The first leg of Africa’s World Cup qualifying play-offs provided us with five excellent contests and numerous moments of high drama.
The fixtures demonstrated African football at its finest, with unpredictable matches, some excellent individual performances and intense action.
After convincing victories, Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire all look to have one foot in next summer’s finals in Brazil.
Burkina Faso managed a narrow, pulsating triumph over Algeria and hold the slight advantage, while Tunisia and Cameroon had a goalless stalemate in Rades.
Gervinho may have disappeared into the shadows during the latter stages of his time at Arsenal, but the evidence suggests that his reinvention is picking up pace.
His sterling form at Roma has seen the giallorosso make the top spot their own in Serie A. He has adapted well to life in the Italian capital and his introduction to the team has benefited Francesco Totti, Alessandro Florenzi, Miralem Pjanic and Kevin Strootman.
Even through the dark times at Arsenal, Gervinho has rarely been questioned within the Ivory Coast national side. Despite his missed penalty in the final of the 2012 AFCON, the forward remains an important part of the group and a valued addition to the fading Golden Generation.
Perfectly capable of being a difference-maker at the international high table next summer.
Ethiopia ought to be getting used to Nigerians scoring late braces against them.
During the African Cup of Nations earlier in the year, it was Victor Moses who—during a tournament-altering 10 minutes—won and converted two penalties late on to change the complexion of the contest and send Nigeria on their way.
In Addis Ababa on Sunday, with World Cup qualification on the line and Nigeria 1-0 down following a Vincent Enyeama blunder, it was Emenike and not his Liverpool-based compatriot who broke Ethiopian hearts.
His goals were particularly pertinent. With the altitude and the atmosphere imposing themselves upon Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles—and the momentum of the match firmly with the hosts—Emenike’s contributions may prove to be invaluable.
First of all, he used his upper-body strength to hold off the defenders, then accelerated past some of the Black Lions’ massed ranks before firing powerfully, on the pivot, past the despairing, outstretched fingertips of Jemal Tassew.
The goal broke Ethiopian confidence and muffled the fervent home support. I doubt the Super Eagles were expecting to find a winner, but in the game’s dying embers, Emenike did.
After being brought down by Aynalem Hailu, the former Spartak Moscow man stepped up to seal the tie from the spot. It was 20 minutes of football that confirmed Emenike’s place among Africa’s finest forwards.
Ethiopia’s nightmares about late Nigerian penalties will surely continue for some time to come.
Bance may be one of Africa’s more eccentric and less predictable frontmen, but performances like the one he delivered against Algeria on Saturday show that he retains the potential to influence some of the most crucial encounters for Burkina Faso.
It looked like it was going to be one of his more calamitous outings in the first half when he missed a penalty, his shot saved by Rais M’bolhi. The fact that Algeria looked to have come back to secure a 2-2 draw only made his failings all the more costly.
Late on, however, a chance for redemption came Bance's way.
The Stallions were awarded a second penalty, a potentially dubious call considering the fact that the hapless Essaid Belkalem’s arms were at his side when the handball was called, and Bance stepped up again.
This time, there was no mistake, the Fortuna Dusseldorf forward braving the jitters to fire past M’bohli.
Beyond the penalties, Bance showed his capabilities as an energetic, physical forward, capable of stretching opposition defences. He could be one of the characters of next summer’s World Cup, if not one of its stars.
Remembered in England almost exclusively for his appalling behaviour during the Hillsborough 20th anniversary memorial service at Anfield, Itandje never truly got the chance to show what he could do in Liverpool.
Eternally an understudy to Pepe Reina, his behaviour saw him cast out before opportunities opened for him.
Against Tunisia, he demonstrated the class that convinced Rafa Benitez to procure his services back in 2007.
He has done little more than flit around the backwaters of Europe since leaving Anfield in 2010. He is currently on loan at Turkish side Konyaspor, having spent time at Greek sides Antromitos and PAOK.
In the first leg of Cameroon's play-off against Tunisia, he was outstanding, persistently frustrating the home crowd at the Rades Stadium.
Itandje was particularly impressive in the opening stages when a Tunisian flurry could realistically have seen the tie go beyond Cameroon. Instead, the former Lens man held firm and thwarted numerous North African attacks.
With the Indomitable Lions struggling to create chances, it may prove that Itandje’s bold resolve is critical to Cameroon’s prospects.
Essien’s return gave Ghana not only a surplus of midfielders but also a surplus of elite talent. Along with the Ayew brothers and Prince Boateng (who had to withdraw due to injury), the big dogs were rejoining the squad with an eye on next summer’s World Cup.
Essien was instrumental as Ghana tore Egypt apart: The Pharaohs’ 100 percent record in qualification so far was viscerally obliterated as the Black Stars ran rampant in Kumasi.
The Chelsea midfielder was directly responsible for the West Africans’ second goal, his sublime dribbling and surging run into the Egyptian box forcing a mistake from the veteran Wael Gomaa, who sent the ball into his own net.
His energy in the middle of the park was matched only by the quality of his distribution, numerous crosses and free-kicks exposing the Egyptian defence.
If Essien can stay fit—and it remains a big if—he could make a major impact at the World Cup next summer.
After several injury-affected summers, he may now be in a position to guide Ghana to the latter stages of the World Cup. Leading 6-1, I think we can safely say the Black Stars will be there.