Jonah Freedman
Thursday January 7th, 2010

The greatest tournament you won't be able to see kicks off Sunday: the African Cup of Nations. You won't get an exclusive peek at Africa's World Cup-bound power trio, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Ghana. You won't get an advance scouting report on Algeria, the U.S.' final group-stage opponent in June. That is, unless you're a Dish Network subscriber and have the French-language package. Or, you're willing to pay for a Web feed. Better yet, you're a resourceful pirate-feed finder. (There's some good info on how to find all of the above here.)

In any case, European club teams hate the Cup of Nations, and for good reason: Some of their best players disappear for two-plus weeks to represent their countries while the club calendar soldiers on. "I don't know why FIFA allow[s] this," says Avram Grant, whose debt-ridden and relegation-endangered Portsmouth squad loses four players this month. "The players go two weeks before and need one or two weeks afterwards to recover."

Obviously, Pompey's in no danger of cracking our Rankings. But some of the best clubs in the world are about to get hit hard while the drama unfolds in Angola. Much as we did two years ago, we'll assess which teams will be affected most by extended absences of key players.

Note: All rankings, records and statistics are through Jan. 6.

World Soccer Power Rankings
1FC Barcelona
Previously: 1
FC Barcelona
Who's missing: Yaya Touré (Ivory Coast), Seydou Keita (Mali).
Impact: Somewhat significant. Touré has been more of a crucial cog, but the absences of both will be felt. Manager Pep Guardiola, however, has ruled out signing new players during the transfer window to fill the void (such as Sporting's Miguel Veloso) and will instead rely on his squad's depth and youth reserves. That could be tricky -- Barça hasn't exactly opened up 2010 on the right foot, failing to win both its matches.
Previously: 2
Who's missing: Michael Essien (Ghana), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou (both Ivory Coast).
Impact: Enormous. The very same quartet took off in '08 for this tournament, and it stretched Chelsea's depth -- even though, ironically, the Blues didn't lose a single game out of the six they played without its impact Africans. Of course, the team weasn't holding on to a precarious English Premier League lead then, either. Drogba in particular seems to be feeling the ugly tug-of-war between club and country, and on Wednesday emotionally declared this would be his final Cup of Nations.
3Inter Milan
Previously: 5
Inter Milan
Who's missing: Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon).
Impact: Moderate. Eto'o has been red-hot lately, but Inter has been getting goals from other sources, too. Diego Milito is more than capable of filling the Cameroonian's boots, and the club just bought Macedonian lightning rod Goran Pandev from Lazio as extra cover. Now, if Ghana hadn't overlooked Sulley Muntari for disciplinary reasons, and somehow convinced Mario Balotelli to declare for the country of his parents' birth instead of Italy, then José Mourinho might have had a problem.
4Real Madrid
Previously: 4
Real Madrid
Who's missing: Mahamadou Diarra (Mali).
Impact: Little. Amazing that Diarra, who was once a crucial player for Real, has fallen so far off the depth chart that his absence will be barely noticed. He tore up his knee a little more than a year ago and lost his holding midfielder spot to his namesake, Lassana Diarra (no relation). This season, he has played such scant minutes that there's talk of the Malian being the next to exit the Bernabéu. Consider the Cup of Nations a big audition for the big man's next move.
5Girondins de Bordeaux
Previously: 6
Girondins de Bordeaux
Who's missing: Abdou Traoré (Mali)
Impact: Little to none. Bordeaux lucked out. Traoré (who turns 22 during the Cup of Nations) is too young to figure into the lineup on a regular basis, and Morocco's failure to qualify means superstar-in-the-making Marouane Chamakh is staying put. That's a big boost for Bordeaux's nine-point lead in Ligue 1. Meanwhile, the club's closest pursuers -- Lille, Montpellier, Marseille and Auxerre -- will go through absentee hell as their African-heavy rosters are cherry-picked like crazy.
Previously: 8
Who's missing: Emmanuel Eboué (Ivory Coast), Alexandre Song (Cameroon).
Impact: Somewhat significant. Arsène Wenger has been flipping his lineup all season to deal with injuries, so the duo's absence shouldn't be that tough to deal with. Denílson or Abou Diaby can fill in reasonably well for Song at holding mid. Eboué has been on the right wing of late, and there's depth there, too -- Samir Nasri, Theo Walcott and even Tomas Rosicky all are finally healthy and can rotate in.
7AC Milan
Previously: 7
AC Milan
Who's missing: Dominic Adiyiah (Ghana).
Impact: None. Adiyah is a talent, for sure -- he was the Black Stars' breakout sensation in their U-20 World Cup victory last fall, as well as the tournament's leading scorer. But he's just 20 and has yet to see first-team action. Conversely, Milan's four Africans out on loan -- Gabonese brothers Pierre-Emerick and Willy Aubameyang and Nigerians Wilfred Osuji and Kingsley Umunegbu -- may get some valuable experience in Angola.
8Manchester United
Previously: 3
Manchester United
Who's missing: No one.
Impact: N/A for Man. United, huge for its foes. That FA Cup upset by Leeds United hurts -- and is the reason for the fall here -- but with no absences, this is United's big chance to blaze ahead in league and in the Carling Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson's men trail weakened Chelsea by just two points in the EPL and have matches up ahead against bottom-feeding Burnley and Hull City. United also has a Cup of Nations edge heading into the rescheduled Carling semis -- crosstown rival Manchester City will be missing Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré over both legs.
9PSV Eindhoven
Previously: --
PSV Eindhoven
Who's missing: No one.
Impact: N/A. Say what you want about their opponents. Philips Electronics' finest move onto the Rankings almost by default -- Fred Rutten has guided them to an undefeated start through 29 games in all competitions, including the Dutch league, Dutch Cup and Europa League. Yet they still trail Twente by two points in league play -- but Steve McClaren's side loses two regulars to the Cup of Nations while PSV sits tight. Now is when it can make its run toward a 22nd Eredivisie title.
10Estudiantes de La Plata
Previously: --
Estudiantes de La Plata
Who's missing: No one.
Impact: N/A. Las Picharratas are back here more as a delayed shout-out for their heroic performance in last month's Club World Cup final, barely falling to Barcelona. They're also here because they made the most significant non-move of the offseason: retaining captain Juan Sebastián Verón, who rejected an offer from Man. City and told off former club Lazio. With its squad intact, Estudiantes will be a serious threat to win both the Argentine Clausura and defend their Copa Libertadores crown.
Honorable mentions: FC Twente, Bayern Munich, Flamengo, Banfield, SL Benfica, Lille, Panathinaikos, Sevilla
Dropped off: Sevilla, Flamengo

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