Back on the Road to Rio

With the Cup of Nations now consigned to the Big Book of African Football History, CAF’s top national teams don’t get much of a respite from competitive action. In just over a month’s time, the 2014 World Cup qualification tournament will resume after a 9 month break – the first set of Second Round fixtures were played in June 2012, following on from the First Round matches of November 2011. 40 teams will battle it out to be part of the 10 that progress to the final round of the tournament, where they will face another group winner in a do-or-die two-legged tie to be one of Africa’s five representatives in Brazil.

So now that Afcon is wrapped up, this is a perfect time for a reminder of how the tournament has progressed so far:

The First Round
The top 28 teams in CAF were given a bye through the first round, leaving the remaining 24 to battle it out. 12 two-legged matches in were held over the space of a week in mid-November 2011. This of course came before Afcon 2012, so the co-hosts of that tournament, Equatorial Guinea, couldn’t breach the top 28 – in fact, they were stuck in pot 2, facing the possibility of being drawn against some of the continent’s fallen giants, including DR Congo, Togo, Liberia and Ethiopia.

In the event, they drew Madagascar, which proved to be a fortunate draw. A 2-0 win in Malabo gave them the upper hand as they headed from one island to another. They increased their lead to 3-0 in the first half in Antanarivo, which meant that their hosts would have to score 4 to win. In the end, a 2-1 win for the Barea was not enough and Equatorial Guinea qualified for the next stage in one of the few ranking upsets of the round.

Lesotho were another that turned the tables, knocking out The Swallows of Burundi. A 1-0 win in Maseru set them up nicely for the trip to Bujumbura, and like Equatorial Guinea they consolidated their advantage in the first half with two early away goals. Burundi pulled it back to 2-2 but they couldn’t deny The Crocodiles progression to the group stage.

The rest of the ties all went as you would expect, although one or two minnows did at least force a struggle out of some of the seeded teams. Togo in particular were fortunate to beat Guinea-Bissau – after being held to a draw in Bissau by The Foxes, where then-Lokomotiv Plovdiv striker Basile de Carvalho (now of Levski Sofia) cancelled out Serge Gakpe’s opener, the return leg, which saw the return of Emmanuel Adebayor to international football, would be decided by a 3rd minute own goal by Jonas Mendes in favour of the Sparrow Hawks, who are bidding to return to the tournament they first qualified for in 2006.

Chad aren’t known for their football prowess either, their only notable son being former Ligue 1 star Japhet N’Doram, but they came close to knocking Tanzania out in Dar es Salaam. In N’Djamena, the Taifa Stars had posted a relatively routine 2-1 win over Les Sao, but in front of over 42,000 fans at home, they were beaten by the underdogs courtesy of a second half goal from striker Mahamat Labbo. Despite this, Chad needed a second and couldn’t find it, meaning Tanzania progressed via the away goals rule, averting an embarrassing upset.

There were few worries for Ethiopia and DR Congo, though. Despite being held to a 0-0 draw by Somalia (in a match held in neighbouring Djibouti due to the country’s security issues), the Walia Antelopes cruised through with a 5-0 win in Addis Ababa, with Shimelis Bekele and Getaneh Kebede grabbing 2 goals each. Meanwhile, progress was an even smoother ride for the DRC, who picked up a 3-1 win in Swaziland before thrashing them 5-1 in Kinshasa, with Tresor Mputu picking up 3 of the 8 goals. Another well-known name who scored in the round was Celtic’s Victor Wanyama, who added Kenya’s 4th in Nairobi and 7th overall against the Seychelles.

And spare a thought for Sao Tome and Principe, who withdrew from the 2010 qualification tournament before it had even started and were unranked going into the 2014 tournament as they hadn’t played any matches for 4 years. They were drawn against Congo, and despite losing 5-0 at home, they did at least earn a 1-1 draw (after taking the lead, no less!) and conceded less goals than the Seychelles and Djibouti (who lost 8-0 on aggregate to Namibia). This year, it was Mauritius who were the obligatory withdrawal, meaning a walkover for Liberia.

Aggregate scores:

Seychelles 0-7 Kenya
Guinea-Bissau 1-2 Togo
Djibouti 0-8 Namibia
Comoros 1-5 Mozambique
Equatorial Guinea 3-2 Madagascar
Somalia 0-5 Ethiopia
Lesotho 3-2 Burundi
Eritrea 2-4 Rwanda
Swaziland 2-8 DR Congo
Sao Tome and Principe 1-6 Congo
Chad 2-2 Tanzania (Tanzania win on away goals)

Mauritius withdrew so Liberia progressed via a walkover

The Second Round so far

Group A
1) Ethiopia – 4 pts (+2)
2) Central African Republic – 3 pts (0)
3) South Africa – 2 pts (0)
4) Botswana – 1 pt (-2)

The first weekend of matches saw the two underdogs meet in Bangui, followed by a meeting between the two established big guns in Rustenburg. In the Saturday game, the Central African Republic (pre-Afcon qualification exploits against Egypt and Burkina Faso) clinched an important 2-0 home win over Botswana with 2 goals from Foxi Kethevoama, while in South Africa the following day, Katlego Mphela sunk a late equaliser after Saladin Said had given Ethiopia an early lead.

The following weekend, South Africa travelled to Gaborone but couldn’t find a way of beating Botswana. Morgan Gould gave them the lead but midfielder Ofentse Nato, who would join South African Premier Division side Bidvest Wits a month later, equalised just before half-time and it remained 1-1 to the finish. Meanwhile, in Addis Ababa, Saladin Said was in form again, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over the Central African Republic that put Ethiopia top of the group.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – South Africa vs Central African Republic
22/03 – Ethiopia vs Botswana
07/06 – Botswana vs Ethiopia
07/06 – Central African Republic vs South Africa
14/06 – Botswana vs Central African Republic
14/06 – Ethiopia vs South Africa
06/09 – South Africa vs Botswana
06/09 – Central African Republic vs Ethiopia

Prediction: One of the toughest groups to call, with recent events demonstrating there’s no outstanding side in this one. I fancy fast-starting Ethiopia, who already have a key win over the CAR and avoided defeat in South Africa – away results are vital in CAF qualification. Those two teams now face each other and whoever gets the better of the other will emerge as the other main contender.

Group B
1) Tunisia – 6 pts (+3)
2) Sierra Leone – 4 pts (+1)
3) Equatorial Guinea – 1 pt (-2)
4) Cape Verde – 0 pts (-2)

2013 Cup of Nations surprise package Cape Verde have a lot of work to do if they’re going to top this tough group after two early defeats in their group. They suffered a crucial defeat during the first weekend as they were beaten 2-1 by Sierra Leone, as Mohamed Kamara (then of Partizan, now of Bolton Wanderers) and Sheriff Suma scored 2 first half goals, with Marco Soares scoring a consolation in stoppage time. In a tough follow-up tie, they then hosted Tunisia a week later, and despite cancelling out Saber Khelifa’s early goal with one from Odair Fortes, an early second half goal from Issam Jemaa consigned them to a second consecutive defeat. It’s difficult to see how they can come back from this.

A week before, Tunisia had received a bit of a scare when Randy put Equatorial Guinea in front in Monastir. But early in the second half, they powered ahead with two quick goals from Jemaa and Chadi Hammami, who went on to add a third late on. Equatorial Guinea thus returned to Malabo to host the Leone Stars, no doubt targeting a win. After a goal-packed first half, they were forced to settle for a 2-2 draw. For Sierra Leone, a positive start with 4 points from 2 matches before the trip to Tunisia, though it’s the Carthage Eagles that are the hot favourites to progress from this competitive group. Meanwhile, it’s do or die for the two island nations – a defeat for either would essentially guarantee elimination.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Tunisia vs Sierra Leone
22/03 – Equatorial Guinea vs Cape Verde
07/06 – Cape Verde vs Equatorial Guinea
07/06 – Sierra Leone vs Tunisia
14/06 – Cape Verde vs Sierra Leone
14/06 – Equatorial Guinea vs Tunisia
06/09 – Tunisia vs Cape Verde
06/09 – Sierra Leone vs Equatorial Guinea

Prediction: A home win over Sierra Leone and Tunisia should be safely through to the next round without too much of a struggle. It is already set up beautifully for them with the 2nd and 3rd best teams in the group dispatched already and now have to play each other, with the likelihood of taking further points off each other.

Group C
1) Ivory Coast – 4 pts (+2)
2) Tanzania – 3 pts (-1)
3) Morocco – 2 pts (0)
4) Gambia – 1 pt (-1)

Ivory Coast must be one of the favourites to qualify for 2014 and so far they are looking pretty good to at least make the penultimate step. Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba scored as the Elephants got their campaign off to a great start with a 2-0 win over Tanzania. A week later they headed to Marrakech for a tough encounter with Morocco. Another goal from Kalou gave them an early lead, before Houssine Kharja equalised with a penalty just before half time. Kolo Toure put the West Africans back in front on the hour mark, but a late equaliser from Hamza Abourrouzouk limited the damage for the Atlas Lions, who would have been hoping for a win on home soil against their main rivals for the group.

The main reason for this is what happened a week before in Bakau, where they had fallen behind against Gambia thanks to Abdou Jammeh’s goal. Kharja had equalised late on but it’s definitely a case of two points dropped, especially as Gambia were then beaten 2-1 by Tanzania in Dar es Salaam a week later; they had taken the lead in that one as well, but a second half comeback, completed by a late penalty converted by Erasto Nyoni, cost them all 3 points. However, even at this early stage, it looks as if they will be competing for an irrelevant 2nd place in the group.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Ivory Coast vs Gambia
22/03 – Tanzania vs Morocco
07/06 – Morocco vs Tanzania
07/06 – Gambia vs Ivory Coast
14/06 – Morocco vs Gambia
14/06 – Tanzania vs Ivory Coast
06/09 – Ivory Coast vs Morocco
06/09 – Gambia vs Tanzania

Prediction: I envisage comfortable progression for Ivory Coast, as they don’t often bottle qualification as they do the major tournaments themselves. Morocco have perhaps already blown their chances of qualifying for a World Cup for the first time since 1998; Afcon shows they still lack the intangibles to be a major force in African football once again. Tanzania are growing as a team but they are probably looking to the next Afcon as a realistic target.

Group D
1) Zambia – 6 pts (+4)
2) Ghana – 3 pts (+6)
3) Sudan – 1 pt (-3)
4) Lesotho – 1 pt (-7)

Zambia top the group but not without good fortune. While Ghana kicked off their campaign by battering the minnows of Lesotho 7-0, Zambia had a tougher trip to Khartoum, and were beaten 2-0. However, it was later determined that Sudan had fielded an ineligible player, Saif Ali, and so the Chipolopolo were awarded a 3-0 win. Following this, they headed home to host Ghana in one of the decisive matches of the group. An early goal from Christopher Katongo was enough to clinch a victory which puts them in the driving seat in the group. It’ll now be interesting to see how they react to their more recent dip in form that saw them eliminated in the group stage of the Cup of Nations.

Meanwhile, in Maseru, Lesotho recovered from their thrashing by holding Sudan to a 0-0 draw. Combined with the loss of the win over Zambia, it puts the Jediane Falcons 5 points behind the leaders already, pretty much ending any hopes they had of upstaging the two giants in the group. Despite this, they will no doubt make things awkward for any team they host and they could decide the group.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Ghana vs Sudan
22/03 – Lesotho vs Zambia
07/06 – Zambia vs Lesotho
07/06 – Sudan vs Ghana
14/06 – Zambia vs Sudan
14/06 – Lesotho vs Ghana
06/09 – Ghana vs Zambia
06/09 – Sudan vs Lesotho

Prediction: The matching of the two big teams of the group is one to get the neutral excited, as it is a fascinating pairing. Zambia are in a great position but have struggled in recent competitive matches, while Ghana are tough to beat and have considerable depth as well as talent. Despite the current standings, you have to favour the Black Stars at this point. That crucial final group match between the two will probably decide this one.

Group E
1) Congo – 6 pts (+4)
2) Niger – 3 pts (+2)
3) Gabon – 3 pts (-2)
4) Burkina Faso – 0 pts (-4)

After the highs of Afcon, Burkina Faso will return to Earth with a bump when they remind themselves of the task ahead of them here, with a group already swung by both of the opening matches being marred by ineligible player issues – Congo were awarded a 3-0 win for a trip to Ouagadougou that initially only yielded a 0-0 draw, and Niger benefited from an almost-identical situation against Gabon, which had also finished with a blank scoresheet.

This made for a retrospectively intriguing situation (retrospectively as decisions weren’t made until later in the year) heading into the second round of matches, where the two outsiders faced each other in a match that in hindsight would decide who would go top. A late winner from Chris Malonga gave Congo a home 1-0 win, while in Libreville, Remy Ebanega gave Gabon an identical result.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Burkina Faso vs Niger
22/03 – Congo vs Gabon
07/06 – Gabon vs Congo
07/06 – Niger vs Burkina Faso
14/06 – Gabon vs Niger
14/06 – Congo vs Burkina Faso
06/09 – Burkina Faso vs Gabon
06/09 – Niger vs Congo

Prediction: But for the ineligible player-based changing of results, Gabon would probably be the favourites to go through here, as they’re still unbeaten on the pitch. Even now they are only 3 behind a Congo side that hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since 2000. Their next two matches against the group leaders are critical, and I’m confident they can turn it around.

Group F
1) Nigeria – 4 pts (+1)
2) Namibia – 3 pts (0)
3) Malawi – 2 pts (0)
4) Kenya – 1 pt (-1)

The new African champions have the bonus of an eminently winnable group here, and already hold a slight advantage, though they haven’t been so impressive in the matches held so far. Ikechukwu Uche’s late winner gave them a 1-0 home victory over Namibia, while it took until the 89th minute for them to break the deadlock in Blantyre, only to concede a stoppage time equaliser from Malawi’s John Banda. Nonetheless, an away point against the team that’s likely to be their nearest challengers isn’t a bad result.

Malawi have also disappointed so far, with a 0-0 draw in their first game against Nairobi. The Kenyans then travelled to Windhoek where they lost 1-0 to Namibia – it has indeed been a group of few goals, with just 4 scored so far. If Nigeria carry their Afcon form into this group, though, expect that total to rise

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Nigeria vs Kenya
22/03 – Namibia vs Malawi
07/06 – Malawi vs Namibia
07/06 – Kenya vs Nigeria
14/06 – Malawi vs Kenya
14/06 – Namibia vs Nigeria
06/09 – Nigeria vs Malawi
06/09 – Kenya vs Namibia

Prediction: You’ve got to go with Nigeria to advance from this one, surely. They now have good form and a group of young players that are developing all the time. Now that Stephen Keshi has confirmed he is staying on as coach, you would expect them to progress with ease. Malawi and Namibia are likely to battle over the consolation prize of being runner-up.

Group G
1) Egypt – 6 pts (+3)
2) Guinea – 3 pts (0)
3) Zimbabwe – 1 pt (-1)
4) Mozambique – 1 pt (-2)

Despite their recent Afcon dominance, Egypt haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1990, but they have a good group here which will test them enough to keep them alert, though one that is unlikely to halt progression. The early home win against Mozambique, with goals from Fathalla and Zidan, no doubt built confidence, before a double from Aboutrika and a stoppage time winner from Salah gave them a dramatic and vital win over Guinea in Conakry.

If however Egypt continue to struggle as a result of the suspension of their national league, you would expect Guinea to be pushing them hard. Their disappointing home defeat came after a 1-0 win in Harare, courtesy of a goal from Stuttgart’s Ibrahima Traore. A win in Mozambique, who drew 0-0 with Zimbabwe in their second game, is vital for them – anything less than a win and Egypt are comfortable in this group. As for Zimbabwe, after the dramas over the supposed disbanding of the national team after failure to qualify for Afcon, they will do well to avoid any major dramas.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Egypt vs Zimbabwe
22/03 – Mozambique vs Guinea
07/06 – Guinea vs Mozambique
07/06 – Zimbabwe vs Egypt
14/06 – Guinea vs Zimbabwe
14/06 – Mozambique vs Egypt
06/09 – Egypt vs Guinea
06/09 – Zimbabwe vs Mozambique

Prediction: Despite their issues, Egypt remain favourites for this group. I think the damage might have been done for Guinea – the last match in Egypt will be crucial but only if they are still in touch with Bob Bradley’s Pharaohs. They need 2 wins over Mozambique to stan any chance of making it into the play-offs.

Group H
1) Benin – 4 pts (+1)
2) Algeria – 3 pts (+3)
3) Mali – 3 pts (0)
4) Rwanda – 1 pt (-4)

Another one of those tough groups CAF’s draws always throw up every year, at least two of these teams will be expecting to qualify. Algeria, of course, qualified in 2010, but are a little bit up against the wall here at the moment – a 4-0 home win against Rwanda was a nice banker and got the goal difference up nicely, but a 2-1 defeat against Mali (in Ouagadougou due to political instability), with a late winner from Modibo Maiga, was a major setback.

Added to this, Vahid Halilhodzic’s Foxes came away from Afcon with little to shout about, while Mali finished 3rd once again, giving them momentum as they head into back-to-back matches against Rwanda. That being said, the Eagles will also be disappointed with their qualification results so far, after a 1-0 defeat in Cotonou in their opening fixture. But Benin missed the opportunity to capitalise on that with a draw in Rwanda, with a late equalising penalty from The Wasps’ Labama Bokota costing them the 3 points. The Squirrels will be looking to captain Stephane Sessegnon and record goal-scorer Razak Omotoyossi of Zamalek, who has scored both their goals so far, knowing that an upstaging of the two “bigger” teams in the group is not out of the question yet.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Algeria vs Benin
22/03 – Rwanda vs Mali
07/06 – Mali vs Rwanda
07/06 – Benin vs Algeria
14/06 – Mali vs Benin
14/06 – Rwanda vs Algeria
06/09 – Algeria vs Mali
06/09 – Benin vs Rwanda

Prediction: The results have gone generally in favour of the home teams so far so it’s difficult to see who is in the driving seat – Benin dropping points in Rwanda may cost them dearly a few matches down the line. Mali have a chance to build some momentum here with these next two results and cannot blow it in the same way the Squirrels did. Algeria seem confident despite a disappointing Afcon – they really have to take at least 4 points from their 2 matches with Benin. After the next two rounds of matches we will know a lot more but I’m edging towards Mali already.

Group I
1) Libya – 4 pts (+1)
2) DR Congo – 3 pts (+1)
3) Cameroon – 3 pts (0)
4) Togo – 1 pt (-2)

The “Group of Death” of CAF qualification saw 2 teams from Afcon 2013, 1 from Afcon 2012, and Cameroon, objectively the rank outsiders but realistically the favourites, demonstrating how open this group is. Any of these 4 teams could conceivably go through, in the process knocking out 3 other teams that had genuine hopes of making it to Brazil.

It remains close after the first 2 rounds of fixtures too. Libya, the only team in the group to have never qualified for a World Cup, are the shock leaders, after drawing in Lome and then beating Cameroon on home soil, with a stoppage time winner from Hamed Snousi. The Indomitable Lions had began their campaign positively with a home win over DR Congo but this latest defeat puts them behind the team theye beat on goal difference, as goals from Mputu and Mbokani gave them a 2-0 win over Togo in front of 50,000 in Kinshasa.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Cameroon vs Togo
22/03 – DR Congo vs Libya
07/06 – Libya vs DR Congo
07/06 – Togo vs Cameroon
14/06 – Libya vs Togo
14/06 – DR Congo vs Cameroon
06/09 – Cameroon vs Libya
06/09 – Togo vs DR Congo

Prediction: I love this group – it could easily be tighter and far more interesting than many of the groups in Brazil. The order of the fixtures could play a part in this – Libya lead but you’d have to admit they are probably the weakest side in the group, and so DR Congo have a chance to get back-to-back wins and stretch their advantage in the group. Togo are relying on Adebayor staying committed. But this whole group hinges on whether or not Cameroon perform to the standard they are capable – or, to use the clichéd form, it depends on which Cameroon turn up. I’ll play it safe and go with DR Congo, as Afcon suggests they are difficult to beat.

Group J
1) Senegal – 4 pts (+2)
2) Uganda – 2 pts (0)
3) Angola – 2 pts (0)
4) Liberia – 1 pt (-2)

On first glance at the standings, you would think that there’s only one team that is going to progress from this group, but thinking about it, the would-be favourites Senegal failed to make Afcon, while Angola did, which at least gives the Sable Antelopes a semblance of momentum. It is certainly these two teams that you would expect to be front-runners, but both have tripped up already, which means the points standings are still pretty close.

The team they both tripped up against was Uganda, and the team that lost out was Angola, who lost a home victory when Emmanuel Okwi scored a late equaliser in Luanda. 6 days later, in the Nelson Mandela National Stadium in Kampala, a late penalty from Godfrey Walusimbi cancelled out Papiss Cisse’s first half goal to give them a second point, though at least for Senegal it is only dropping points on the road – a 3-1 win in Dakar against Liberia has set them in good stead. A further 0-0 draw for Angola against Liberia has given the Lions a 2 point lead here, but they now have to play each other twice in the defining fixtures in the group.

Remaining fixtures:
22/03 – Senegal vs Angola
22/03 – Liberia vs Uganda
07/06 – Uganda vs Liberia
07/06 – Angola vs Senegal
14/06 – Uganda vs Angola
14/06 – Liberia vs Senegal
06/09 – Senegal vs Uganda
06/09 – Angola vs Liberia

Prediction: This is almost certainly going to come down to the next two rounds of matches – more points for Senegal and they have already seen off the next best team in the group, while more points for Angola blows this wide open, especially if Uganda can pick up serious points against Liberia. Senegal are clear favourites at the moment but it’s far from over.

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