In Focus: Palace star Kouyate set for crowning glory at AFCON
Senegal are through to the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals — and Cheikhou Kouyate has played a major role in taking them there.
The Crystal Palace midfielder got on the scoresheet against Equatorial Guinea in the previous round and has been key to Senegal’s robust defensive record in Cameroon.
Patrick Vieira’s Eagles have missed the 32-year-old’s rock-solid presence while he has been away on international duty too.
So, as the Lions of Teranga gear up for this evening’s showdown with Burkina Faso, we take a look at Kouyate’s enduring importance for club and country.
Looking to make history
Should Senegal reach the Africa Cup of Nations final, it will be their second in succession — and their third overall — but they have never won the tournament.
It has been so far, so good this time around though, with Aliou Cisse’s side conceding only one goal in five matches — against Equatorial Guinea in their 3-1 quarter-final triumph.
Suspension meant that Kouyate missed Senegal’s 2-0 last-16 victory over Cape Verde, but he expertly anchored and bossed the midfield throughout the group stage to help them make the knockout rounds.
Conspicuous by his absence
Since signing from West Ham in August 2018, Kouyate has missed only 17 out of 136 games for Palace — with several of those due to Africa Cup of Nations involvement, this year and in 2019.
Rarely injured, it is unusual for the Eagles, who welcome Hartlepool in the FA Cup on Saturday, to be without their chief ball-winner in the middle of the park.
When he is unavailable though, Palace tend to suffer.
And the contrast has been particularly stark so far this season, with Vieira’s team picking up twice as many points per game with Kouyate (1.2) as without him (0.6) — and averaging 1.4 goals conceded per game, compared with two.
Getting in the way
Kouyate has only ever scored two goals in over 100 appearances for the South London side in all competitions — he very much comes into his own off the ball and in a defensive capacity.
He is the main man in terms of cutting off the supply from the opposition, averaging a team-high 1.91 interceptions per 90 minutes this season.
Of midfielders to have played 900 minutes or more across the Premier League as a whole this campaign, only three have averaged more interceptions per 90.
In addition, Kouyate has a tackle success rate of 80.56% — by far the most of any Premier League midfielder to attempt 20 tackles or more — underlining his status as a determined enforcer in central areas.
A great character
As well as his on-field exploits, Kouyate appears to bring plenty of positivity to the Palace dressing room.
Team-mate Jairo Riedewald discussed the veteran star’s character back in October.
He said: "I think he is the funniest, definitely. The way he comes in every morning, he’s just happy, a good energy, positive, laughing.
"His comments — the way he comments when someone says something. I don’t think he realises he’s funny, but in my eyes he’s funny."
Looking to the future
Kouyate seems to keep himself in excellent shape — he may have turned 32 at the end of last year, but you would not know it.
His contract runs out this summer, but given how vital the Dakar native is to Palace and his fantastic form of late, they would be unwise not to offer him a new deal.
Combative Kouyate is showing no sign of slowing down and he could help the Eagles soar for a few more years yet.