The African World Cup qualifying draw happened last Friday. What emerged from the new qualifying format – where the winner from each group will automatically qualify for the World Cup, rather than having a two-legged play-off – was a set of finely balanced groups where, on any given day, any team could beat any team. Here, Salim Masoud Said glances at the state of each team and their chances of making it to the World Cup.
The Favourites: Tunisia
Rarely spectacular, rarely more than the sum of their parts, the Carthage Eagles have rarely warmed the hearts of neutrals since their understated, sparkling 1978 World Cup appearance. But they know how to qualify for tournaments. And with the wily, silver-haired Henryk Kasperczak at the helm they have a man who has experience of getting them to a World Cup.
The former Poland midfielder, who was part of the playing squad for Poland at the 1978 World Cup, led the revival of Tunisia on the national stage in the 1990s, finishing as runners-up at the 1996 AFCON and then marching them to the 1998 World Cup after a 20-year absence. The sagacity he brings to their operations, coupled with their balance as a team, makes them slight favourites to progress in this group.
The Challengers: DR Congo
Several eyebrows would have been raised at why we have not dubbed them as the favourites of this group. And it’s easy to understand why. In Cedric Bakambu they have one of the continent’s outstanding strikers of the past year, adding bona-fide quality into an attack that was reliant on the mercurial Dieumerci Mbokani to spearhead it, and a cohort of unproven domestic players and fluctuating journeymen to deputise in his absence.
Their defence, which is now devoid of the personality of Robert Kidiaba, is susceptible to horror shows but the French-born and Belgian-born talent trickling through, such as the aforementioned Bakambu, is transforming this team from a raw one to potentially one of Africa’s best in the coming years. They should pose a serious challenge to Tunisia at the bare minimum.
The Dark Horses: Guinea
An over-reliance on Florentin Pogba to lead the organisation and provide solidity at the back saw their campaign at the Cup of Nations last year derail rather quickly when Paul’s brother was ruled out with injury. Still, on their day the Syli Nationale have a collection of speedy and deft-footed attackers that can cause issues for any team on the continent. The caveat is that those attackers flourish and frustrate in equal measure.
The abrupt international retirement of Ibrahima Traore robs them of their one consistently decisive attacker; the leader and star that has almost single-handedly led them to tournaments in the past. In Tunisia and DR Congo they are facing beatable opposition, even without Traore, but much will depend on the resiliency of their porous defence.
The Outsiders: Libya
The war-torn country has punched above its fragile situation, qualifying for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations and reaching the knockout stages, and then winning the African Nations Championship a year later. Goals are few and far between which makes World Cup qualification unlikely, but their doggedness in defence, led by the aptly named Ali Salama (salama means ‘safe’ in Swahili), should be a warning to the teams that look at them as a 6-point banker.
Javier Clemente’s side are still playing their games from neutral venues due to security concerns in Libya, but this group line up is as ideal as they could have envisioned to negate the lack of home advantage. It doesn’t include any of Africa’s traditional heavyweights, and that certainly maximises their chances, psychologically at least, of progressing.
The Favourites: Algeria
Africa’s most fluent and in-form side pre-AFCON and post-AFCON, but can they do it on humid Saturdays in Yaounde and Abuja? The 19 goals scored during AFCON 2017 qualifying so far shows the remorselessness in their attack. For all their irresistible menace in attack, though, Algeria’s defensive unit has a chequered past with the physicality of West Africa sides. A solitary win against the five West African sides they have faced at the last 2 AFCONs shows how their work is cut out.
In that sense, this ‘Group of Death’ is a perfect opportunity to silence the detractors as they go toe-to-toe with two of Africa’s giants. Christian Gourcuff’s resignation and Milovan Rajevac’s takeover makes matters even more interesting. Will Algeria become add a pragmatic edge to their game? Or will they continue their kaleidoscopic football even against quality opposition?
The Challengers: Cameroon
An appalling team which shamed the continent at the last World Cup with a burp of bonus disputes, indifferent performances and staggering incompetence on the pitch and from the manager. For those reasons, many will be hoping that they won’t make the tournament this time around.
With 7 appearances in the last 9 World Cups, when it comes to the self-entitlement of being at World Cups no African team dismantles the Indomitable Lions. A sublime home record, which has been sustained over the last 20 years regardless of the standard of their coach or their personnel at any point in time, never does any harm to their chances in qualifying. The return of Idriss Kameni tightens their defensive line ever more, and the continuation of the N’Koulou-Chedjou partnership ahead of him adds to the foundations the Indomitable Lions will use to mount a challenge for another appearance at the World Cup.
The Dark Horses: Nigeria
It feels odd to refer to a nation of nearly 200 million with a good footballing pedigree as ‘dark horses’, especially the African nation which has appeared in the most World Cups, but Nigeria’s team appears to be going through a perpetual transition. The failure to qualify for a second consecutive AFCON has only sparked more questions rather than answers.
A nation of such a huge population is never short of talent, though, as the rises of Alex Iwobi and Odion Ighalo have shown in the last 12 months. As ever, it will come down to how well they will blend as a team, particularly for an attack that has good ingredients but the taste is yet to reach its optimum, and, in a group where the margins could be minimal, the tactical astuteness of their new coach could also be crucial.
The Outsiders: Zambia
A tough ask to see the Chipolopolo to make the World Cup during a time where the heady days of winning the AFCON seem a long, long way. With wasteful finishing a national disease and the gradual disintegration of one of Africa’s best assembled defences, culminating in failure to qualify for AFCON 2017, Zambia no longer have the intransigence and self-belief to keep the big boys at bay.
Frankly, it will be a miracle to see Zambia progress from this group in their current form. They will be facing far too much quality at home and away from home for them to survive. But what 2013 taught us is that if any nation in Africa can conjure miracles then it’s Zambia.
The Favourites: Ivory Coast
Qualification was essentially a foregone conclusion for Ivory Coast when ‘Generation Drogba’ was around. Now, with Michel Dussuyer still trying to discover the equilibrium of the team and his best starting XI, and Yaya Toure temporarily focusing on club football, the African champions have, naturally, lost the fluency that the previous generation played with.
Despite the post-AFCON retirements they still have some of the biggest names Africa has to offer still in the fold., and the likes of Serge Aurier and Eric Bailly are pillars to a bright future. Their largely new-look squad will be looking very nervously over their shoulders though as they try to find their collective identity in the heat of battle.
The Challengers: Morocco
If there is a man who can stop Ivory Coast – or any team in Africa – then it is Herve Renard. The Frenchman seems to lose his lustre in the hurly-burly football of club football, but his return to international football with Morocco has already seen a turnaround in fortunes with qualification for AFCON 2017 for a nation that has become arguably Africa’s biggest underachiever.
Renard’s tactical acumen has been his most impressive quality during his time in charge with Zambia and Ivory Coast, and that could be a huge advantage to Morocco in this tight group. If he qualifies them for their first World Cup since 1998 then his sensible appointment will be more than justified, and it would not be a surprise when you look at the talent in the squad.
The Dark Horses: Mali
A parsimonious, overly physical team that have never won many admirers, but it’s hard to argue against their results over the last 14 years. Mali tend to stifle rather than sizzle, but if there is a team which could grit their way to the World Cup then it is them.
They are arguably the most conservative team in this group, happy to sit back and able to disrupt the rhythm of superior opposition with their physicality. Alain Giresse has returned for his second stint in charge of the team, and approaching contests as an underdog is just the way he favours it.
Unlike his first stint in charge, he can call on Bakary Sako, Abdoulay Diaby and Moussa Merega in the attacking third, other than resting all hope on the excellent Cheick Diabate.
The Outsiders: Gabon
Aubameyang alone can be the difference, but there is more to this team than just the Borussia Dortmund striker. Behind him lines up the finest generation the country has ever produced, though their international outings thus far – at the London Olympics and AFCON 2015 – has seen them drown with a lack of ideas.
Awkward when having to take the game to the opposition, Gabon have frozen when they have had to chase games. With the rapidity and lethality of Malick Evouna and Aubameyang in attack, they are at their deadliest when playing on the counter and being arguably the weakest team in the group should suit their modus operandi just fine.
The Favourites: Senegal
The Teranga Lions could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new format. In the previous format, they would have been in danger of facing one of Africa’s heavyweights, like they did in qualification for the 2014 World Cup, where Ivory Coast awaited and abated them in the play-offs.
This round-robin format should suit a side which usually makes light work of qualifying. If opponents choose to sit back, which they very well could, their downfall could be the one-dimensionality of their midfield, with the burden on Sadio Mane to supply the incision. However, their physicality across the board and a strike-force that isn’t shy to gobble up goals should see them qualify from this group with relative ease.
The Challengers: Burkina Faso
If a team is capable of physically going eye-for-eye with Senegal in this group then it’s Burkina Faso. A wrong- side-of-the-post away from reaching the World Cup last time around, Burkina Faso have lost the mojo they had this time 3 years ago but most of the players are still around for another push to the World Cup.
The core – Jonathan Pitroipa, Charles Kabore, Alain Traore and Bakary Kone – that has bode them well in the last six years remains intact. The big-match experience that could prove to be crucial were they to seriously challenge Senegal. Paulo Duarte is back at the helm and will be hoping to make the continent-shaking splash that evaded him during his first tenure.
The Dark Horses: Cape Verde
Often unfancied because of the underwhelming names in their squad but Cape Verde are one of Africa’s solid teams. Humbled by Morocco during AFCON 2017 qualifying after a meek exit in the group stages of AFCON 2015, their reliability and togetherness hasn’t entirely dissipated and could cause problems for the superior sides in this group.
Like Gabon, not being a traditionally big name could work in their favour from a tactical perspective, allowing them play their preferred style of counter-attacking football in addition to their prowess from set-pieces.
The Outsiders: South Africa
Underachievers based on the quality of their league? Check. Biannual post-tournament post-mortems? Check. Self-entitled fan base? Check. The England of African football. As much as he is loved in SFG quarters, Shakes Mashaba’s tactical incompetence and inflated self-belief is their biggest weakness.
Man-for-man they’re not far off the quality of Cape Verde and Burkina Faso, and should not be intimidated by Senegal who have qualified for as World Cups as them (not counting the 2010 one), but their failure to create a coherent team over the years sees them as the least likely team to progress from this group. Then again, Mashaba has said his side should be amongst the top teams heading to the World Cup…
The Favourites: Ghana
A team which has perfected the art of getting results in spite of their coach rather than because of him. The Black Stars have qualified for three consecutive World Cups and, barring a disaster, they should add to that sequence this time around. Their stingy defence, combative midfield and decisive players in attack, as well as Sulley Muntari’s rumoured return. makes them all but a shoo-in to be at the tournament.
They have been in the top tier of Africa’s football pyramid for the last 6 years but they rarely dazzle. In that sense, they always give other sides hope. While bad results at home are hard to imagine, Ghana have lost to both Egypt and Uganda in the last 3 years.
The Challengers: Egypt
The years of political turmoil and the dotage of the players from their 2000s epoch were factors which contributed to Egypt missing every AFCON since 2010. The rot has now stopped. Fresh from qualification for the 2017 AFCON, they will feel they can pose Ghana a credible challenge under the stewardship of Hector Cuper.
Far from the swashbuckling sides of yesteryear, the Argentine has added defensive discipline and a steel to the Pharaohs, with the pace of Mohamed Salah on the break proving to be problematic countless sides on the continent. The contests with Ghana should be an interesting yardage of their progress after they were thumped for six in Kumasi in 2013.
The Dark Horses: Uganda
Always near yet so far. That’s been the story of the Cranes lately, and the completion of their 2017 AFCON-qualifying campaign faces a familiar nail-biting finish as it’ll be either them or Burkina Faso who qualify automatically from their group. Whatever happens, they’ll see themselves as genuine dark horses in this group, especially after their famous victory at home to Ghana in 2014.
The issue with Uganda has always been their timidity away from home. A forward line that doesn’t score many registers blanks and the promising home results end up not being built upon. It’s a problem their shrewd coach Micho Sredojevic is conscious of, but he’ll be hoping a mixture of their great home record and commendable results on their travels, which they are capable of, will allow them to mount a serious challenge.
The Outsiders: Congo
At the time of writing Congo are the only side of this group who haven’t qualified for AFCON 2017 or have no chance of qualifying in the final match day. With 6 points from 5 games, Pierre Lechantre’s side have already been eliminated after their loss to Kenya and Guinea-Bissau’s surprise qualification.
That situation may reflect a team that has severely underperformed, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Congo’s problem during qualification has been converting draws into wins, but they won’t be an easy team to face, especially at home in Owando. Goals, as always, are the problem and they will need the unreliable pair of Thievy Bifouma and Ferebory Dore to provide them.