Another high-intensity weekend in the world of African football results in three teams advancing to the international top table in Brazil next summer.
Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon are the sides to have progressed, following victories over Ethiopia, Senegal and Tunisia. This article looks back on the weekend’s action and reviews the three contests, picking out the star men and the players to watch over the coming months.
Africa’s Champions Lead the Line
It was perhaps fitting that the continental champions were the first of Africa’s sides to secure their spot at Brazil next summer. Nigeria are in the midst of an exciting era under national team coach and former defensive stalwart Stephen Keshi, and qualification was a perfect ending to what has been an unforgettable year.
In truth, their performance over two legs against Ethiopia was not particularly impressive. Ignoring the final 20 minutes of the first leg, when Nigeria’s class and Emmanuel Emenike’s endeavour forged a crevasse between the two sides, there was little to separate them.
The true heart of the Super Eagles’ qualification lay in that previous contest between the two sides.
In Addis Ababa, the young Nigerian side overcame a nervy start, the draining altitude of Ethiopia’s home stadium, a partisan home crowd and a blunder from Vincent Enyeama to secure a 2-1 away win.
Following this result, it was always going to take a major effort from the Walias to turn the tide of the contest back in their favour.
They just couldn’t manage it.
After 20 minutes, Ethiopian defender Aynalem Hailu was penalised for a handball inside the box. Victor Moses, the Walias’ scourge back at the 2013 Cup of Nations, brought back unhappy memories. The Liverpool man stood up, as he did in the AFCON group stage, and fired home, as he had done so confidently in South Africa all those months ago.
After that, as Calabar basked in the prospect of the Copacabana, Ethiopia wilted. Despite the introduction of Addis Hintsa on 75 minutes, the assault on Enyeama’s goal never materialised, and the visitors rarely looked like a side who genuinely believed they would be gracing the Maracana next summer.
Victor Obinna, given a second chance in the squad after numerous fallow years, hurled the crowd into raptures with a late, delicious strike. Africa’s champions guaranteed their place among the globe’s elect.
The Golden Generation Get Their Final Chance
Like Nigeria, the Cote d’Ivoire also looked to be in a good position heading into their crunch qualifier. They had shredded Senegal in Abidjan during a pulsating first hour, but a slight element of doubt had been cast over the tie by a late, late goal from Papiss Cisse.
Thus, a 2-0 victory would have been enough to have secured the Lions of Teranga a spot in Brazil.
The nominal "home" side (the game was being played in Casablanca as part of Senegal’s sustained punishment for crowd trouble in Dakar) began cautiously but gently grew into the game. Alain Giresse’s decision to leave Mohamed Diame out of the starting lineup came as a shock, but Senegal appeared sufficiently fortified despite their captain’s absence.
They soon began to dominate the contest, particularly the midfield, where Cheik Tiote’s typical tenacity was noticeably missing for the Elephants.
Gradually, Senegal began to sense that an unlikely victory might be theirs. It soon became a battle between the Lions’ forwards and the Ivorian back line, with Didier Zokora particularly courageous in his marshalling of the back line and brave interceptions in preservation of Copa Barry’s goal.
The Elephants, Africa’s masters in the art of choking in rarefied climates, inevitably began recalling past defeats. Gervinho, with his famously brittle nerve, was particularly anonymous, while the likes of Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou also struggled to impose themselves.
Remarkably, it took Senegal 77 minutes to break the deadlock and put themselves within one goal of Brazil. They were, however, unable to build upon Moussa Sow’s penalty and Kalou’s goal, late into stoppage time, ensured that it was little more than a case of too little, too late.
Once again, Africa was reminded of Ivorian fallibility. The Elephants swagger into contests like champions-elect, but as the pressure creaks up and the intensity rises, the crowns fall off to reveal infants quivering beneath the demands of a nation.
Gervinho, above all else, will be praying that they can escape their glittering reputations and escape the World Cup unscathed.
Cameroon Find a Way Through
Cameroon fans will be hoping that their victory against Tunisia is the result that brings an end to an unhappy few years for the national side.
Since their disappointing performance at the 2010 World Cup (where they were the first side eliminated from the tournament), the once-Indomitable Lions failed to qualify for both the 2012 and 2013 AFCON tournaments. To put this into context, they had been present for the previous eight tournaments and 14 of the previous 15.
Cameroon hadn’t known such failure since the late '70s, and it was always going to take a big result to escape the malaise.
The first leg, a dreary 0-0 in Rades, did not produce that result. Cameroon struggled in that opening tie, and indeed, it’s unlikely they would have qualified had Charles Itandje’s numerous saves not kept them alive in the context.
Itandje’s heroics in Tunisia, and the platform that clean sheet provided, allowed Cameroon to enter their home cauldron of Yaounde knowing that a win of any kind would see them through to Brazil.
Volker Finke’s side have recently struggled with a lack of midfield creativity. They are blessed with numerous, competent defensive midfielders, but too often they have struggled to create the chances that forward Samuel Eto’o requires to flourish.
In the seven fixtures that preceded Sunday’s clash, they had managed only three goals.
The presence of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, persistently primed to bomb forward from the left-back position and so astute in possession, gave the side width and allowed more space for those ahead of him to operate in.
Benjamin Moukandjo, typically a forward, was given a berth on the flank and also excelled. His direct running and searing pace greatly troubled the Tunisian back line.
Finally, Samuel Eto’o was afforded a free role and often functioned ahead of the defence, a position from which he was able to dictate the play and enjoy a creative influence.
These three factors ensured that the Indomitable Lions enjoyed an impressive 4-1 victory. It also guarantees that they will be taken seriously in Brazil next summer. Their massed ranks of defensive talents will certainly make them hard to beat, while the attacking menace will likely be fine-tuned ahead of the World Cup.