African football's defining moments of the past season

Ian Darke's best starting 11 players in the Premier League (1:44)

Ian Darke lists his best 11 players at each position in the English Premier League. (1:44)

ESPN reviews African football's defining moments of 2020-21 -- from the sublime to the surreal - during an unforgettable year for continental soccer.

Mahrez vs Paris Saint-Germain

While no one can question Riyad Mahrez's trophy haul since arriving at Manchester City, he still had much to prove when it came to truly shaping the biggest matches for Pep Guardiola's side.

His raw talents are indisputable, and he's certainly decorated some of the Sky Blues' recent glories, but last year's FA Cup semifinal capitulation against Arsenal, and Mahrez's omission against Olympique Lyonnais in the ill-fated Champions League semi counted against him.

Against PSG in the final four this time around, Mahrez emphatically answered any lingering critics to deliver one of the greatest double-headed performances by any African player in the history of the competition.

In the first leg, he netted City's winner in a 2-1 away victory, and then scored both goals in the return match as the Citizens secured progression to the UCL final for the first time in their history.

There can no longer be any doubting that Mahrez is not just a fine player in an excellent squad, but is a key man for a truly outstanding team.

Hakimi's Inter end Series A wait

It had been 11 long years that Internazionale hadn't had their hands on the Serie A title by the time they finally wrapped up the 2021 Scudetto.

Inspired by ambitious recruitment and Antonio Conte's adventurous style, they romped to the title, seeing off a long-standing challenge from AC Milan to end the campaign 12 points clear at the top.

One of their key figures was Achraf Hakimi, who settled readily after arriving in Lombardy on a €40 million deal from Real Madrid in July.

The right sider -- so impressive on loan at Borussia Dortmund -- was influential this term, having a direct hand in 15 goals and representing a key weapon for Inter.

Establishing himself as the best African wing-back in the game, Hakimi was also responsible for some of their key moments of the season.

Notably in 1-0 victories over Cagliari and Hellas Verona during the run-in, when it appeared as though stubborn opposition would not yield, it was Hakimi who made the decisive breakthrough with the winning assists.

Then -- to finally get Inter over the line -- it was the Morocco international who netted the second against Crotone on May 1, giving the Nerazzurri a 2-0 lead, finally putting the match to bed, and ending Juventus' nine-year stranglehold on the gold.


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Nigeria 4-4 Sierra Leone

The most remarkable CAF game of the season came in November, as Nigeria and Sierra Leone played out an astonishing 4-4 draw in Benin City.

Even more eye-opening than the Super Eagles racing into a breathless 4-0 lead inside 29 minutes was their collapse, as the Leone Stars stepped through the gears and increased the pressure.

After clawing one back before half-time, they threw caution to the wind, scoring three in the space of 14 second half minutes to register an unlikely point that kept their qualification hopes alive.

There was some salt in this one as well, with the Leone Stars complaining furiously before the match about their accommodation, lack of sleep, and the hosts' 'error' in hoisting their tricolour flag vertically rather than horizontally before the match.

After the controversial postponement of their final qualifier against Benin, even now, almost two months after the intended end of the qualifying campaign, they are still in the hunt for a first AFCON berth since 1996.

Edouard Mendy's Chelsea arrival

It's been rare indeed that African goalkeepers have impressed in the Premier League, with the likes of Richard Kingson and Carl Ikeme leaving precious little legacy in the top flight.

That's all changed with Mendy, as the Senegal No. 1 arrived at Chelsea and made an instant impact at Stamford Bridge, immediately helping to settle the ship as a replacement for the erratic Kepa Arrizabalaga.

He became the first Chelsea goalkeeper since Petr Cech in 2004 to keep a clean sheet in his first three Blues outings, and by March, held the record for highest percentage of shutouts for any Prem stopper featuring in over 10 matches.

The West African may yet become a European champion this term.

Oshoala becomes Africa's first European women's champion

Four-time African Player of the Year Asisat Oshoala broke new ground for African women earlier this month as part of the Barcelona side that smashed Chelsea in the Women's Champions League final.

The 4-0 victory means Oshoala becomes both the first Nigerian woman and first African woman to conquer Europe.

It was validation for the 26-year-old, who scored in the Final two years ago as Barca were dispatched 4-1 by a rampant Lyon side, and she could have another this time around only for her effort -- which would have been the Spanish giants' fifth -- to be ruled out for offside.

Triumph puts the Super Falcon on course to win yet more individual honours later in the year.

Motsepe arrives to head CAF

A decisive day for African football -- although it remains to be seen if the long-term consequences will be positive or negative -- was March 13, when South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe was elected as the new CAF president.

His arrival brought to an end the troubled reign of his predecessor Ahmad Ahmad, whose time at the helm increasingly lurched from controversy to controversy.

In the light of overwhelming support from FIFA president Gianni Infantino, Motsepe was ushered into the hotseat as his would-be rivals folded in behind him, and with his appointment, so too the wishes of world football's governing body being more closely aligned with those of Africa.

Iheanacho's FA Cup record

Leicester City ultimately missed out on Champions League qualification following another late-season collapse, but it was nonetheless a year to remember for their Nigeria striker.

Iheanacho, who has so consistently flattered to deceive since arriving from Manchester City, finally hit his stride this term and ended the year with a career-high 12 Premier League goals.

He also broke new ground -- both personally and in an African context -- in the FA Cup, where he scored four during the campaign, including a double to eliminate Manchester United, and the semifinal winner to dispatch Southampton.

The highlight, of course, was defeating Chelsea to win the Foxes' first FA Cup, even if the contest did pass Iheanacho by.

Regardless, he will look back fondly on a campaign in which his brace against United both sent the Foxes to their first semi since 1982 and ensured he eclipsed Didier Drogba as the continent's all-time top scorer in the competition.

Since Iheanacho's FA Cup debut, no player has scored more than him in the oldest club tournament still in existence.

International football returns...

Eleven months after international fixtures last took place, the continent's sides finally returned to action in October 2020, albeit still beneath the cloud of COVID-19 restrictions.

For many players in Africa, this international break represented the first time they had returned to any kind of action since the start of the pandemic, with many of Africa's domestic leagues only belatedly returning in 2021.

The FIFA window therefore represented a chance for national sides to reward players who had impressed over the previous 11 months with debut caps, to play friendlies in preparation for the November qualifiers, and for teammates to see each other again after a particularly testing year.

For much of the continent, it was a first genuine step forward to normality returning in African football.

... which leads to COVID controversies

However, despite the enthusiasm that accompanied the return of international football to Africa, it hasn't all been plain-sailing, with coronavirus restrictions and protocols generating some compelling stories of their own.

Gabon's night in the Banjul airport in November was one such instance, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his teammates were forced to spend the night sleeping on the floor of the terminal after being denied entry to Gambia.

The Arsenal striker -- one of the most decorated and well-paid players in the African game -- shared videos of the night and aimed accusations at CAF, while some of the country's delegation blamed Gambia for attempting to destabilise their opponents. Both teams ultimately qualified for Afcon.

There were parallels during the March qualifiers, when Benin refused to take to the field in Sierra Leone after being told by their hosts that several of their key players had tested positive at the last minute and would not be permitted to play.

Unwilling to accept the medical results presented to them, Benin refused to descend from the team bus, despite the barracking of local officials, while the Leone Stars were unwilling to relent on the 'positive' diagnoses.

CAF decided the two sides will contest a would-be playoff for the final AFCON qualifying berth next month.

Trezeguet vs Salah: Aston Villa 7-2 Liverpool

The most astonishing game of the season may have belonged to hat-trick hero Ollie Watkins, but there were mixed fortunes for two Egyptian stars in Trezeguet and Mohamed Salah, who were both exceptional on the day.

Salah -- in a microcosm of much of his season -- maintained his high standards with a brace as Liverpool wilted, while Trezeguet registered an assist in a barely believable triumph that sent shockwaves round the football world.

It was a sensational performance from Villa, a scintillating performance from Salah even though his team shipped seven, and yet again, African players were at the heart of the most outstanding football match of the season.