Ghana v ZambiaThe mouth-watering tie that everyone has been anticipating, between two sides primed for battle. The inauguration of this rivalry can be perhaps be charted back to Zambia’s 1-0 win over Ghana in the semi final of Afcon 2012, but it ignited in the reverse group fixture when Zambia repeated the Afcon semi-final scoreline. Zambian police allegedly manhandled Ghanaian players, including the ultra cool Derek Boateng, after the final whistle. Since then, each serve by one party has been returned by the other side. The agglomeration of these events has added an elixir bête noire-like edge into this match.
With the World Cup less than a year away Ghana’s exiled stars are predictably reversing their decisions to retire from international football. The shameless duo of Michael Essien and Kevin Prince Boateng end years of exile whilst Andre Ayew is also back after his pre-Afcon 2013 petulance for arriving late for a medical assessment. While the goalscoring burden has been taken off Asamoah Gyan by the efficience Mubarak Wakaso from the penalty spot and set-piece delivery, Boateng brings with him goals centrally and the couldn’t-give-a-rats-arse self-belief to produce his best performances at the very highest level. With coach Akwesi Appiah keen to imprint a no-nonsense approach when it comes to indiscipline, it remains to be seen whether the return of Boateng, who is not exactly a very popular member of the squad, and others will help squad morale in a squad that is reportedly full of divisions.
For Zambia, pressure is mounting on coach Herve Renard after the ignominy of a group stage exit at Afcon 2013 and several disappointing results, including a recent failure to qualify for the African Nations Championships (an Afcon for domestic-based players only) after a 1-0 defeat at home to Zimbabwe. With the wily wisdom of FA chairman Kalusha Bwalya still backing Renard, there is still the ink-and-paper togetherness in the Chipolopolo camp that was the foundation of their Afcon success. Their indifferent form is certainly not for a lack of trying, as Renard readily admits. The root of the problem is a prolonged period of remorselessness in front of goal from their phalanx of strikers. They are not helped by a midfield largely composed of trusted foot soldiers, though there are high hopes for Mukaka Mulenga. With opposition defences now more tight-fisted against them after their Afcon 2012 triumph, Zambia have also lacked the creativity to untie the knots.
Senegal v Uganda
Such is the superabundance of strikers at Alain Giresse’s disposal that he has had the audacity to banish Chelsea’s Demba Ba out of the Teranga Lions’ cage, citing limited playing time at club level. Make no mistake about it: every single spot in the Senegal squad is earned these days. A shock group stage exit at Afcon 2012 and failure to qualify for the 2013 edition made many Senegal fans thirsty for a firefighter-type manager. But the weary, piriton-sized Giresse has been able to morph individuality into collectivity; the 2-0 win away to Liberia in the last round was as perfect an away performance as you could see. The signs are encouraging, then, but ultimately everything will prove to be futile if Senegal don’t qualify for the play offs.
In the other corner, Africa’s most prominent nearly-but-not-quite team Uganda yearn for the summit. Recent attempts to execute one final leap onto the summit have ended in heartbreak just as the nostrils have started to sense high altitude. Yet there has been glass-half-full rhetoric emitting out of the Ugandan Istanbul-based training camp. “We can’t fail to qualify after training in Europe,” defender Godfrey Walusimbi told the Daily Monitor. “I don’t know anybody in the Senegal team as I do not watch football on TV,” said striker Francis Kalanda, “but come Saturday, they will know who I am.”
It has often been their abysmal away record that has been the bane of their international failures. Indeed, the last time the Cranes won away from home was when they edged Guinea Bissau 1-0 in 2011. Before that, you have go back to 2000 to find a Uganda away win – a 2-0 win over Malawi. The Cranes will be helped by the fact that the match will be staged at a neutral venue after Senegal continue to serve a ban for crowd trouble in last November’s Afcon play off versus the Ivory Coast. With a strong Ugandan fanbase expected to make the travel to Marrakech, Uganda’s nerves are set to be diminished. Discipline has always been a commendable component of their game. The key, as ever, is whether they have enough subtlety to penetrate a fearsome Senegalese core, plus the goals to win a must-win game.
Cameroon v Libya
In just his first three matches, Volker Finke has attracted vociferous criticism for his team selections as his Indomitable Lions snatched just one point from six. The German, who came from FC Koln, has been too cautious with his decisions in midfield. Under Finke, Cameroon have opted for a safer, some would say banal, approach. In two of three matches, the former Koln man has aligned three holding players in midfield. One can only expect so much creativity from a midfield of Eyong Enoh, Alexandre Song, Joel Matip and Jean II Makoun. Consequently, the Indomitable Lions have been toothless in attack, failing to score a single goal under Finke.
Libya’s Mediterranean Knights seem to prefer a quicker more gung-ho approach. Coach Arbeesh overloads both flanks which accentuates to the Libyans’ speedy and tricky play. The left-sided duo of Mohamed El-Mounir and Mohamed El-Moghrobi has the potential to poke holes through very resolute defenses. One of Africa’s uncovered gems marshals Libya’s midfield. Ahmed Saad is tasked with supplying their potent attack and he does his job well, even at the age of 34.
Arbeesh’s men have peaked at an opportune time. Their ascent began two years ago when they defeated the likes of Zambia and Ghana in Tripoli and qualified for the 2012 African Cup of Nations. Following an impressive outing in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea, the North African nation managed their highest ever place in the FIFA rankings at 53. Political strife interrupted their encouraging progress, but coach Abdelhamid Arbeesh has done an admirable job of steering his team back on course.
Were it not for the Togolese FA’s infamous incompetence, the North African nation would have been in a much more favourable position. Togo had their shock 2-0 victory over Cameroon rescinded following revelations that a suspended player had contributed to the Sparrowhawks’ win. FIFA subsequently accorded Cameroon its 3 points which knocked Libya off of their perch and sat the Indomitable Lions atop of Group E. Anything but a Libyan win in Yaounde will send Finke and co. to the play-off round, where they will face a top 5 CAF side.
The two sides’ contrasting styles will ensure the spectacle will have a unique flavor. Taking into account both sides’ recent form, Libya will certainly not be cowering in their boots.
Tunisia v Cape Verde
Over 30 000 Tunisians will pack the Stade Olympique de Radés on Saturday evening, in hope that their Carthage Eagles will seal the deal against a tricky Cape Verdean outfit.
The uncomfortable reality for the hosts is that this group should have been sealed by now. The press blame coach Nabil Maaloul’s complacency for a gaffe that may cost Tunisia a trip to Brazil. On Matchday 5, Tunisia had already mathematically qualified and Nabil Maaloul took that opportunity to give a few debutants a run-out in Freetown. The Carthage Eagles held on for a draw, and a few days later, as a result of Equatorial Guinea’s administrative issues, Cape Verde were awarded an unforeseen 3 points, reviving their World Cup hopes.
Tunisia now sit on 11 points and the Blue Shark pretenders sit on 9. An unlikely win in Radés will see Cape Verde, who only made their African Cup of Nations debut last January, qualify for a play-off match; just a step from Brazil 2014.
Tunisia and their supporters will not underestimate Ryan Mendes and co. as they have suffered their share of embarrassing losses in the last 4 years. In 2009, a loss to Mozambique kept Tunisia from the World Cup. They also finished runners-up to Botswana during qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations 2012.
Maaloul will count on an experienced core to see his side passed Cape Verde. Powerful, yet elegant, midfielder Anis Ben-Hatira has finally recovered from a crippling knee injury. Hocine Ragued, Khaled Mouelhi and Mehdi Traoui form a spectacularly average midfield trio devoid of inspiration; but, their defensive experience is vital to the side’s balance. The creative burden then falls on their wide dangermen, who have nothing to envy from the best wingers in Africa. Wahbi Khazri and Youssef Msakni have the full package. They are tricky, pacy and possess a good final pass.
The Blue Sharks are no strangers to uphill tasks. Coach Antunes’ men are upset artists as their resolute squad has often battled against the odds to produce the unlikeliest of results. In South Africa, the archipelago nation took the African Cup of Nations by storm by qualifying to the knockout stages ahead of African giants Morocco. Ryan Mendes and Julio Tavares are a handful for any defense. An attacking midfield of Toni Varela, Platini and Heldon supplementing Antunes’ already competent strikers is proof of Cape Verde’s danger. They will try to defend in blocks and pounce into attack to try and catch the Tunisian rearguard by surprise.
Maaloul has told the press that he does not intend to play for a draw, so this match is sure to entertain.
Nigeria v Malawi
Given their status as African champions and the middle-of-the-road company they have their group – Malawi, Kenya and Namibia – it should have never have come to this nail-biting, bum-squeaking finish for Nigeria. Whilst the continents crème de la crème have already sealed qualification for the next round or have had mitigating circumstances (ineligible players fielded skewing the groups) for not doing so, the Super Eagles’ seem to have opted to go down The Hard Way Avenue. Lacklustre draws against a Kenyan side composed of Victor Wanyama and everyone else and a Namibian side largely composed of barely workaday players have delayed qualification. Nevertheless, with an unbeaten run at home that stretches back to 1981 and the pristine Jon Obi Mikel back to manhandle the midfield and the power of Emmanuel Emenike back to lead the line, Nigeria are much-fancied to see this one through. All they need to do is avoid defeat to seal their place in the play-offs.
Avoiding defeat to Malawi may be a tricky task, however, especially with the expectations of the mass population jettisoned on their shoulders. The Flames have forged a reputation as one of the continent’s most intransigent sides. They went unbeaten throughout the Afcon 2012 qualifying campaign, drawing 6 games and winning 2; agonisingly missing out on qualification as one the best runners-up. In World Cup qualifying, they have shown familiar stubbornness – 1 win and 4 draws in their 5 games so far. What’s more, had they held on and not conceded a late equaliser in the 2-2 draw to Kenya in the last round they would be top of the group. With a nothing-to-lose mentality flowing throughout the team, who knows what could happen?
NOTICE: Ghana vs Zambia and Nigeria v Malawi will be available on CAF TV. You can watch the match online here