World Cup Play-Offs: 1st leg observations

Egypt outclassed as Black Stars all but qualify in Kumasi
Ghana simply had too much ability on the pitch for Egypt to cope. The 6-1 scoreline might have flattered Ghana's defence, as Egypt did threaten after Aboutrika's penalty brought them within one goal of the Black Stars' early lead, but it most certainly didn't flatter Egypt's defence, which fell apart under the threat of set pieces, crosses and pretty much any threat. There was further woe for defender Mohamed Nagieb at the other end, who missed two big chances which could have changed the course of the tie if they had been converted.

In the end, though, the midfield power of Essien and Muntari and the finishing talent of Gyan and Waris was enough to send them to Brazil – yes, there’s the match in Cairo to come, but on the basis of this match a 5-0 win for Egypt would be miraculous, simply because they don’t look strong enough defensively. Coach Bob Bradley will be made the scapegoat, but he is blameless for the lack of depth in the defensive positions – starting 38-year-old Wael Gomaa was always going to be problematic for obvious reasons, but what was the alternative? This was simply just one tie too far for an ageing Egyptian side, whose group stage record was deceptive – they just aren’t on the same level as the best African sides any more.

-James Bennett

Giresse shoots himself in the foot by reverting back to top-heavy tactics

The pint-sized Giresse had done a steady job since he took over earlier this year, balancing a side which had been about as balanced as a drunken man on skates by trying to fit in as many of its surplus of good and very good forwards as possible. But he retreated through the time-space continuum to reintroduce the problem that he had gone some way to curing.

Their usual 4-2-3-1 system, which usually contains the trickery and subtlety of Sadio Mane and Henri Saivet, was ditched for a more standard 4-3-3, with the out-and-out strikers triumvirate of Moussa Sow, Papiss Cisse and Dame N’Doye spearheading the Senegal charge and Mo Diame positioned just ahead of Freddie N’Diaye and Idrissa Gueye.

With the lack of authentic width, not to mention inadequate defensive protection, giving attacking Ivorian full-backs Serge Aurier and Arthur Boka the freedom to get forward and the in-form duo of Gervinho and Salomon Kalou, aided by the jitters of Lamine Gassama, to produce perfect synergy, it came as no surprise to see Ivory Coast thoroughly outfootball the Teranga Lions for the first 45 minutes.

Senegal fared much better when Sadio Mane was introduced at half time for N’Diaye, allowing Diame to rekindle his successful double-pivot relationship with Gueye, and Gassama was sacrificed for the in-form Nantes’ right-back Issa Cissokho in the 50th minute. Senegal also somewhat rallied when Sow, who understandably looked uneasy on the left, was sacrificed for the more orthodox winger Henri Saivet.

Those changes may have just about kept the tie alive, especially with the late Papiss Cisse goal, but they’ll need to be far more rigid as a unit in the return leg in Casablanca. Otherwise, devoid of home support and now facing an Ivorian team which has gone undefeated in 20 qualification matches, they may as well save money on their flight tickets.

-Salim Masoud Said

It’s the same old story for Cameroon

Once again deciding the start with 4 defensive midfielders as their midfield, Cameroon’s ability to even threaten to create anything was desperately lacking. Relying on periodic bursts forward from Allan Nyom from right-back for width, that was the closest they got to the touchline on either side, as a game turned as stodgy as walking down as an average Hungarian’s lunch. Filled with players with the touch of a table leg, having Alex Song as pretty much the only man who as ever got an assist in his career to be the one to provide something for Webo and Eto’o up front is not a good situation to be in, as they lacked the ability to get the ball into the striker’s feet on the rare occasions they managed to keep it for any length of time.

Unsurprisingly, nightmare-in-disguise and Cameroonian pariah Samuel Eto’o attempted to take the game into his own hands, as his speculative 40-yard strikes were the only compliment to Joel Matip’s tame attempts in terms of shots on goal. And with a country with such a rich footballing tradition, the lack of creativity in the squad is amazing. Whether there are players there and Finke is just not selecting them, or Cameroon has about as many creative midfielders as Argentina has decent left-backs, I do not know. Maybe the Cameroonian youth have noticed the success-rate of strong defensive midfielders from the continent in recent years, instead aspiring to be Jean Il Makoun rather than Samuel Eto’o, but what is clear is that the shouts for a player with some interest in beating his man and providing an assist over a high pass-completion rate is absolutely necessary if they want to get to Brazil.

-Sam Crocker

Put’s midfield gamble pays off as Algeria make too many defensive errors

Many ‘uninspiring’ African-based midfielders have proved inspirational figures in the international arena. Maybe the John Obi Mikel’s, Michael Essien’s and Momo Diame’s were typecast as that wardrobe bruiser and not afforded the trust other European playmakers are. In Africa, with their share of creative licence, these players are a joy to watch. So it surprised me when Paul Put played Charles Kabore in a double-pivot with Djakaridja Kone. I expected Kabore’s offensive output to diminish in the shadow of his defensive burden.

In the end Kabore, did not let his defensive work temper his creativity as he was ubiquitous in the middle of the pitch. Moving Kabore back, also allowed Put to line up with more speed on the flanks and that paid dividends as Algeria’s two fullbacks – Mesbah and Mostefa – were at fault for two of the three Burkina goals.

The encouraging aspect of the result for Algeria is that they did manage to score two away goals in Ouagadougou. They take that back to Blida where the team has not lost since 2004. In fact, Algeria have won 12 matches at Stade Mustapha Tchaker and have only drawn 1 match vs. Tanzania in 2011. Algeria’s front three were also particularly impressive. Feghouli was a veritable ‘meneur des hommes’, Slimani battled hard and Soudani had Koffi beat for the first 60 minutes.

Both managers will now assess and adjust as we head into an enthralling encounter on November the 19th, in Blida.

-Maher Mezahi

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