AFTER a breathless period of fixtures, some English Premier League clubs have been hit with another stumbling block: the mini-exodus of African players.
The bi-annual Africa Cup of Nations, held in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea this year, begins on 21 January and runs through to 12 February. However, teams are allowed to call players into camp 14 days in advance (from 7 January). A sizeable chunk of the top flight season. Half of the Premier League fixtures have been played and squad depth is never more relevant than now.
Competing in a number of games in quick succession on heavy winter-hit pitches is taking its toll on most teams. Injuries are mounting up, which better-equipped clubs can handle, but smaller ones cannot. The Africa Cup of Nations is an interesting spanner in the works that will further deplete some teams more than others.
The star-studded Ivory Coast are among the favourites for the competition. Chelsea duo Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou will both feature, as will Arsenal striker Gervinho. The Gunners will also have to make do without Moroccan striker Marouane Chamakh, although returning hero Thierry Henry should help to lighten Robin van Persie's workload at the Emirates.
Of all the teams with African players, Newcastle and Manchester City will feel the strain the most. City have a large enough squad, but the sheer quality that Yaya Toure brings to the team will be sorely missed. His powerful midfield bursts have been a feature of City's resurgence this year. Manager Roberto Mancini doesn't appear to have faith in Owen Hargreaves and Nigel De Jong does not possess the creativity of Toure.
He and his brother Kolo will miss crucial games against Wigan, Spurs, Everton, Fulham, and Aston Villa.
Alan Pardew's Newcastle are only four points adrift from fourth spot, thanks largely to Demba Ba's outstanding form.
Ba has scored 15 goals his last 15 Premier League appearances, including an acrobatic effort against the reigning champions last week. But the hit-man will represent Senegal at the African tournament, thus depriving the Geordies of their most dangerous weapon. Ba has been the bargain of the season after leaving West Ham on a free transfer - any team would miss a player of that calibre.
Cheik Tiote has also been a major factor in Newcastle's climb up the table, but will vacate a central midfield spot to fulfil international duties for the Ivory Coast. Other players whose departures will give bosses a headache include Mohamed Diame of Wigan, along with QPR duo Adel Taraabt and Armand Traore.
Tottenham could take advantage of the African exodus as they will not lose any players to the tournament - Togo (Adebayor), Cameroon (Assou-Ekotto, Bassong), and South Africa (Pienaar) all failed to qualify.
The wisdom of the tournament's timing must be called into question, with so much on the line for so many clubs - whether it be battling relegation, or fighting for the title. The Premier League is blessed with global talent and the Africans will leave a small, but noticeable hole.