World Cup Play-Offs: Ghana v Egypt

aboutrika On the surface, this tie is simply two of Africa's football giants going head-to-head, attempting to reach their nation's third World Cup, making it no different to the other play-off ties. But in hindsight, this may prove to be of much greater historical significance, as both sets of players are looking to confirm their status amongst the greatest African teams of all time. For both teams, this could be a defining moment in their international careers. Ghana are looking to qualify for their third World Cup in a row, having narrowly missed out on a semi-final berth three years ago. Only Cameroon (1990-2002), Nigeria (1994-2002) and Tunisia (1998-2006) have achieved this so far, with their own "golden generations" of players. Though this Ghanaian generation currently lacks an Africa Cup of Nations victory, they can rightfully claim to be amongst the best teams the continent has ever produced if they can surpass this Egypt team to secure their place in Brazil.

Granted, many of the players in this squad weren’t around in 2006 – John Mensah, John Paintsil and Derek Boateng can’t find their way into this squad while Stephen Appiah and Samuel Kuffour have retired. And even those that have survived, such as Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Richard Kingson, have been in and out of the squad, either due to injury, a lack of form or not making themselves available for selection. The one constant has been Asamoah Gyan, who leads this team from the front once again.

The supporting cast of youngsters should see Ghana qualify for many more major tournaments in the next few years, with five of the 2009 U-20 World Cup-winning squad amongst the players chosen for this tie. The Ayew brothers and Kevin-Prince Boateng, like Essien, have conveniently returned just before the World Cup – Ghana would be strong without them but there is no question that they are stronger with them. However, KPB is injured (or “injured”) and will not appear in this tie. Alternatives include Christian Atsu, 21, and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, 22. All of the defenders selected are in the mid-20s or younger. And yet these are experienced youngsters – Agyemang-Badu has 45 caps, just 8 fewer than Essien who is 8 years his senior.

If there is one weakness, it is defensively. John Boye and Jonathan Mensah, the Black Stars’ usual centre-back pairing, are both out injured, while Harrison Afful, who started the final qualifier, is also absent. Usually Ghana are, if anything, difficult to beat, and that has always started at the back. Such a major disruption to their defence could be the difference between progress and elimination.

In contrast, this Egypt side has been together for many years, and is looking to add what will likely be a final achievement to its legacy. Egypt last qualified in 1990 under Mahmoud El-Gohary with that great generation that led the nation through the 1990s, including Hossam Hassan et al. This generation, of Mohamed Aboutrika, Wael Gomaa, Amr Zaki, Ahmed Fathy and others, has blown its predecessors into the dust, along with every other team in Africa, at least as far as the Cup of Nations goes.

But there is one thing missing: World Cup qualification. Four years ago, it came down to the extraordinary play-off against Algeria. In 2006, the year of the first of the three consecutive Cup of Nations victories, they failed to make it out of a tough group that also included Cameroon and Ivory Coast. A couple of the players have been around since the 2002 campaign which saw them narrowly miss out to Senegal in another tough group.

Two years ago, former USA coach Bob Bradley was tasked with helping this team take the extra step. This was not made any easier by the suspension of the national league in the wake of the Port Said disaster. The rustiness of the players showed during their attempts to qualify for the 2013 Cup of Nations, where they lost to the Central African Republic over two legs, and even when they met Ghana in a warm-up friendly in January, in which they were trounced 3-0. But despite all this, they breezed through their World Cup group, winning every game, while Ghana had a more difficult ride, only qualifying with victory over Zambia in the final match. While they do not have the more talented squad of the two sides, they do have momentum.

The lynchpins of the great team are nearing the end – Wael Gomaa is now 38, Aboutrika is 34. In fact, eight members of this squad are at least 30 years old, contrasting with just two of the Ghana squad. There is a talented young generation coming through behind them, ready to take their place. Will the old guard be driven on by a sense of urgency to pull of one final upset and reach the greatest stage for the first and last time? The odds are against them, but they have been for some time. Ghana are the favourites, but you can never count out Egypt.

Probable line-ups:

Ghana: Dauda; Opare, Akaminko, Sumaila, Addy; Asamoah, Wakaso, Agyemang-Badu, A Ayew; Gyan, Waris.

Egypt: Ekramy; Fathy, Nagieb, Gomaa, Shedid; Ghaly, El-Nenny; Salah, Aboutrika, El-Said; Gedo.

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