Africa’s second day of World Cup Qualifying play-offs passed with much less drama than the first, but for four of the continent’s finest sides, the day of destiny drew a step closer following high-intensity contests.
Nigeria will be supremely confident of progression, following a 2-1 away victory over Ethiopia. For Cameroon and Tunisia, however, the road ahead is much murkier, as the pair played out a 0-0 draw in Rades.
This article reviews the day’s two fixtures, looking back on the action between today’s four featured nations.
Ethiopia 1, Nigeria 2
Ostensibly, the most mismatched contest of the five play-offs, Ethiopia, who have never been to a World Cup and who had endured 30 years away from even the continental high table before this year, faced Nigeria, Africa’s champions.
However, this fixture was by no means a guaranteed victory for the visitors, despite their 57-place advantage over their opposition in the FIFA World Rankings.
For a start, Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa is over 2,300 metres above sea level, meaning that the issues of altitude adaptation so often felt by South American footballers during this qualification programme were experienced by the Super Eagles.
With Nigeria only arriving in Ethiopia a few days before the contest, there were very real fears that they would flounder, battling not only their East African opposition, but also the conditions and the very real effects of reduced air on their bodies.
A second great fear was the fearsome reputation of Ethiopian football fans. At the Cup of Nations in South Africa earlier in the year, they proved themselves to be deliriously passionate and incredibly single-minded and unflinching in the support of their men. At the stadium in Addis Ababa, this fervour would be multiplied—would Nigeria’s young stars be able to concentrate on their game, ignoring the overwhelming volume from the terraces?
How far ould Nigeria realistically go at the World Cup next summer?
During the early stages, both concerns look like they might be realised in a very vivid fashion. Ethiopia employed their unique brand of intense, fluid, aesthetic—if naïve—football, and Nigeria, leggy and deafened, appeared unable to cope.
Godfrey Oboabona needed to be at his best to protect Vincent Enyeama’s goal, while his defensive partner Azubuike Egwuekwe was forced, on occasion, to hack the ball away in an attempt to preserve the side’s clean sheet.
Eventually, Ethiopia’s endeavour broke the Super Eagles' burning lungs.
Saladin Said brought the ball down superbly and flicked the ball onwards, past the despairing Enyeama, into the Nigerian net. Oboabona, tearing backwards, managed to hook it off the line, but it was only when the Super Eagles carried on playing and Said saw the linesman’s flag fall that harsh reality fell upon the Black Lions.
The dubious call allowed Nigeria to breathe easily…well, not "easily" obviously…but, you understand!
It wasn’t long, however, before the Walya Antelopes’ dominance told. When the goal—the valid goal—actually came, it arrived in the most bizarre of fashions.
A fairly pedestrian shot-come-cross came in from Ethiopia’s left flank and Enyeama, the subject of managerial scrutiny since the turn of the year, seemed to gather it fairly comfortably. Unfortunately for him, he was adjudged to have stepped back across his own line in claiming it, and to his teammates’ bemusement, Nigeria fell behind.
At this point, with the fans in ecstasy, the lack of oxygen gripping their throats like parentheses and a goal down, the World Cup must have begun to feel like a faded dream. It is to their credit that they rallied and managed to claw their way back into the contest.
It was Emmanuel Emenike who turned the tie on its head.
Ten minutes after Enyeama’s struggle, the Fenerbahce frontman took matters into his own hands. Using his terrific upper-body strength, he shrugged off a defender before accelerating past two others and then firing home on the pivot.
Moments later, he silenced the previously jubilant home crowd. Having been brought down by the bewitched Aynalem Hailu, the former Spartak Moscow striker stepped up confidently to roll the resulting penalty into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal.
He knew, as did the rest of the Nigerian contingent, that leaving Addis Ababa—its atmosphere and its altitude—with a 2-1 triumph was a pretty ideal result.
As for the Ethiopians, however, they will continue to have nightmares about Nigerians and late penalties.
Tunisia 0, Cameroon 0
The day’s later kickoff was a much less dramatic affair, and thus, receives much less attention in this round-up. This was the least engaging of the four play-off ties to date; both sides struggled to assert dominance over the other and neither managed to capitalise on the chances that fell their way.
The Indomitable Lions’ stopper Charles Itandje—yes, the man once axed by Liverpool because he giggled at the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster—was the star of the show. On numerous occasions he was Cameroon’s hero as he repelled a litany of efforts by a collection of below-par Tunisian forwards.
He was particularly impressive in the early stages, where his brave and athletic stewardship kept out a North African onslaught and kept Cameroon alive in a tie that might have moved beyond them.
Ironically, despite Tunisia’s periods of concerted pressure, it was the visitors that had the best chance of the game.
In the second half, the ball fell to the experienced Pierre Webo, who missed with the goal at his mercy and the keeper out of the equation. His failure to finish his side’s move brought back memories of Yakubu’s miscue for Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup, although a more pertinent parallel might be Pierre Wome’s penalty miss for the indomitable Lions in qualifying for the previous tournament.
Could Webo’s miss, like Wome’s before him, have grave consequences for Cameroon?
Samuel Eto’o played following President Paul Biya’s request for him to return to international duty. The Chelsea man was a probing threat who stood out in a Cameroon side lacking creativity. He, like his compatriots, will surely be confident of getting the required result when the two teams meet again in Yaounde on November 17.
Tunisia will simply be praying that they do not find Itandje in such inspired form.