It’s that time again.
The African Cup of Nations is always a brilliant tournament but for the Premier League, it is a dark cloud that hangs over the first four months of the season.
Who’ll be going? Can we stop them? Can we replace them?
No one wants to be heading into the month long period in trouble, but that’s exactly where Sunderland are as three senior players jet off for Gabon.
But what about their relegation rivals? Here’s the comprehensive lowdown on how the tournament will affect the relegation picture.
First things first, just how long will Sunderland’s stars be away for?
The group stages run from the 14th to the 25th of January, Group A’s fixtures coming to a close on the 22nd.
So we can say for certain that Ndong, Kone and Khazri will all be missing for the home tie with Stoke, which coincides with the opening day of the event, and the trip to West Brom a week later.
Whether the trio are available for the game with Spurs on the 31st depends on their progress.
Gabon will be very confident of progressing from their group, drawn with Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau.
If they manage that their quarter-final will be on the 28th January. Lose that and there might be an outside chance that Ndong could be back in time.
The same goes for Wahbi Khazri’s Tunisia, who would play their quarter final that day.
However, the smart money is on Algeria and Senegal beating his side to a spot in the last eight, leaving Khazri with plenty of time to get back.
The bigger question is whether he is still a part of David Moyes’ plans by then.
As for Lamine Kone, he’ll be in quarter final action on the 29th, if the Ivory Coast progress from the group stage.
It’d be one of the biggest shocks in the history of the tournament if they didn’t.
From there, it’s a case of all eyes on February 4th. A relegation battle royale with Crystal Palace, a reunion with big Sam Allardyce.
Sunderland will be desperate to have a full cohort available for the journey south but it all hangs on what happens in those quarter finals, so keep a close eye on those games.
The semi-finals take place on February 1 and 2, the losers playing a third place play-off on the 4th. The final is a day later.
It would be a major surprise if Khazri’s Tunisia make it that far but Gabon, on home soil, with a favourable draw and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leading the line, have an outside chance.
Lamine Kone’s Ivory Coast are likely to be in the action to the very end, but could face a potentially tough tie against Egypt or Ghana in the quarters.
What about Sunderland’s relegation rivals? Will they be hit as hard?
It’s a mixed bag,
Let’s start at the bottom, with currently managerless Hull. Whoever takes that job will be contending with a threadbare squad about to lose two first team regulars.
Dieumerci Mbokani is still yet to score his first goal for the Tigers but is a big presence up front and has played plenty of football this season.
His departure leaves Hull very light up front; Will Keane a long-term absence with an anterior cruciate ligament injury and Abel Hernandez still to make his return from a hernia problem.
A bigger loss will be Ahmed Elmohamady at right-back. Perhaps unsurprisingly given he arrived on Wearside with a reputation as the ‘Egyptian David Beckham’, his time in red and white was fairly under whelming.
But he has been an integral part of Hull’s team ever since his move and is one of the first names on their team sheet.
His obvious understudy, Moses Odubajo, is another out for a prolonged period.
Swansea City are the big winners, with no players heading for Gabon. Without any serious injury concerns, a new manager in town and investment promised from the ownership, it could be a big month for them while Sunderland try and hold it together.
The flip side? They face Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man City before the final. Middlesbrough also have no players going, with Adama Traore not committing to play for Mali.
There is plenty of comfort Sunderland can take, however. Starting with Crystal Palace.
They lose Bakary Sako, who will take Traore’s place on the Mali wing, although he is heavily tipped to sign for Birmingham or Derby in the coming days.
The hammer blow for the Eagles is losing Wilfried Zaha, the shining light of their season so far.
His spectacular volley almost rescued a point from a wretched display against Swansea on Tuesday night, and they will fear his decision to pledge allegiance to the Ivory Coast could cause his club major short-term damage.
Most Sunderland fans will fully expect Big Sam to save the day but if the Elephants progress deep into the competition, Zaha’s absence could be pivotal for that Selhurst Park showdown in early February.
Leicester have eased their relegation fears a touch in recent weeks but are still only two wins ahead of Sunderland and will lose the inspirational Riyad Mahrez, talismanic even if his form has dipped slightly this season.
Islam Slimani has saved them at times this season, and he joins Mahrez in the Algeria squad.
Second favourite with many bookies, they should go deep into the tournament and the Foxes will miss them greatly.
Daniel Amartey also heads out with Ghana, having been a key part of their midfield this season.
West Ham lose Andre Ayew, Sofiane Feghouli and Cheikhou Kouyate while Nordin Amrabat, Adlene Guedioura and Brice Dja Djedje.
So Sunderland are far from alone in seeing their squad considerably weakened.
What about the teams Sunderland come up against during the tournament? Will they be weakened?
The big game is of course the aforementioned Palace clash, but elsewhere Sunderland’s opponents are likely to be virtually full strength despite the tournament.
First up is Stoke City, who will have three players missing. Wilfried Bony and Mame Biram Diouf weaken the striking department, while Ramadan Sobhi leaves them one winger down.
Yet all three have struggled to nail down a place in recent weeks, with Mark Hughes favouring Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters in the advanced positions.
Crouch has two goals in two games now, while Walters scored a powerful header in defeat at Anfield.
Neither West Brom nor Tottenham, the following two opponents, will be missing any players so Sunderland will be hoping some of their current injury problems clear up before then.
So are Sunderland the biggest losers?
Ultimately they probably aren’t. Lamine Kone’s dip in form means he is not as crucial as he once was and so the Black Cats aren’t losing a central part of their team, as Leicester are with Mahrez or Palace with Zaha.
Of course, the way Sunderland folded at Burnley shows he would still walk into the team, but the biggest issue will be the nine players in the physio room.
Getting those back quickly is what will truly define this latest relegation fight.