Key Concerns for Africa's World Cup 5 Following Mid-Week Friendlies
A big year began here as Africa’s five World Cup-bound sides kicked off their preparations for Brazil with a round of international friendlies.
Each of the quintet will be able to pick out both positives and the negatives from their performances.
Cote d’Ivoire fell behind following some dire defending, but showed resolve to restore parity. Cameroon were routed, but held their own against Portugal for long periods. Nigeria looked promising on the break against Mexico. Algeria integrated some fine young players and Ghana…erm…didn’t suffer any major injuries.
Read on for each African side’s key concerns following the mid-week friendlies.
Following the friendly draw with Belgium, the mood around the Ivorian camp ahead of their foray to Brazil will be positive. The Elephants came back from being down 2-0 to secure a 2-2 draw against the World Cup dark horses.
The way that Max Gradel and Didier Drogba led the Elephants’ revival will have encouraged boss Sabri Lamouchi, but the first hour of action will have left the former France international with great concerns.
His problems are twofold.
First of all, they were abysmal defensively with too many holes being left for the Belgians to exploit and a lack of understanding and nerves between key men such as Kolo Toure and Serge Aurier. The Liverpool man’s unconvincing showing may well ensure that Didier Zokora and Sol Bamba are consolidated as the first-choice centre-back pairing.
Things would have been a lot worse had Serey Die not delivered a fine “fire-fighting” performance in front of the defence.
The Ivorians second problem concerns the ageing legs and the imbalance of their side. Bizarrely, there are five uncapped players in the squad, a further seven on less than ten caps, and of the rest, nine are 30 or over.
Injured players like Lacina Traore were missed, but it is clear that Cote d’Ivoire need to begin to look to supplement and support the Golden Generation.
It’s hard to identify how Ghana have progressed since their fantastic showing at the last World Cup. The team is still populated by competent and established individuals across the board, but Kwesi Appiah has largely struggled to configure the team effectively.
The Black Stars are in danger of turning their greatest strength into their greatest weakness.
Their midfield options are unparalleled among African football and compare well against some of the finest international rosters in the world. Appiah, however, has thus far been unable to get the best out of the myriad of talent at his disposal.
His insistence on playing a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 formation means that, often, only four of Kevin-Prince Boateng, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah, Andre Ayew, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Christian Atsu (among others) can get on the field.
Yesterday, his midfield four of Essien and Badu, flanked by Atsu and Wakaso, looked ponderous and devoid of understanding.
Appiah hasn’t come any closer to deciding on the identity of his midfield, and his decision to pair Jordan Ayew with Majeed Waris up front means that he missed an opportunity to cram more of his talented midfielders into the side.
Naturally, it’s a little harsh to judge Cameroon’s showing against a Cristiano Ronaldo who looked intensely focused and intently committed to breaking Portugal’s all-time top scorer record.
However, while the Indomitable Lions did well to keep the contest alive past the hour mark, they did little to threaten the hosts.
Excluding one chance before half time when Vincent Aboubakar cancelled out Ronaldo’s opener, the Central Africans largely suffered from a lack of cohesion between midfield and attack.
If they make silly mistakes at the World Cup (as Aurelien Chedjou did here) and undermine their defensive integrity, then one fears they won’t have the firepower to compensate.
Their crumble following Chedjou’s mistake will have worried boss Voker Finke, but I doubt their World Cup opponents (Brazil, Croatia and Mexico) will be too concerned about the Lions’ lethargic build-up play.
Unlike Africa’s other national sides who have big issues to resolve ahead of the World Cup, Nigeria boss Stephen Keshi is already dealing with the little differences, the tweaks and the details that may see his side prosper.
Almost any Super Eagles fan could comfortably name 10 of the starting line-up, with back four Vincent Enyeama, Kenneth Omeruo, Elderson Echiejile, Godfrey Oboabona and Efe Ambrose, midfielders Ogenyi Onazi and John Obi Mikel, as well as forwards Emmanuel Emenike, Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa all pencilled in for the opening World Cup game against Iran.
Michael Uchebo and Ramon Azeez—two very different players—each received a half in which to convince Keshi that they could be the team’s “Eleventh Man,” but apart from some wild running and fancy footwork from Uchebo, neither looked like the answer.
An emerging concern may be the lack of regular club football some of the squad’s key men are receiving, especially between now and the sojourn to Brazil.
John Obi Mikel looked a little hesitant in possession, particularly when required to be a little more forward-thinking than he is at Chelsea, while Victor Moses, who is enduring a torrid season on loan at Liverpool, tired and was guilty of some poor decision-making.
Algeria were, quite comfortably, Africa’s most impressive competitors during the day of international friendlies, and considering their favourable World Cup draw, they can look towards the summer with optimism.
The debut of Tottenham Hotspur star Nabil Bentaleb stole the headlines, and the midfielder was in fine form, contributing both defensively and offensively. He could already be a key man this summer and looks set to be an international fixture for the Desert Lions for years to come.
If I had to pick fault with Algeria, and I mean had to like if my life depended on it, I would argue that their forwards—Rafik Djebbour, El Arbi Hillel Soudani and Islam Slimani—were a little ponderous and anonymous.
It’s nothing that the return of Sofiane Feghouli, absent following dental surgery, can’t sort out, and the Maghrebi side impressed in their 2-0 victory over Slovenia.