But for a Luis Suarez handball and Asamoah Gyan’s missed penalty, Ghana would, at the last World Cup, have become the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the competition.
In terms of World Cup performances, they have been the outstanding African team of the past decade, but to reach a third straight tournament they must beat the most successful team inside Africa over the past decade, Egypt, who are resurgent under the American coach Bob Bradley after missing out on successive Cups of Nations.
Kevin-Prince Boateng, having just declared himself available for international football, will miss the first leg through injury, as will John Boye. With Isaac Vorsah and Jonathan Mensah already ruled out, that probably means a call-up at centre-back for the inexperienced Mohamed Awal of Maritzburg United.
“If someone is not there, somebody else can play and I believe I am ready to help,” he said.
Two sides who have never played at a World Cup, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, are also 180 minutes from Brazil. Burkina Faso, whose progress to the final of the Cup of Nations in February was only the second time they had made it past the first phase, have based their progress on a stern defence – they conceded only once in six group games – although one of those matches was subsequently awarded as a 3-0 defeat against them. They face a clash of styles against Vahid Halilhodzic’s expansive Algeria.
Ethiopia, with only four full-time professionals in the squad, face the African champions Nigeria, a side who beat them 2-0 with two late penalties in the group stages in this year’s Cup of Nations.
“Nigeria were not a better team than us,” said Ethiopia’s coach, Sewnet Bishaw. “But in the last 10 minutes, they used their experience and got two penalties. I think we will have a better game in the coming match against Nigeria.”
Ivory Coast face Senegal, and Tunisia, thanks to Cape Verde fielding an ineligible player, host Cameroon in the two other play-off ties.