Africa World Cup Qualifying Preview
If World Cup qualifying ended today, prominent African footballing countries Cameroon, Nigeria, and Egypt would miss the World Cup, making this week’s qualifiers critical for each nation. But in a tournament where twenty teams are divided into five groups of four (meaning only six matches will decide if you are the one nation from your group which will represent that continent in South Africa) every match is critical.
Of the three powers in trouble, Cameroon in Group A is in the worst place coming into this weekend. They sit last in their group with one point, five behind leaders Gabon. However, Cameroon is actually in decent shape to qualify for the World Cup. They have only played two of their six qualifiers, and they play their two matches with Gabon this week. If they get six points from the current leaders, they will vault into first place. Togo, should they win their home match with Morocco on Sunday, could tie Cameroon atop the table with seven points.
Despite controlling their own destiny, the Indomitable Lions have no margin for error. If they even draw one of their matches with Gabon, they lose control of their fate. Gabon’s two remaining qualifiers would be against Togo, the only team in the group that has a lower FIFA ranking than them. With a tie in one match against Cameroon, Gabon could qualify for South Africa with six points against Togo or four points plus goal differential. Right now, Gabon’s goal differential is five better than Cameroon’s.
That difference is due in large part to Gabon’s 3-0 win over Togo in June. Ankaraspor’s Roguy Méyé had one of the goals, though the star was 20-year-old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a striker for Ligue Un side Lille.
On star power, Gabon certainly does not compare to their counterparts. Almost all of Cameroon’s players are featured at top European sides, with a series of names even semi-dedicated followers would recognize: Kameni, Assou-Ekotto, Song, Bassong, Makoun, Mbia, Eto’o, Webó. They have brought in former Lyon and Paris St. Germain manager Paul Le Guen, who will make his debut this weekend.
If there is one thing we know from following CONCACAF is it not to underestimate nations that lack names, but those names are the reason why few are panicking as it concerns Cameroon’s chances to get out of this group. Though they have only one point through two matches, their results have been acceptable: a 1-0 at Togo in March and a 0-0 draw at Morocco. After their trip to Gabon this weekend, they will finish qualifying at home.
Their margin for error is thin, but you have to like the Indomitables to come through, though it would be quite a story if Gabon were to get at least one point this week.
Nigeria has yet to allow a goal in this final stage of the tournament, yet they find themselves in second place, two points behind Tunisia thanks to draws at Tunisia and Mozambique. That road result against the group leaders will look a lot better if the Super Eagles can beat Tunisia at home on Sunday; however, if the Tunisians get a point in Abuja, the Eagles’ result in Mozambique could prove crippling.
Despite perpetually having one of the continent’s most talented teams, Nigeria failed to qualify for the last World Cup in Germany, and if they can not get three points against a tough Tunisian side (ranked 50th in the world, only 16 spots below Nigeria). Though Tunisia has never scored a goal in open play during qualifying at Nigeria, they are more than capable of securing another 0-0 draw.
It will incumbent on John Mikel Obi, who plays a more advanced role for country than club, to create for Ikechukwu Uche and Victor Obinna, the Nigerian’s only goal scorers thus far in this phase of the tournament. With Ikechukwu’s older brother Kalu providing another threat from midfielder, Nigeria has the talent to assume control of the group.
Egypt has won two consecutive African Cup of Nations and look set to qualify for the next (this tournament also serves as qualifying for the confederation’s championship), but they are three points behind Algeria in Group C thanks to their 3-1 loss in Bilda in June. The reverse fixture waits in the tournament’s last round, and with Algeria hosting the groups two worst teams in the intervening rounds, Egypt will have to assume they need six points.
There are, however, two major obstacles for the Pharaohs. First, both of their pre-Algeria qualifiers are on the road, and given Algeria drew with Rwanda in Kigali (where Egypt plays on Saturday), three points can not be assumed. Couple that with Egypt’s second problem – that all of Mohamed Zidan, Amr Zaki, and Mido are not available (for a variety of reasons) – and you could see the Rwandans getting another 0-0 draw.
If that happens, it will be almost impossible for Egypt to qualify for South Africa. They would be at five points, and if the Algerians win at home against Zambia on Sunday, the Egyptians would be five points back with two matches to play.
For years, Algeria has had their best players poached by France. I’m sure you can think of at least one, but there are others, like current Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri. Now Algeria’s national team is ranked 44th in the world and is on the verge of making the World Cup for the first time since 1986. They have not even qualified for the African Cup of nations in two tournaments. Thanks to players like Nadir Belhadj (Portsmouth, England), Anthar Yahia (Bochum, Germany), captain Yazid Mansouri (Lorient, France), Karim Ziani (Wolfsburg, Germany) and Kamel Ghilas (Hull City, England), that will change.
Given Egypt’s recent form, it is not too much to assume that the Algerians are the best side in this group, but to make South Africa while France struggles to get out of Europe would be another interesting twist to the Algerian’s success.
Groups D and E
In African’s final two groups, the big boys are taking care of business. With the recent struggles of Egypt, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are the region’s strongest nations.
Ghana has a five point lead on Mali in Group D and can secure qualification with a win at home against Sudan (Sunday) and a draw or a loss from Mali in Benin.
Côte d’Ivoire, like Ghana, is perfect through three rounds, though they have only a three point lead on Burkina Faso. The two sides meet for the last time on Saturday in Abidjan. Given Côte d’Ivoire defeated Burkina Faso away in Ouagadougou in June, the Elephants should get three points this weekend and all but secure qualification.