Can the New Manager Effect prevail?The likes of Cameroon and Morocco will certainly be hoping so. Shock 2-0 away defeats to minnows Cape Verde and Mozambique in their first legs leaves the two African giants with momentous matches this weekend to avoid a nadir - for Cameroon, it's a quest to avoid a double nadir afer failure to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations.
The reaction to those first leg defeats was swifter than Jonathan, with both Denis Lavagne and Eric Gerets being sent off to the Job Centre. The glittering managerial CV of the latter meant he was barely signing on before Qatari champions Lekhwiya plucked him into the managerial hotseat. In truth, the partnership between Morocco and Gerets seemed as incompatible as a phat beat in a classic rock song – whilst Morocco was blessed with a superabundance of attacking midfielders, the major idiosyncrasy of Gerets has always been his pragmatism. And it was that pragmatism which ultimately cost his job as Morocco dropped deeper and deeper and invited pressure from Mozambique in the second half of the first leg. FAR Rabat’s Rachid Taoussi, who led Maghreb de Fes to triumph in the CAF Confederations Cup – Africa’s equivalent of the Europa League – last year, has replaced Gerets, and Jean Paul Akono, who led Cameroon to Gold in the Sydney Olympics, has replaced Lavagne.
Akono has managed to convince Samuel Eto’o to temporarily set aside his differences with the football federation and has also brought back peripatetic front-man Pierre Achille Webo. Morocco have the creativity but goals have been a problem – Houssine Kharja, a defensive midfielder who also has the penalty-taking duties, is the only player in the squad who has amassed more than 2 goals at international level (11). Taoussi has already tried to attain balance in a side that seemed too top-heavy with attacking players under Gerets by dropping Mbark Boussoufa, Marouane Chamakh, Mounir El Hamdaoui and Adel Taarabt.
With both teams failing to register an away goal in the first leg, the danger is the away goal – they must score at least 3 unanswered goals to ensure qualification, or maybe even 4 to avoid squeaky bum time. Can their defences hold up? For Cameroon, too much chopping and changing in the backline means it’s incongruous whilst Morocco, Udinese’s Mehdi Benatia aside, lack the solidity that is pivotal if they are fully to reach their potential at international level.
It is difficult to envisage both Cameroon and Morocco qualifying for the centrepiece in South Africa. Cameroon’s series of administration gaffes means failure is no less than what they deserve. A conveyor belt of names from Cameroon’s footballing epoch have visited the squad in a last-ditch attempt to arouse inspiration, including Roger Milla, Theophile Abega, Emmanuel Kunde and Joseph-Antoine Bell (Milla and Bell have been particularly outspoken on the fortunes of the Indomitable Lions in the past decade), but it may be too little too late.
The Warriors seek to become household names
Like everything else in Zimbabwe, the football has suffered. To compound the years of longuer at international level, Zimbabwean football has recently been rocked by a match-fixing saga which subsequently saw 80 players excluded from national team selection.
The dark chapter seems almost over, though, as Zimbabwe seek to qualify for only their third Cup of Nations after an impressive 3-1 win over Angola in Harare. Rather conveniently, seven players have been cleared of match-fixing, including Al Hilal marksman Edward Sadomba, who will add much-needed oomph into the strikeforce, whilst Germany-based talisman Knowledge Musona returns after missing the first leg through injury. The Zimbabwe government has promised the players a house each in the picturesque suburbs of Harare should they successfully qualify for the Cup of Nations.
Will the wings of the Super Eagles falter under the pressure?
With the tie poised at 2-2 after the first leg, it’s Nigeria who are in control via the away goals rule but, at the same time, the team that wins the second leg will qualify – it’s that simple. After reaching their nadir when they failed to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations, Nigeria coach Steve Keshi has attempted to go to the formula which made ‘Green Eagles’ give away to ‘Super Eagles’: a squad based on players plucked from the domestic league added with a smattering of foreign-based players. Whether that formula sees the Super Eagles return to the lofty heights of football that simulates a ready-to-smile subtlety on the lips remains to be seen, and if Steve Keshi fails to steer them to qualification we certainly won’t be seeing any more of him as the Nigeria coach.
Whilst the UK has been eulogising the performances of their athletes at the London Olympics, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 160 million people, has been bemoaning the failure of theirs – they returned home without a single medal. The post-mortem has been unforgiving. President Goodluck Jonathan ordered a “total and comprehensive overhaul” of the sports sector after the international ignominy. Indeed, Bolaji Abdullahi, Nigeria’s Sports Minister, met with the Football Federation immediately after Nigeria’s poor showing at the London Olympics to discuss whether Keshi was the right man to ensure qualification for the Cup of Nations, a feat that would at least lift the sporting hopes of the country. The pressure is on Nigeria, then, but it would be grossly simplistic to say Liberia’s don’t have any pressure: they have been promised $300,000 to share between themselves if they can defy the odds and progress to the tournament.