Achraf Hakimi, Ademola Lookman, Amine Harit, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Christopher Nkunku, Clubs, Dayot Upamecano, German Bundesliga, Joshua Zirkzee, Ramy Bensebaini, RB Leipzig, Salomon Kalou, Story



Europe’s first major league returns to action this weekend, with the Bundesliga set to resume on Saturday after a two-month suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Before football was paused, the German game was in the grip of one of the most fascinating title battles in recent years — six points separated the top four with nine games to go — and several African players will be optimistic that they can bring home the gold.

There’s also continental interest aplenty further down the standings, and Africa’s football-starved fans have ample choices of teams to follow as the live action returns.

The Bundesliga Title Race

The title race in the Bundesliga this term has made for engrossing viewing, with Bayern Munich beginning to pull away from their nearest rivals — Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig — with a strong start to 2020, having endured a muddled opening to the campaign under Niko Kovac.

Dutch-Nigerian wunderkind Joshua Zirkzee has been one of the revelations of the season so far after grabbing his opportunity with both hands at Bayerm.

The 18-year-old scored three goals from three shots in his first 26 minutes of professional action while making his debut — and scoring with his first touch — as Bayern beat SC Freiburg in February.

Standing 6’4, Zirkzee is a hard player to miss, and he’s realising the immense potential he showed as a youngster with Feyenoord, for whom he scored 33 goals in 27 outings for their youth team, prompting interest from the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.

Nigerian football fans tuning into the Bundesliga to get their fix of live action will doubtless be dreaming about seeing the Netherlands Under-19 star represent the Super Eagles before the season is up.

Zirkzee’s meteoric rise for the league leaders has caught the imagination, but Achraf Hakimi has been the outstanding African player in the Bundesliga this term, the Real Madrid loanee continuing to improve notably during his second season at Borussia Dortmund and being named in ESPN’s ‘36 best players aged 21 or under‘ list.

Last term he helped to transform BVB into viable title contenders before injury curtailed his season, and has maintained his excellent form in 2019-20.

Hakimi’s four goals in three UEFA Champions League group stage games highlights the improvement in his attacking output, while his 10 Bundesliga assists — many from rampaging runs down the right flank — make him comfortably the most dangerous defender in the division.

The Morocco international’s sensational form has swelled speculation about his future; will he return to Real, will Dortmund extend his stay, or will the likes of Bayern or Paris Saint-Germain move for his services?

Dortmund’s Revierderby against Schalke 044 on Saturday will be a good chance for Dortmund to close the gap to Bayern to one point before the leaders play Union Berlin on Sunday, although they will be without towering Franco-Ivorian centre-back Dan-Axel Zagadou, who is recovering from a knee injury.

RB Leipzig: A Home For Young African Talent

Like Zagadou, who swapped PSG for the German top flight in order to secure more gametime, RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku is thriving in the Bundesliga, where he’s averaging more chances created per match (2.8) than anyone else in the division.

The former France Under-21 international, who’s eligible for the Democratic Republic of Congo, has held his own in the UEFA Champions League as unpopular Leipzig have reached the quarterfinals, and his creative instincts have been critical to the new boys’ excellent domestic campaign.

You won’t find many better individual efforts this season than Nkunku’s four-assist showing as Schalke 04 were eviscerated 5-0 away in February, a performance that must surely have prompted PSG’s hierarchy to question whether they were right to cash in on the versatile midfielder.

Leipzig, the club who gave the world Naby Keita, have embraced young African talent, and Dayot Upamecano (Guinea-Bissau), Ibrahima Konate and Amadou Haidara (both Mali), and Nordi Mukiele (DRC) have all looked at home in the German top flight this term despite being 22 or younger, prompting interest from overseas.

The only exception is Anglo-Nigerian forward Ademola Lookman, a £22.5 million summer signing from Everton.

Lookman thrived on loan in Germany earlier in his career, after pushing for a move to Leipzig despite then Everton manager Sam Allardyce’s insistence that he’d be better served by a temporary stay in the English Championship.

He returned to Leipzig permanently in July, after failing to break through at Goodison Park, but he has wholly failed to recapture the electric form he enjoyed during his previous stay at the Red Bull Arena.

He’s shown little in his 168 minutes of action this term, but Lookman has the quality to be a difference-maker during the season’s conclusion as Leipzig look to overhaul Bayern’s five-point advantage.

Also still in the reckoning are fallen giants Borussia Monchengladbach, champions five times during the 1970s but without a title since.

They were the league’s early pace-setters, and a comeback victory over Bayern in December prompted optimism that Marco Rose could bring the league back to north-western Germany.

The Foals have won admirers with their free-flowing attacking style, but their success has been underpinned by an immense defensive effort, with Ramy Bensebaini proving to be an astute summer arrival from Stade Rennais.

Bensebaini, an Africa Cup of Nations winner with Algeria last year, started his career as a classy centre-back but he has now established himself as Gladbach’s first-choice left-back, in which position his attacking ambition — and a brace against Bayern — has endeared him to supporters.

Veteran Guinea wideman Ibrahima Traore has made just two appearances for Gladbach so far this term.

The Bundesliga Relegation Battle

Football’s resumption means the threat of relegation again looms large over teams at the foot of the table, and the bottom two will drop into the second tier with the 16th-placed team in a playoff for survival.

Things are looking bleak for SC Paderborn 07, who can call upon the services of Nigeria left-back Jamilu Collins but are six points from safety.

The tough-tackling Collins has been with Paderborn for their climb up the divisions, and he made headlines this term with a delicious long-range effort against Bayern in a 3-2 loss in October.

Paderborn’s best hope of an unlikely escape from relegation had been German-Congolese striker Streli Mamba, who scored five goals this season after working his way up through the lower leagues but is now ruled out with a knee injury.

Steffen Baumgart’s side also boast Christopher Antwi-Adjej, one of five Ghanaian players currently in the relegation dogfight.

Fortuna Dusseldorf have four potential Black Stars, with Nana Ampomah and loanees Kasim Nuhu and Bernard Tekpetey all having been capped at senior level.

Kelvin Ofori, a 2019 arrival from the Right to Dream Academy, has played just 11 minutes this term.

Mainz, another team laden with African talent, sit in 15th place on the ladder, and they will hope that their imaginative recruitment can pull them clear of danger during the coming weeks.

High-profile additions Jean-Philippe Mateta from Lyon and Nigeria’s Taiwo Awoniyi on loan from Liverpool have contributed just two goals this season, and the midfield grit of Cameroon’s Pierre Kune Malong, Congolese Ridle Baku and Austrian-Kenyan fullback Philip Mwene will be much more important to the 05ers as they look to beat the drop.

FC Augsburg, and Nigerian duo Noah Bazee and Felix Uduokhai, are only five points from safety and not out of the woods.

Familiar Faces

Across the rest of the table, there are plenty of prominent African players to guarantee that every one of the weekend’s fixtures will boast at least one star who’s familiar to the continent’s audiences.

Morocco’s Amine Harit, who represented the Atlas Lions at the 2018 World Cup, may be the pick of the bunch, having been directly involved in 10 Bundesliga goals for Schalke 04 this term (four assists).

The Royal Blues are a fearsome prospect when he’s on song, but his inconsistency partly explains why they’re 12 points off the Champions League positions.

Senegal’s Salif Sane, Benjamin Stambouli of Algeria, and Moroccan youngster Nassim Boujellab are also on the club’s books.

Hertha Berlin’s Salomon Kalou is also a familiar face to Premier League fans after his long and successful association with Chelsea, although the Ivorian is coming to the end of his time in the German capital after being encouraged to find new employers.

The Champions League winner is currently suspended by Hertha after posting a video on Facebook in which he broke social distancing rules with his colleagues, threatening the return of the Bundesliga.

Nigeria’s Jordan Torunarigha is another player to watch at the capital club; so, too, his compatriot, Koln fullback Kingsley Ehizibue, who was due to make his Super Eagles debut during the March international break only for COVID-19 to intervene.

Finally, watch out for the goal threat of Anthony Ujah (Nigeria and Union Berlin) and Ishak Belfodil (Algeria and Hoffenheim), when he returns from a knee operation, while the latter’s teammate Diadie Samassekou of Mali, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Burkina Faso centre-back Edmond Tapsoba are two of the division’s brightest prospects.



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