World Cup Play-Offs: The Ligue 1 Lowdown

KGS By Andrew Gibney (@Gibney_A) This weekend is one of the biggest in the international football calendar. The European leagues are on hold as many of the top players do battle for a chance to represent their country next summer at the World Cup in Brazil. The focus has and will continue to be concentrated on the battle between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo and whether France can shake off their demons against Ukraine. In-between the European play-offs there are five play-offs in Africa that will see a whole host of Ligue 1 players do battle for the right to represent their continent next summer.

IDRISSA GUEYE (Lille OSC): Ivory Coast v Senegal (3-1 after the first leg)

After losing the first leg in Abidjan Les Lions de la Teranga have their work cut out for them in what would have already been a difficult second leg without a two goal deficit to overcome. If they are going to have any chance to turn it around they will need some clinical finishing from the impressive attacking talent they can call upon, but for Moussa Sow and Papiss Demba Cisse it could be a long and difficult evening if they are left isolated up front. Step-forward Lille’s dynamic and energetic midfielder Idrissa Gueye.

The 24-year-old made his breakthrough as a first-team regular under the guidance of now Roma boss Rudi Garcia, but it is under René Girard that he has become an integral part of the first team. Playing alongside the veterans Rio Mavuba and Florent Balmont, Gueye has not only flourished himself, but his high energy game has given the older duo a new lease of life in Northern France.

With every game Gueye is growing with confidence, looking to get on the ball at every opportunity and as he improves he has gone from contributing mostly on the defensive end to bursting forward with the ball and driving Lille forward in attack. Now he has to use his new found confidence to push his international teammates forward and inspire them to an unforgettable come back on Saturday. Alain Giresse’s side lack a true leader and with Gueye they have someone that has all the attributes to lead this talented side all the way to Brazil.

VINCENT ENYEAMA (Lille OSC): Nigeria v Ethiopia (1-2 after the first leg)

Nigeria rode their luck in the first leg, with the partisan home crowd urging them on; they couldn’t stop Ethiopia causing their defence problems. Now at home they will hope to dominate the second leg, but the underdogs showed enough to make sure Nigeria are at their best on Saturday. Stephen Keshi will be hoping that goalkeeper Enyeama will bring the same form that has seen Lille climb to second in Ligue 1 and stop the Ethiopian’s in their tracks.

You have to go right back to the 15th of September for the last time Enyeama conceded a goal in the league, that translates to just over 765 minutes the Nigerian has gone unbeaten. With 11 clean sheets this season already, beating last season’s total of 10, and a vast majority of the plaudits have to go to the returning goalkeeper. His amazing reflexes, superb shot stopping and commanding presence has taken Lille’s new look defence to a higher level.

Sent out on loan by Rudi Garcia, the 31-year-old has captured the hearts of the Lille fans and has quickly become a fan-favourite. This is nothing new to Nigerian fans, Enyeama has been a big part of their defence for years and they will hope that he can bring this invincible aura he carries in France over to the National team. If he can pick up another clean sheet he will book his country a place in next summer’s World Cup.

NICOLAS N’KOULOU v SABER KHELIFA (Marseille): Cameroon v Tunisia (0-0 after the first leg)

On Sunday afternoon, two Marseille teammates will do battle in the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo to see who will return to France with the bragging rights and a place in Brazil 2014. Cameroon’s central defender Nicolas N’Koulou will be hoping to shut out Tunisia’s Saber Khelifa and give him team the platform to banish the demons of the first leg and find the goals to see off their North African opponents.

Khelifa will be looking to shake off a quiet start to the season and remind Nkoulou and the Marseille fans why he was brought in from Evian in the summer. So far it’s safe to say he has not really had his chance at the Stade Velodrome, but facing him every day in training, Nkoulou will know the dangers that Khelifa possesses. There is no real reason why Khelifa has not been given more minutes at OM this season, he brings something different that the other forwards don’t provide, his dangerous runs into the channels and his pace and ability to play off the shoulders of the defence make his a constant danger. There is nothing the Tunisian forward loves more than to silence a home crowd with a sucker-punch goal on the counter-attack, watch for Khelifa to cause continuous problems for the Cameroon back-line.

For N’Koulou it is a chance to kick-start his somewhat disappointing season. After a stellar season last year he has not been at his best this campaign and the Marseille defence has looked shaky as he continues to under-perform. For a player that was linked with moved to Bayern Munich and Barcelona during the summer, those moves look a long way away at the moment. However a strong performance and a clean sheet away in front of his home support will go some way to resurrecting the defender’s season.

Another two Marseille player’s will feature in Cairo as Egypt take on Ghana, but with the Black Stars 6-1 up after the home leg there will be little pressure on the Ayew brothers André and Jordan and they, assuming there is not a Bob Bradley miracle on Monday, will be on the plane to Brazil next summer.

ALAIN TRAORE (FC Lorient): Algeria v Burkina Faso (2-3 after the first leg)

The African play-offs schedule has no doubt saved the best for last as these two sides take the field on Monday evening. After a breath-taking first leg the tie moves to Blida and the Algerian home fans will hope they can inspire their side to overcome the one goal deficit and make their return to the World Cup. One player that will hope to stop them is Lorient’s Alain Traore. It has been a frustrating nine months for the attacking midfielder, injury problems have dogged him and held back what has promised to be a sparkling career.

Ever since he helped guide Les Étalons to the final of the 2012 African Cup of Nations, the injury he picked up that forced him to miss the final has also seen him only make six appearances for Lorient in Ligue 1. Back on the bench for the defeat to PSG, he failed to make an appearance, but last week he played 77 minutes against Reims and could play some part in Monday’s game.

When he is at his best Traore has the ability to single-handedly win games with his pace, power and determination. He can find a pass, or unleash an unstoppable shot from 30 yards, there is very little that he can’t do on the pitch and for both club and country it is of great importance that he can return to full fitness. Whether Coach Paul Put starts Traore or looks for him off the bench should Burkina Faso need him will be a huge decision come Monday’s game. They have talented players all over the pitch, but Traore can be the player that lifts this side to the next level and possibly their first ever World Cup appearance.

This article was written by Andrew Gibney. Andrew is the editor of the excellent French Football Weekly.

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