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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Regulars on the world stage but only one of Cameroon, Nigeria or Algeria will be going to World Cup next year

For the last two World Cup tournaments, the same five African nations have taken the continent’s five qualifying berths

The battle between Nigeria and Cameroon, pictured, will draw the most attention when World Cup qualifying in Africa returns with two rounds of matches squeezed into the space of six days. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP Photo
The battle between Nigeria and Cameroon, pictured, will draw the most attention when World Cup qualifying in Africa returns with two rounds of matches squeezed into the space of six days. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP Photo

For the last two World Cup tournaments, the same five African nations have taken the continent’s five qualifying berths. The make-up of the continent’s quintet of finalists in Russia will be very different.

Only one of Cameroon, Nigeria or Algeria can go through because that trio are in the same Group B. Meanwhile Ghana are struggling in Group E. Here’s five key issues over a decisive set of double-headers.

Nigeria need to be nerveless against their nemesis

Nigeria versus Cameroon, Super Eagles against Indomitable Lions, is West Africa’s biggest grudge match in international football. They share a border, some of which is disputed territory, and a long football rivalry, which includes three Africa Cup of Nations finals, all of them won by Cameroon. But Nigeria, aiming to reach their sixth World Cup, lead the group with two wins from two so far, four points clear of Cameroon, the reigning African champions. The Super Eagles are at home to the Lions on Friday. All set fair? Well, they have lost first-choice goalkeeper Daniel Ekpeyi to injury, not to mention legendary gloveman, Vincent Enyeama, to international retirement. Ikechukwu Ezenwa deputises between the posts, and must hold his nerve.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane is in World Cup qualifying action for Senegal this week. Carl Recine / Reuters
Liverpool's Sadio Mane is in World Cup qualifying action for Senegal this week. Carl Recine / Reuters

Can Senegal zip back into contention?

A forward line that can call on Sadio Mane, of Liverpool, and Keita Balde, who has just joined Monaco from Lazio, would imagine it can outsprint anybody. But Senegal have to do some rapid catching up in Group D, starting at home against group leaders Burkina Faso on Sunday. They are still sore about a controversial penalty – the referee who awarded it has since been banned by Fifa - that cost them a point in a defeat in South Africa last November but manager Aliou Cisse, captain of the Senegal squad who reach the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals, has urged his players to focus only on the double-header against an upwardly mobile Burkina Faso, who are eyeing a first World Cup place.

Riyad Mahrez, left, has bene given permission by the Algerian football authorities to leave the team's training camp ahead of their World Cup qualifying double-header against Zambia to negotiate his move away from Leicester City. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
Riyad Mahrez, left, has bene given permission by the Algerian football authorities to leave the team's training camp ahead of their World Cup qualifying double-header against Zambia to negotiate his move away from Leicester City. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images

When will Algeria look like the sum of their parts?

This has been a disruptive week for Algeria. Spare a thought for Lucas Alcarez, appointed as their latest manager earlier this summer after spending much of last season trying in vain to save the Spanish club Granada from relegation, as well as making sense of Granada’s oddball approach to transfers (they had 13 loanees). Now the tail-end of this transfer window has distracted Riyad Mahrez, Algeria’s leading star. Alacarez had to give him permission to leave the preparations for Saturday’s game in Zambia to sort out his possible move from Leicester City. Islam Slimani, the striker, was also being linked with moves on the final day of the window. Given their resources Algeria ought to be better than bottom of their group. With one point from two games so far, time is running short to put things right.

DR Congo's national team coach Florent Ibenge. Junior Kannah / AFP
DR Congo's national team coach Florent Ibenge. Junior Kannah / AFP

DR Congo’s Florent Ibenge in pole position for African managers

Heard the one about the German, the Frenchman, the Portuguese and the Argentine? Yes, as usual, most of the countries topping their respective groups for World Cup places are being coached by men from outside Africa (although Gernot Rohr, the German, has the working title of "technical advisor" with Nigeria). So, with a Frenchman in charge of Ivory Coast, an Argentine with Egypt, and a Portuguese at Burkina Faso, the challenge of promoting African managers at the highest level goes on. One resistor is Florent Ibenge, who has proved an accomplished guide at club level and with his native DR Congo. If they can gain four points in the two games against Tunisia, the Group A leaders will be well set to reach a first World Cup since, as Zaire, they went to West Germany in 1974.

Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been left out of the Gabon squad. Ralph Orlowski / Reuters
Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been left out of the Gabon squad. Ralph Orlowski / Reuters

Africa’s missing Footballers of the Year

What with Mahrez skipping training with Algeria to sort out his club future, and Yaya Toure long since retired from activity with Ivory Coast, the few owners of the title African Footballer of the Year still at work are not exactly plugged into this crucial stage of World Cup qualifying. As for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose name is always being highlighted in transfer window periods … well, the 2015 African Footballer of the Year has been left out of Gabon’s squad for their meeting with Ivory Coast. Gabon are by no means out of contention for Russia. According to a spokesman for the Gabonese Federation: “Only players who are available have been picked.”