Following a high-octane weekend of excellent African action, three of the continent’s sides have already booked their spot at Brazil next summer. Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon have guaranteed their place among the global elite following victories over Ethiopia, Senegal and Tunisia, respectively.
Four teams remain in the hunt.
Tuesday will see Ghana and Egypt go head-to-head for one place and Burkina Faso and Algeria also compete for an invitation to the international high table next summer.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that there are only three teams realistically in with a chance of claiming those two final spots.
Ghana’s emphatic 6-1 victory over Egypt in the first leg in Kumasi has all but ended the Pharaohs’ hopes of making it to Brazil. The North Africans head into this second leg knowing that only a miraculous effort, or a magnificent collapse on the part of the Black Stars, will see them through to the World Cup.
Egypt’s glorious era of success, their golden period of continental dominance, exists merely as dying embers these days. The flame will not flicker on the world stage and will almost certainly be reduced to ashes when the two teams meet in Cairo.
When considering Ghana, the question seems not to be whether Kwesi Appiah’s men will seal World Cup qualification, but which kind of an impact his troops can have next summer. Egypt may have contributed to their own downfall—their defenders were about as agile as rhinoceroses on an ice rink—but the sheer power of Ghana’s midfield, and the relentless dimensions of their attack made those who watched the clash stand up and take note.
The Black Stars will qualify for their third consecutive World Cup and, avoiding any serious injury or mishap, ought to be in their best shape for years. The team could arguably field two elite midfields. The energy of Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, the bite of Sulley Muntari, the drive of Price, the speed of Atsu, the versatility and creativity of Kwadwo Asamoah, the verve and flair of the Ayew Brothers, the tenacity of Tony Annan; quite the collection, and I haven’t even introduced the kingpin.
Michael Essien’s return to the national team, following years of injury-ravaged heartache, has been a lift to everyone. The Chelsea man may be older and slower these days (aren’t we all!?), but his vision, discipline and calm composure make him the cornerstone upon which all else is built.
How far can Ghana go at next summer's World Cup?
I wish to avoid getting all misty eyed and mistaking the runway lights for the stars, but if all of Ghana’s various components are on song in Brazil, new horizons could quite feasibly be explored.
So with Ghana all but confirmed, our attention moves to the day’s other qualifier, the second leg between Burkina Faso and Algeria.
Qualifying contests are rarely as finely poised as this one. In the first leg, back in Ouagadougou on October 12, both sides demonstrated fine attacking intent, but neither could marry it to defensive resilience. Twice the home side led, and twice the North Africans pulled them back. The contest stood at 2-2 heading into the dying minutes.
Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe made an intervention as crucial as any by either team’s striker with his awarding of a penalty to the Burkinabe following a perceived handball from Essaid Belkalem. The defender protested his innocent, and indeed, many in attendance had sympathy with him.
Aristide Bance, the colourful forward who had missed an earlier spot-kick, made no mistake the second time around. He made amends by striking a powerful finish past Rais M’bolhi.
Both sides will have their motivating factors and their reasons for belief heading into the second leg in Blida; Algeria, buoyed by home support and driven by a sense of injustice, will look to start strongly and put the Stallions on the back foot.
In Burkina Faso, however, they will come up against formidable opponents. Paul Put’s collective will look to make the most of their one goal advantage—they have more than enough pace and firepower to menace Algeria on the counter-attack. In Alain Traore, Jonathan Pitroipa and the aforementioned Bance, they possess attackers with enough quality to compromise the Desert Foxes’ attack.
Similarly, their defence boasts a number of individuals who are unlikely to be fazed by the hostile atmosphere at the Stade Mustapha Tchaker. The likes of Paul Koulibaly, Bakary Kone and Saidou Panandetiguiri learned a common resiliency on the fields of South Africa and will not be daunted by the Algerian onslaughts that are unlikely to come their way.
In Charles Kabore, they also boast one of the continent’s most underrated midfielders. The Kuban Krasnodar man, and national team skipper, is a measured creative influence and plays an important role linking defence and attack.
2013 has been a remarkable year for the West Africans, hitherto classed among the continent’s minnows. They achieved an unprecedented spot in the AFCON final in South Africa earlier in the year and will look to round off their memorable 12 months by sealing World Cup qualification.
I, for one, shall not be betting against them.