for me, but if they win it they will probably be even bigger legends so they should try with all they have to win it."

Roberto Firmino missed the Chelsea game after contracting COVID-19, while Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi are currently nursing injuries.

Asked when those players are expected to return to training, Lijnders said: "Let's see. 

"Some of the boys plan to be back, but they still didn't start team training, so we have to see."

Lijnders confirmed Klopp will still be absent for the first leg of Liverpool's EFL Cup semi-final tie with Arsenal on Thursday as he continues to self-isolate.

Senegal have accused Watford of blocking Ismaila Sarr from linking up with the national team ahead of the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.

Sarr has not played for Watford since November 20 due to a knee ligament injury and is not expected to return to fitness until the end of this month at the earliest.

Despite still being out injured, Senegal named the 23-year-old in their squad for the tournament, which runs from January 9 until February 6.

However, Watford informed Senegal earlier this week that Sarr will not be allowed to travel.

It is the second Africa Cup of Nations row Watford have been embroiled in after Nigeria accused the Premier League side of "baring fangs" after objecting to Emmanuel Dennis being named in the squad.

The Senegalese Football Federation's general secretary Victor Seh Cisse believes the reasons given by Watford for objecting to Sarr's call-up are not justified.

"By mail on Friday, December 31, Watford notified on the basis of arguments equally specious as fallacious its decision to block the player Ismaila Sarr, who has expressed his desire to join the Senegalese selection for the next Cup of Nations in Cameroon," a statement read.

"The Senegal Football Federation wishes to express with this communication its deep condemnation of the disrespectful, pernicious and discriminatory behaviour of Watford's hierarchy who look by all means to prevent a player from playing with his national team."

Clubs have until Monday to release players called up by their national teams for the delayed competition, which has been pushed back by a year due to coronavirus.

Senegal, who finished runners-up to Algeria in 2019, added they will take the matter up with FIFA should it not be resolved. 

Responding to the allegations, Watford released a statement on their official website on Sunday that read: "Ismaila Sarr suffered a knee ligament injury on November 20 in the match against Manchester United and has not been fit to play for Watford FC since that date.

"In early December, the club wrote to the Senegal Football Federation outlining the clinical diagnosis of Ismaila's injury and immediately followed that up by supplying the MRI scans detailing the extent of the injury. 

"After further consultation with medical experts, we informed the federation of Ismaila's rehabilitation process and likely timeframe of recovery.

"Within the past 10 days, the club has reiterated to the Senegal Football Federation the player's current medical status and recovery schedule.

"The Hornets have also invited the Senegal Football Federation to instruct their own independent surgeon to confirm the diagnosis and rehabilitation period."

Claudio Ranieri dismissed claims that Watford have disrespected the African Cup of Nations after Emmanuel Dennis was omitted from the Nigeria squad.

Dennis was added to Nigeria's squad in December after initially being left off a 37-man list submitted by former coach Gernot Rohr for the tournament.

That list, though, changed again on Friday as the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) released a statement confirming Dennis had been excused from participating as his club side Watford are "baring fangs".

Ranieri previously stated on Wednesday that Dennis' late call-up was in the Premier League's hands, but has responded to Nigeria's claims by insisting his side have done no wrong.

Asked whether Watford had disrespected AFCON, Ranieri said: "No. They have a lot of players and they changed the manager.

"We were ready. We know we were ready to give them players, but they didn't do this.

"The two boards spoke and then for me it is okay. I am only the manager, only the coach, and I accept everything. Now I speak with [Dennis], but of course he wanted to go and play. But also he wants to help Watford.

"I accept the decision of the board and the Nigeria team. We respect everybody. I knew they were speaking, the [Watford] board and the Nigeria board. I accept every decision they find. For me, it is finished."

The news of Dennis' omission will please Watford supporters, given the forward has either scored or assisted 59 per cent of Watford's 22 league goals this campaign.

In fact, only Mohamed Salah (24) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals this season than Dennis (13 – eight goals, five assists).

Nigeria will also be without Napoli forward Victor Osimhen who was not named in Augustine Eguavoen's squad.

Osimhen suffered a series of facial injuries following a clash of heads with Inter defender Milan Skriniar before the striker tested positive for COVID-19, which subsequently rules him out of the tournament due to travel complications.

The competition gets underway on January 9, with Nigeria opening their campaign against Salah's Egypt two days later.

Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech has been left out of Morocco's squad for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.

The 28-year-old has not played for his country since a friendly against Burkina Faso in July due to a reported falling out with head coach Vahid Halilhodzic.

Ziyech was not included in Morocco's 25-man group announced on Thursday ahead of the delayed tournament, which is due to run from January 9 until February 6.

That will be considered a boost for Chelsea, who faced being without the former Ajax attacker during a busy period in the season.

The Blues play at least six fixtures in January, including games with Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham.

Ziyech has played 18 times in all competitions this season – the 10th most appearances of any Chelsea player – with 13 of those being starts.

He has been directly involved in seven goals – three goals and four assists – a tally that is bettered by only Jorginho (8), Mason Mount and Reece James (both 11).

Meanwhile, Ziyech's 0.6 big chances created per 90 minutes is the most of any Chelsea player this term, followed by Ruben Loftus-Cheek (0.56) and Ross Barkley (0.45).

Ajax defender Noussair Mazraoui is another notable omission from the Morocco squad, though the likes of Achraf Hakimi and Youssef En-Nesyri have been included – the latter recently turning from a persistent knee injury that has plagued his 2021-22 season.

Morocco, whose only Africa Cup of Nations success came in 1976, are in Group C along with Ghana, Gabon and Comoros. 

Tournament organisers and the Cameroon government on Thursday stated the Africa Cup of Nations "must take place" as they revealed only fans who are fully vaccinated can enter stadiums.

There have been increasing concerns the competition may be called off due to the emergence of the Omicron strain of COVID-19.

The tournament was due to be staged in January and February this year but was postponed due to the pandemic.

Just over three weeks before the opening ceremony at the Complexe Sportif d'Olembe, the government, Confederation of African Football (CAF) and Cameroonian Football Association (FECAFOOT) released a statement vowing that the rearranged AFCON 2021 will go ahead.

The statement said: "In Cameroon, as has been the case elsewhere, effective and reliable measures have been taken as part of a coherent and tried-and-tested approach to counter the pandemic.

"The government has set up a special health protocol to combat COVID-19 that applies to the AFCON.

"In less than 25 days, the best 24 African football teams will participate in the AFCON 2021 and special measures must be taken in connection with this important and prestigious event.

"As is widely known, organised football plays an important role in fostering integration and peace, as well as bringing people together.

"It is also a catalyst of hope, a vehicle for shared values and a conduit for joie de vivre, making it possible to transcend difficulties and see beyond our differences. Therefore, despite the additional challenge posed by the pandemic, the AFCON must take place."

The statement also made clear that supporters will not be allowed into venues unless they are fully vaccinated, while they must also show a negative PCR test result that is no older than 72 hours or a negative antigen test result no older than 24 hours.

CAF will use an independent, internationally recognised laboratory to test players and their delegations.

Organisers of the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations are working "around the clock" to ensure the tournament goes ahead amid suggestions it will be postponed.

There have been reports the finals could be called off due to the emergence of the Omicron strain of COVID-19, first identified in South Africa and now being cited as the reason for a rapid rise in infections in some parts of Europe and Africa.

The tournament was originally set to be played in January and February 2021, but was postponed due to the pandemic.

Veron Mosengo-Omba, the general secretary of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), met with officials from host nation Cameroon on Tuesday to discuss concerns ahead of the tournament's scheduled start on January 9.

CAF said in a statement that "the meeting between CAF and Health Ministry [of Cameroon] ironed out a number of details in relation to the competition" with the continent's footballing governing body and the Cameroon government said to have reached "common ground on the approach to the competition in January".

Mosengo-Omba said: "The meetings were important in getting a level of understanding on the state of readiness in Cameroon. There is a lot of work that is being done.

"We have to continue with the same momentum. We cannot rest. We have to work around the clock. I'm not resting, the LOC [local organising committee] cannot rest. CAF cannot rest. Everyone must join the efforts. We want to see a great Africa Cup of Nations here in Cameroon in January next year.

"Together with the Minister of Sport, we discussed all the pending issues and the way forward.

"There is a lot of progress in most operational matters and there is work that is currently being done day and night by the host nation, Cameroon to ensure that all the facilities for the teams are ready. We know of the massive effort that everyone is putting as part of the final touches on the ground. We see this progress, we acknowledge this progress."

Napoli star Victor Osimhen will miss the Africa Cup of Nations after undergoing surgery on broken bones in his face.

The forward was hurt in a clash of heads with Inter defender Milan Skriniar as the Nerazzurri ended leaders Napoli's unbeaten start to the Serie A season on Sunday.

He was substituted in the 55th minute and taken for tests, which the club later confirmed had revealed "multiple displaced fractures of the left orbit and cheekbone".

Osimhen had an operation on Tuesday that included the fitting of titanium plates and screws.

The club confirmed he will be out of action for three months, meaning he will play no part in Nigeria's AFCON campaign in Cameroon, with the tournament beginning on January 9.

Osimhen is Napoli's leading goalscorer in 2021-22, with five in Serie A and four in the Europa League.

He scored seven times in September alone, a tally matched only by Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema across Europe's top five leagues.

Only Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland was younger than Osimhen, who turns 23 next month, among players in the top five leagues to score 10 or more goals in both 2019-20 and 2020-21.

 

 

Holders Algeria have been grouped alongside two-time winners Ivory Coast following the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations draw ceremony held in Yaounde on Tuesday.

The delayed event, which will be hosted in Cameroon from January 9 to February 6, features 24 teams for the second time with six groups of four.

Algeria, who triumphed in Egypt in 2019, are alongside 1992 and 2015 winners Ivory Coast as well as Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea in Group E.

Hosts Cameroon will open the tournament in Group A, where they were drawn alongside Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Cape Verde.

Record seven-time winners Egypt, who last lifted the title in 2010, are grouped with three-time champions Nigeria, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau in Group D.

Arsenal team-mates Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thomas Partey will face off in Group C with Gabon and Ghana alongside first-timers Comoros and top seeds Morocco.

Debutants Gambia are alongside Tunisia, Mali and Mauritania in Group F, while 2019 runners-up Senegal are in Group B with Zimbabwe, Guinea and Malawi.

Africa Cup of Nations draw:

Group A: Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Cape Verde

Group B: Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Malawi

Group C: Morocco, Ghana, Comoros, Gabon

Group D: Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau

Group E: Algeria, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast

Group F: Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Gambia

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