African World Cup Qualifiers: A Group-by-Group Preview
Africa returns to action this weekend as the 40 remaining nations continue on the arduous road to next year’s World Cup. Bleacher Report’s African Expert Ed Dove takes us on a tour of CAF’s weekend of qualifiers, looking at the key dynamics in the upcoming third round of matches.
The recent Cup of Nations demonstrated the quality of sides like Burkina Faso and Nigeria, as well as minnows Ethiopia and Cape Verde, while at the same time raising questions about long-standing giants South Africa, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, as well as Cameroon and Egypt, both of whom failed to qualify. With these nations be able to put recent disappointment behind them to seal progress to the world’s grandest stage?
Only receiving approximately one qualifying place for every 10 nations, compared to one in five in UEFA and one in two in CONMEBOL, competition is as fierce as ever, and a broad spectrum of sides will be battling it out to attain the ultimate prize.
One of the Afcon’s surprise packages were Ethiopia, returning to the competition after a 30-year absence. The central Africans may have been eliminated in the group stage, but they demonstrated attacking flair and possess several talented players, not in the least, Saladin Said, Adane Girma and Addis Hintsa. They currently top Group A, and a win at home to minnows Botswana would put them in pole position to advance from the group.
On paper, South Africa would be expected to advance, but after only managing two draws in their opening two games, Bafana Bafana seriously need to up their game. They face the Central African Republic, whose stock is high after eliminating Egypt from the Afcon qualifiers. New South Africa coach Gordon Igesund was credited with turning around the host's Cup of Nations campaign after their dismal opening display, and he may need to work his brand of forceful magic once again if Bafana are to seal a fourth World Cup appearance.
One of the few consolations that greeted Tunisia following their recent disappointing Round 1 Afcon exit was the fact that they are comfortably in command of their World Cup qualifying group. A field consisting of Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde was unlikely to trouble the North Africans, and they are proving to be competent favourites. A home game against second placed Sierra Leone will be unlikely to trouble the Eagles of Carthage, and a win could put them five points clear.
Cape Verde were the darlings of the Afcon, but after two defeats in two games thus far, they are currently in no position to consolidate their burgeoning reputation. Failure to beat Equatorial Guinea in Malabo this weekend, and they may well be relegated to join the ranks of minnows that populate the lower regions of the African game.
West African heavyweights the Ivory Coast sit atop Group C, and look likely to consolidate their position this weekend. A home clash with tiny neighbours The Gambia is unlikely to pose much in the way of an issue. Saying that, The Gambia did manage an impressive home draw with Morocco—the Elephants should come out of the blocks early, in order to begin the exorcism of another unhappy Afcon campaign. The Elephants will have to do without Didier Drogba, who has been left out by coach Sabri Lamouchi.
Morocco ought to be CIV’s main rivals in the group, but their dire start has given them an enormous challenge to even be in contention come September. Anything other than a victory away in Tanzania on Sunday would surely leave the Atlas Lions with too much to do.
Continental giants Ghana find themselves drawn alongside 2012 Afcon winners Zambia in Group D—a tantalising prospect for the neutrals. Both endured torrid Cup of Nations campaigns this time around, but what a fillip World Cup qualification would be for two sides laced with class. It’s currently advantage Zambia, Chipolopolo having beaten the Black Stars last summer.
Neither side can afford to slip up—particularly Ghana, who welcome Sudan to West Africa. Zambia face a trip down to the tiny kingdom of Lesotho. After having lost 7-0 to Ghana, Group D looks like little more than a training exercise for the Crocodiles. Zambia should be looking to make light work of their diminutive hosts.
Burkina Faso hold a new status among the African elite these days. No longer whipping boys and no-hopers, talented midfielders Alain Traore and Jonathan Pitroipa were two of the Afcon’s stars, while a number of other players impressed during their unlikely run to the Cup of Nations final. The squad will need to retrieve every ounce of their irrepressible inspiration to turn around what is looking like an atrocious World Cup qualifying campaign. Currently bottom of Group E, their weekend fixture against Niger is a must-win game for the Stallions.
Current table-toppers Congo have never made the World Cup, but a lightning start has seen them pick up a maximum six points from last summer’s fixtures. Beat Gabon in Pointe-Noir this weekend, and they could be a win and a draw away from progression.
The home fans will doubtless produce a wall of euphoria in Calabar as the new continental champions Nigeria return to active competition against Kenya this weekend. Too often, the Afcon winners have bombed at a World Cup or even failed to qualify, and so, Stephen Keshi’s next task is to ensure that the West African heavyweights progress to Brazil in a manner befitting their new title as "Kings of Africa." Standing immediately in their way are Kenya, forged on the talents of Victor Wanyama and brother, McDonald Mariga, the East Africans have made scant footballing impact since their first attempts to qualify for competition in the '60s. Could incoming boss Adel Amrouche be about to change their fortunes?
Namibia and Malawi will contest the group’s other fixture over in Windhoek, where the hosts will look to add to their late victory over Kenya in order to keep the heat on the Super Eagles.
One of the big storylines to be developed between now and qualification is the plight of Egypt. After a decade of dominance, political upheaval led to societal trauma which, itself, resulted in sporting oblivion. The tides of time turned, and with them, carried off the Golden Generation of Pharaohs stars, the all-conquering team of the noughties. The great black mark against that side was their failure to translate continental dominance into a place at the international high table. How ironic, if finally, with the legends departed, this new-look, youthful Egyptian side were to take their place at the World Cup.
They stand as clear favourites to beat Zimbabwe in Alexandria this weekend, while the group’s other game will see Mozambique host Guinea down in Maputo. It’s currently advantage Egypt, but things could be a lot more academic after this weekend.
Unbeaten Benin currently top Group H, and the tiny West African nation secured one of the results of the group by beating Mali at home last year. The fact that they only managed a draw away in Rwanda took the gloss off the former result, however, and suggests that the minnows might not have the substance to go the distance. A trip to North Africa and to Algeria, reeling after their poor Afcon showing, may be too severe a test.
Mali once again secure the third placed spot at the Afcon, and may well feel that they have the squad and the depth of class to go all the way and make their maiden World Cup. Captain Seydou Keita will be acutely aware of the need to beat Rwanda convincingly in Kigali on Sunday.
Possibly the hardest qualifying group, this pool contains Afcon qualifiers the Democratic Republic of Congo and Togo, as well as last year’s qualifiers Libya, and continental giants, Cameroon. It’s currently anyone’s game—Libya lead the group on four points, but they will be seriously tested by the DRC on Sunday. I backed the Leopards to prosper at the recent Cup of Nations, and while those forecasts weren’t realised, victory over Togo last year has set them up to genuinely challenge in this group.
The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon are in desperate need of a revival, but the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Alex Song and Benoit Assou-Ekotto will have their work cut out in progressing from this group. A weekend clash with Togo will provide a stern test.
West African giants Senegal look set to make up for their failure to qualify for the Cup of Nations by progressing from Group J. Currently topping the field after a win and a draw, the Lions of Teranga face 2006 WC qualifiers Angola in Guinea this weekend. Defeat would leave Angola with an uphill task, particularly after failing to win either of their opening fixtures. Senegal will be playing this "home game" in Guinea following the home riots that marred their recent defeat to the Ivory Coast.
The group’s two outsiders meet in Liberia, at the Samuel Doe Sports Complex, as the Lone Stars look to pick up their first win of the campaign against Uganda.