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Senegal or Morocco: Plotting Africa’s path to the World Cup semi-final

11:54 EAT 03/12/2022
Senegal Morocco World Cup 2022
The continent’s two remaining participants will back themselves to make it to the last four in this inimitable tournament in Qatar

Finally, we all can catch our breaths, albeit not for long.

This World Cup may have been tagged controversial before a ball was kicked, but it is safe to say almost everyone is now on this rollercoaster. We have no idea where it takes us, but we are bound to enjoy it anyway.

Africa’s five representatives were not left out in the slightest, even if only Senegal and Morocco made it to the Round of 16. Only two of that quintet remain. Only two give hope of ending the continent’s wait for a semi-finalist.

It could have been five from five had the stars aligned. Tunisia defeated much-changed France 1-0, but Australia’s shock win over Denmark in the same round of games meant the Socceroos advanced to the imminent knockout round for only the second time in their history, denying the Eagles of Carthage their first-ever Round of 16 spot.

Ghana entered the group phase unfancied, but Mohammed Kudus’ match-winning capabilities and an inclination to embrace the chaos put them on the brink of progress.

This went awry in round three against old foes Uruguay as the Black Stars missed a first-half penalty in the 2-0 loss, thus finishing bottom of a group they were favourites to end second after two games had been played.

As for Cameroon, you wonder how crazy things got in Yaounde after Vincent Aboubakar netted that late, late winner against Brazil to hand the Selecao their first-ever defeat by an African side at the finals, their first group stage loss since 1998 and their first defeat since the Copa America final last year.

Indeed, it would have been doubly frenzied had that 92nd-minute header sealed progress to the last 16 but Switzerland’s 3-2 win over Serbia sealed the Indomitable Lions’ fate. A 3-3 draw was what Rigobert Song’s crew needed, but it was not to be.

Fine margins and all that, but those close margins saw Africa have no Round of 16 participants in Russia four years ago. This time the continent moves forward with two, but it could have been all five in a utopian world.

The quarter-final has been Africa’s ceiling at the global showpiece, a challenge either the Lions of Teranga or the Atlas Lions hope to eclipse Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010).

The bracket means both could make it through to the last four, with a semi-final meeting between Aliou Cisse’s team and Walid Regragui’s crew a possibility.

That would be the stuff of dreams: two home-grown coaches leading their teams out with a potential final up for grabs, a week after joining Stephen Keshi as the African managers to sail through the group stage with their side.

Both must overcome thorny paths to make it to that meeting at Al Bayt Stadium on December 14.

Senegal do battle with England on Sunday and are likely to face a rematch of their World Cup bow against France in the quarter-final if the draw goes to form (and Les Blues beat Poland). That path may turn out differently if Poland defeat Didier Deschamps’ men, a possibility that cannot be ruled out in this competition that has already produced a glut of shocks.

First, they must eliminate a Three Lions side that has made it to every semi-final since Gareth Southgate took charge of the England side in 2016. Having made it to the semis in the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020 (held in 2021 due to the pandemic), some reckon England are primed to go one better in Qatar 2022.

The Lions of Teranga have never won three games in one tournament in their World Cup history (they won two games in 2002) and must end England’s seven-game unbeaten run over African sides to reign supreme.

Cisse’s side may be slight underdogs, but their group stage performances suggest they will be undeterred. They may not have Sadio Mane, but they have Ismaila Sarr. And it helps that the goals are being spread across the squad.

As for Morocco, they have to face off with 2010 World Champions Spain, who have seemingly lost steam since that record-smashing 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica to make it to the last eight. Luis Enrique’s men will dominate possession as they are wont to do, and the North African side will have to suffer for long phases.

But Regragui’s crew do not need to have the ball for extended periods to hurt you. The Atlas Lions had 35 percent of the ball in their creditable draw with Croatia, 33 percent in their stunning 2-0 success over Belgium and 41 percent in the 2-1 win against Canada.

When it comes together for Spain, they are arguably the one side you do not want to play against and it will be fascinating to see how a Moroccan defence whose only concession in 270 minutes was a Nayef Aguerd own-goal vs Canada.

A shock victory over La Furia Roja will pit Regragui’s side against either Portugal or Switzerland, neither of whom has ever won a World Cup. The Selecao were outstanding in one half against Ghana, albeit without scoring in the eventual 3-2 win, and just about eked out a 2-0 win over Uruguay before Friday’s 2-1 defeat by South Korea.

Bruno Fernandes has been on fire, but observers wait for Cristiano Ronaldo’s upswing with bated breath.

As for the Swiss, who denied Cameroon a spot in this bracket, looked good in wins over Cameroon and Serbia and could pose problems for a Portugal team that have not set the competition alight after three games, have never won this competition and have only made it to the semis on two occasions in their history.

For Morocco, it is certainly doable, but they must make it past what ostensibly looks to be their toughest test in Spain en route to a possible last-four clash with Senegal, who have the tougher draw on paper.

In this wildly-exciting World Cup, ruling against one African side making it to the semi-finals may be ill-advised. Indeed, it would be par for the course for it to happen in Qatar.