Sports Watch: Moment Of Truth For Africa’s Soccer Giants

 With the preliminary stage of African qualification matches for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil concluded, the moment of reckoning has arrived as the top ten teams after six rounds of matches square off to each other, in playoffs to determine the five teams that would represent the continent at the global showpiece.

The latest FIFA world rankings was used as a yardstick for determining the draws as the top five ranked teams on the continent among the qualifiers – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria and Tunisia were seeded, while the bottom five ranked – Senegal, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Cameroon were unseeded, in a draw that would ensure that seeded teams could only face unseeded teams and vice-versa.

On the 16th of September, the banquet hall of the confederation of African Football (CAF) in Cairo was filled with administrators, officials and coaches of various nations, as the nerve-racking draw took place. The five mouthwatering fixtures that came up were;

 Cote d&#39Ivoire  vs  Senegal

 Ethiopia vs  Nigeria

 Tunisia  vs  Cameroon

 Ghana  vs  Egypt

 Algeria  vs  Burkina Faso

To whet your appetite ahead of these fixtures, here is a short preview of each.

Cote d’Ivoire Vs Senegal

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Both teams have in recent times met in deciding qualifiers for both the World cup and the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), with their most recent meeting in the AFCON qualifier last October going the way of the Ivoirians. That match ended on a sour note however, as the game was stopped 14 minutes from time due to frustrated home supporters lighting fires on the terraces and throwing objects on to the field of play after Didier Drogba&#39s penalty had put the Ivoirians in control of the two-legged tie. Since then, Senegal have been banned from playing at the stadium in Dakar.

Senegal have undergone a major overhaul since failing to qualify for the Nations Cup after that match, appointing former French World Cup midfielder Alain Giresse as coach and dumping top players like Demba Ba of Chelsea due to lack of regular playing time at their clubs. They won their World Cup group despite hosting qualifiers at neutral venues in Guinea and Morocco and will have completed their ban by the time they host the second leg of the playoff against Ivory Coast. It has not yet been decided however, if they will take the match to the same Leopold Senghor Stadium where last year&#39s riot occurred.

For Ivory Coast they look like a team going in the right direction having won 5 of their 6 matches in the second round and qualifying for the final round with a game to spare. With the recall of old horse Didier Drogba to the squad after a long absence, the Elephants look likely to be the favorites of the pair.

Ethopia Vs Nigeria

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It has to be said that Nigeria seems to have gotten the easiest draw of all the top 5 teams in the first pot of the draw. The last time the two teams met was at the AFCON 2013, where Nigeria recorded a hard-fought 2-0 victory which was not as straight forward as it seems as it took 80 minutes for Nigeria to break down a massed Ethiopian defence.

Ethiopia are fairly overwhelming underdogs in this match and are one of two teams in the playoffs to have never reached a World Cup Finals but this might be an advantage as they may well go out to compete, unshackled by the fear and anxiety that can characterize such crucial clashes. Few will fancy them to upset the odds, but should the potential potency of forwards Saladin Said and Adane Girma be realized in the City of Humans, Nigeria’s young defence could be in for a testing 90 minutes.

For Nigeria however, the only potential hiccup stopping the reigning African Champions from advancing to their fifth World Cup Finals would be complacency, as was the case the last time the team visited Addis Ababa to an AFCON qualifier. With lots of problems getting there, the Super Eagles finally arrived on the morning of the match, we went to their hotel rooms, slept for a few hours had lunch at noon time and headed straight for the stadium. The team had a difficult time in that match, but survived with a 2-2 draw thanks to a late equalizer from Joseph Yobo.

Tunisia Vs Cameroon

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The last time both sides met in a competitive game was at the AFCON in 2010 and that match ended in a 2-2 draw. Both sides struggled to get through to this round benefiting from boardroom decisions.
The most high-profile of these boardroom decisions occurred after Tunisia suffered a surprise 2-0 loss at home to Cape Verde, giving passage to the former Portuguese colony to the final ten but then filed a complaint – which was successful- to FIFA saying Cape Verde fielded an Ineligible player. Having been offered a second chance to reach the world cup in 2014, Tunisia have appointed former Dutch International Rudd Krool to coach the team for the upcoming encounter and look to have gotten their preparation underway.
The Cameroonian side is one that is far past its best and the recent resignation of captain Samuel Eto o’, does not bode well for the Indomitable Lions. However, the Lions are one of the African teams to have made a notable impact on the world stage and would give it all get to the world event for the 6th time.

Ghana Vs Egypt

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Arguably the toughest draw of the round sees two of Africa’s most successful sides the black stars of Ghana take on 7–time African champions the Pharaohs of Egypt. The last competitive game between both sides was at the AFCON final in 2010, where Egypt won by a solitary goal, but their most recent match was a friendly in January 2013 where Ghana thumped Egypt by 3 goals to nil.

The Ghanaians who have qualified for the last two editions of the world cup and made it to the quarter-finals of the last edition would be looking to go one better next year. Although they started the qualifying rounds a bit sluggishly, they finished strongly with three wins out of three.

Egypt get into this round with a perfect record from the preliminary rounds, winning six out of six matches but have suffered a lot in their football over the last two years both domestically and internationally, missing in the last two editions of the Africa cup of Nations and not having a domestic league for almost two seasons now. However, top clubs – Al Ahly and Zamalek have managed to stay firm on the continent and their national team seems to be very steady regardless of inactivity at home, where the bulk of their national players ply their trade.

Burkina Faso Vs Algeria

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The final matchup of the playoffs sees AFCON 2013 runners up, Burkina Faso play against Algeria. The most recent meeting between these teams was in a friendly match in June 2013, where Algeria triumphed by two goals.

Algeria have been on a steady rise after a disappointing outing at the last AFCON, winning almost all their world cup qualifiers and are another team that qualified for the final round with games to spare. They do posses a couple of French born players such as Adlene Guedioura ,Rafik Halliche , Hassan Yebda and Yacine brahimi, who ply their trade in some of the best leagues in Europe and would look up to them for inspiration.

Burkina Faso on their part had to endure a final day drama to make it through to the last ten and are the other team in the playoffs to have never made it to the world cup finals. However they possess in their side, AFCON 2013 most valuable player Jonathan Pitriopa, Charles Kabore as well highly experienced striker Aristide Bance and the technically gifted Alain Traore.

The two-legged qualifiers start with the first leg in between the 11th and the 15th of October and the return legs between the 15th and 19th of the same month. Here is wishing all ten remaining team the best of luck, may the best teams win.

Andyson Ogugua Smith
Sports, Fitness and Lifestyle writer
Follow on Twitter: @andysonsmith

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