As the race for the five invaluable World Cup 2014 slots allocated for Africa reaches a crescendo, Goal takes a critical look at the crucial fixtures in all 10 qualifying groups
By Michael Appiah
The final group stage matchday of [African] 2014 World Cup qualifiers presents us with some mouth-watering fixtures and scenarios which are set to intrigue football fans and pundits around the world.
What makes these matches fascinating enough is that most of the well-placed nations would have their destinies in their own hands instead of relying on results from other fixtures to secure their qualification for the play-offs scheduled for October/November this year.
Another interesting facet of the remaining qualifiers is that countries like Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia and Cape Verde who have traditionally been minnows stand in pole position to make it to the final stage, and they could yet cause major upsets. As the following analysis reveals, each group offers slightly differing prospects and permutations; some complex, others fairly simple.
A careful scrutiny of Group A shows that the trio of Ethiopia, South Africa and Botswana all have real chances of making the play-offs. Only the Central African Republic (CAR) are absolutely out of contention.
The Walia Antelopes of Ethiopia would have been home and dry after beating the South Africans in Addis Ababa in June. However, the world football governing body, Fifa, deducted three points from Ethiopia's accumulated tally after South Africa filed a protest against the east Africans for fielding an unqualified player in their game against Botswana in Blantyre. This new development was received with great joy by the Bafana Bafana as it hands them a priceless lifeline, going into the next series of games. South Africa coach Gordon Igesund remarked regarding the news on behalf of his team: "We welcome the decision, which I believe was expected. It was never in doubt because rules are rules, so in our view it is a correct decision."
As a result, the group has been thrown wide open and sets up for a real showdown. Per the teams' respective standings on the table, victory for Ethiopia against the CAR at the Stade Alphonse Massembe-Debat in the latter's territory will be enough to see them through.
On the other hand, South Africa would need to win against Botswana and hope Ethiopia lose or draw against the CAR. Botswana themselves will seek to weigh things in their own favour at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, while praying the Ethiopian to slip up.
The scenario in Group B is just as mouth-watering. The sole difference is that, unlike Group A where the battle for the solitary ticket rages between three countries, the situation here is that of a two-horse race between the more experienced Carthage Eagles of Tunisia and Cape Verde's Blue Sharks who have proved a surprise package so far.
On paper, one could easily afford Tunisia passage at the expense of their three competitors. However, the resilience and strong character of the Islanders (Cape Verde) has sent what seemed to be an easy group for the former down to the wire. Cape Verde are no strangers to overturning African football's rather entrenched odds, as they qualified at they overcame the more fancied Cameroonian side for the 2013 Afcon in South Africa where they debuted. It goes without saying that their performance on that occasion was very impressive as they were only eliminated in the quarter-finals by an experienced Ghana team who were given a good run for their money. Followers of the African game around the world can be assured of a tasty treat when Luis Antunes' men face off with the early group favourites at the Stade Olympique de Rades in Tunisia. That said, the Tunisians seem better poised to qualify for the play offs as they only require a draw to book their ticket. Moreover, playing in their own backyard also gives them
added advantage against their guests. As to whether Cape Verde can punch above their weight once more would be determined come September 7.
There isn't much to be said in the case of Group C as the Elephants of Ivory Coast have already sailed through as expected, even with one game to spare. Their match against Morocco at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium would be more of an opportunity to try certain new faces and probably rehearse for their guaranteed play-off fixtures as well.
The tie between Ghana and Zambia in Group D at the Baba Yara Stadium, Kumasi, is set to be honoured under high-octane conditions. With the stakes so high and only a point separating the two sides, both teams will stop at nothing to outwit each other on the day.
The rivalry between the pair has been intensified recently, after the Black Stars suffered back-to-back defeats at the hands of the Chipolopolo during the 2012 Afcon and also in the reverse of Friday's qualifier hosted by the Zambians last year. The Ghanaians lost both matches by 1-0 scorelines and the west Africans would see definitely regard the upcoming match against Herve Renard's Zambia as a perfect opportunity to exact revenge for those losses, simultaneously denying them a place in the play-offs. Should Ghana, in spite of their fine form, home advantage, and the return of certain key players -the likes of Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Andre Ayew- from retirement, turn complacent, though, they could be surprised by their determined opponents.
Group E has similar dynamics to Group A's, as three countries stand a chance of qualifying for the next stage of the journey to Brazil 2014.
Burkina Faso who stunned the whole of Africa when they finished second at the 2013 Afcon will be looking forward to making a bigger statement when they play Gabon in Ouagadougou, a game they must win at all costs. However, the Gabonese who won the earlier encounter in Libreville could prove a major obstacle in the way of the Stallions.
In the other Group E game, whipping boys, Niger would also seek to do either Burkina Faso or Gabon a favour of sorts by giving the group leaders, Congo, something to worry about in Niamey. The Congolese, on their part, would love to beat the Nigeriens to make it through. Failure to do so would mean they would have to wait on a stalemate in the Burkina-Gabon match to make sure of their own qualification.
An initial cursory glance at Group F would have led one to tip the Super Eagles of Nigeria for an easy pass. The story on the table, however, looks far from over, as the Nigerians still have to beat their Malawian counterparts at home.
The African champions whom many saw to have been handed a relatively facile draw, considering the pedigree of the teams in their group, do not seem to have found it so at all. Issues ranging from unpaid bonuses due players and officials to the uncertainty of head coach Stephen Keshi's future as the man in charge have plagued and threatened to sabotage Nigeria's cause.
Egypt could not have announced their return to the limelight of African football any better after missing two consecutive Nations Cup editions due to the political instability which rocked the country. The Pharaohs, under the able leadership of their experienced American coach Bob Bradley, have clearly demonstrated their intentions of how serious they are on securing World Cup qualification which has eluded them for over two decades. The Egyptians are the only participants with a 100 per cent record so far and would do everything possible to finish the final phase of group stage qualifiers without blemish, when they play the Sylli Nationale of Guinea in Cairo.
Group H throws more light on the dominance of the north African countries thus far, as the Desert Foxes of Algeria have also booked their ticket to the next round with a match in hand. The Algerians, like the Ivorians, would also use their game against Mali to improve upon their record in the group and also pluck some points for the FIFA ranking.
Another cagey encounter that cannot skip the attention of the football world is the cracker between Cameroon and Libya in Group I.
The Cameroonians who lost 2-1 earlier in Tripoli would wish to put the smiles back on the faces of their passionate fans, after missing out on the last two Afcons. If the Indomitable Lions are indeed thinking of a way to pacify their fans, beating the Libyans in Yaounde and reaching the play-offs wouldn't be a bad way to start. The Libyans trail Cameroun by a mere point, though, and thus cannot be written off.
Finally, we visit Group J, where Senegal play the group decider against a lowly rated Ugandan side. The Senegalese may be tipped as strong favourites to beat the Ugandans in Dakar for a few reasons. Senegal boasts a pool of experienced players who ply their trade in the top leagues in Europe. They are also blessed with an attacking machinery that is touted as the most potent on the continent. Football, of course, does not always run on such logic, and it would be a huge mistake to underestimate the Ugandans who would require but a win against the Teranga Lions to claim top spot. As to what the Ugandans have up their sleeves to cause a major upset in Dakar is yet to be seen or known and that is what makes them dangerous
A WEEKEND TO REMEMBER
The weekend of September 6-8 will see real fireworks in football arenas across the continent, and the world ought to brace itself for these exciting thrillers.
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