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The Debate: Who is the Premier League's greatest African player?

Ahead of the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations, we debate the question: who is the Premier League's greatest African player?

From Mohamed Salah to Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure to Sadio Mane, the Premier League has been blessed with a plethora of African players that have showcased their talent on the world's greatest stage.

From the trickery of Jay-Jay Okocha to the brute force of Yakubu Ayegbeni, England's top flight has been able to celebrate a great variety of styles and qualities from the continent.

A number of African player have won collective trophies and individual accolades since the Premier League's inception in 1992, but who is actually the greatest?

We discuss two contenders in the latest edition of The Debate.

Mohamed Salah

At his 90-minute best, Didier Drogba was a one-man wrecking ball who could do everything. He was strong in the air and on the ground, fast, could get past defenders and scored goals from everywhere. If you want someone to score you a goal in a cup final, Drogba’s your man. But can a powerhouse centre-forward who only surpassed 12 goals in two of his nine Premier League seasons really be compared to Mohamed Salah?

Then there was Yaya Toure, an absolute titan of a midfielder. His 20-goal season is often cited as his best campaign as City won the 2013/14 Premier League, but six of those were penalties and a handful more were free-kicks. The following season, Toure experienced a remarkable dip in form as City fell to a rampant Chelsea.

Salah has had no such dips. His ‘off’ seasons still see him score 19 goals while his bar-raising maiden campaign saw him break the record for goals in a 38-game season with 32 and his tally of 31 non-penalty goals that year has never been bettered.

Salah didn’t just blitz the Premier League in his maiden campaign on Merseyside, but Europe, too, scoring 11 goals en route to the Champions League final.

The season after, Liverpool would go one better, lifting a fifth Champions League title with Salah scoring from the spot in the final.

And in Salah’s third season at Anfield, the club ended its 30-year wait for an English league title. Two years after that, 

Despite being an elite winger, Salah has never had blistering pace or eye-watering foot speed, nor is he the most graceful dribbler. But undoubtedly, he is one of the most effective and devastating goalscorers the Premier League has ever seen.

When looking back at Salah’s many, many goals, few are goal-of-the-season contenders; it’s very rare you’d see the Egyptian lash one home from outside the area – making his howitzer against Chelsea all the more spectacular – but you so often see him with defenders giving him less space than he’d find in a telephone box, only to somehow wriggle free and score from impossibly tight angles.

Not just a goalscorer, of course, Salah ranks 17th in Premier League history for assists too (also more than Drogba and Toure), and since taking on a more creative role at Liverpool, Salah has finished first and second in the last two seasons for assists.

For combined goals and assists in the Premier League, Salah has finished three campaigns in first place and has never finished outside of the top three.

With just a handful of Salah’s best seasons, he’d go down as a Premier League great, but he’s currently on six-and-a-half – and still going strong.

Individual awards can be misleading, but Salah’s five Premier League Player of the Month gongs (an award neither Didier Drogba nor Yaya Toure ever won) are richly deserved, as are his two PFA Player of the Year crowns.

Liverpool were offered around £150m for Salah in the summer – a 31-year-old forward whose contract expires in two years – yet the club didn’t think twice about rejecting it; £150m isn’t much good if you lose an irreplaceable player.

It’s the remarkable consistency and productivity that will see him forever remembered as a Premier League legend, and the division’s greatest ever African.

Yaya Toure

What better way to determine the success of a player than to glance at their trophy cabinet?

Three Premier League titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup during a glittering stint at the Etihad.

This followed on from an equally glorious period at the Nou Camp, having departed Barcelona with a Champions League medal and two La Liga titles – even with Pep Guardiola in charge.

But if you delve a little deeper into Yaya Toure’s time in the Premier League, you uncover a powerhouse that transformed Manchester City from ambitious outsiders to serial winners. He was the catalyst for the club’s marvellous success and even if his time in Manchester ended with an acrimonious departure, his contributions will never be forgotten.

In the period between 2010 and 2014 where the club emerged as an increasingly strong domestic force, no player was more influential than Toure.

Unplayable on his day, he was the star of the Premier League, producing vital goals in Man City’s quest for a first league title in 44 years. Everyone remembers Sergio Aguero’s last-minute heroics against QPR but Toure’s brace against Newcastle a week prior was equally as important.

The barn-storming runs through the middle of opposition defences, the overpowering physical strength to impose himself in proceedings. He was a force of nature, capable of grabbing a match by the scruff of its neck and dragging his team to victory.

Whether it was bursting towards the penalty area before producing a composed finish or rifling an unstoppable effort from 25 yards out, Toure had a variety of goals in his locker.

It’s why the Ivorian was able to find the back of the net 20 times in 2013/14, making him only the second midfielder in Premier League history to breach the 20-goal barrier in a single season. Perhaps most impressively, he’d make scoring goals look incredibly easy.

He was a match-winner but there was more to his game than just an influx of goals. A trademark of his was finding the run of Aguero with a clipped pass, millimetre perfect in the path of the Argentine striker.

He could operate from a deeper position and dictate, pulling the strings with his extraordinary vision and precise passing. But in a flash he could have a defender backpedalling in fear as he embarked on a mazing dribble into the opposition half.

Like a puppet master, he would weave his magic through a series of sophisticated touches and genius movement. For someone with a seemingly heavy frame, he could twist, turn and navigate his way out of any situation.

Guardiola may have been critical of his work rate in the latter stages of his career but he was still effective from a defensive perspective. He wouldn’t shirk from a tackle; in fact, he won 75% of his challenges in a Man City shirt. 

Salah is the obvious pick in this debate. His phenomenal consistency has helped return Liverpool to the summit of European football and he is one of the greatest players the Premier League has had the luxury of witnessing.

But as the more complete package, and for his contributions in knocking Manchester United off their perch, Toure just snatches my vote.

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