x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Goals achieved means Africa qualifiers are entertaining

Only one of the four duels in Africa looks settled as Egypt versus Ghana swung emphatically in favour of Asamoah Gyan’s West Africans, condemning an Egyptian squad to, once again, watch football’s biggest global party from distance.

Over the first 90 minutes of the five knock-out ties to decide who will represent Africa at the 2014 World Cup, 19 goals were scored.

Before those games, excessive tactical caution had been predicted amid criticism of the new qualifying system applied by the Confederation of African Football – brutal, sudden, two-leg play-offs at the end of a conventional group phase.

If the yield is an average of nearly four goals per match, arguments that this method maximises entertainment becomes rather convincing.

Only one of the four duels looks settled as Egypt versus Ghana swung emphatically in favour of Asamoah Gyan’s West Africans, whose 6-1 first-leg victory appears to have condemned Egypt to watching Brazil 2014 via television. This, despite the continued presence of several Egyptian players who helped win three African Cup of Nations titles between 2006 and 2010.

Egypt would require a surreal comeback in Cairo on Tuesday to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1990.

Ethiopia, bidding for a debut World Cup appearance, have the odds stacked against them, too, 2-1 down as they face the African champions, Nigeria, in Abuja this afternoon.

By the end of today, Ivory Coast will also hope to have built on their 3-1 lead over Senegal, who are deprived of the ambient advantages of a true “home” leg because they are still serving a ban following crowd unrest when they lost to the Ivorians in a play-off for the 2013 Cup of Nations.

Senegal, quarter-finalists at the 2002 World Cup, must attempt to erase the two-goal deficit in the neutral venue of Casablanca.

The tightest contests are those scheduled for Blida, Algeria and Yaounde, Cameroon.

If there is to be an African team making its debut at a World Cup, the likeliest candidate is Burkina Faso, who take on Algeria with a 3-2 advantage from the home leg.

It might have been a more comforting cushion had Aristide Bance, the former striker for the Arabian Gulf League leaders Al Ahli, converted both rather than one of the Burkinabe’s two penalties in Ouagadougou.

However, the Burkino Faco side have a deep reservoir of confidence, built up since February, when they finished runners-up to Nigeria in the Cup of Nations despite losing several key players to injuries, such as Alain Traore. They are in better health, now.

Cameroon have the best record in Africa for reaching World Cups, but they have seemed in a long-term slump; they failed to qualify for the most recent Cup of Nations.

Yet a win Sunday over Tunisia, in Yaounde, would guarantee Cameroon a seventh trip to the finals, and the self-styled Indomitable Lions have preserved, in spite of their waning reputation, a strong home record.

As ever, there are tensions within the Cameroon camp, explicitly articulated by Samuel Eto’o, the captain, who in a news conference this week said his colleagues were deliberately not passing the ball to him during the goalless first leg in Tunis.

Eto’o, who has a frosty relationship with Alex Song, among other senior Cameroon players, nonetheless remains the likeliest match-winner.

His recent run of goals for Chelsea, his English Premier League club, has unnerved Tunisia’s coach, Ruud Krol. “The fact that Eto’o is coming into form again is not good news for us,” the Dutchman said.

Nor would Krol like to witness another inspired goalkeeping display by Charles Itandje, the Lions’ goalkeeper, who was outstanding in Tunis.

“When the play-off draw was made, people were saying ‘Oh, lucky for Cameroon to play Tunisia’,” Eto’o told The National.

“Well, you know what? Tunisia are a very, very good team.

“They gave a us a terrific game in Tunis, and to be honest we were quite lucky to escape with a 0-0.”

What did that tell Eto’o about the broader prospects from the continent, eight months before Brazil 2014?

“Africa is growing as a force,” he said.

“But a lot the time the problem is that, perhaps, mentally people haven’t taken on the attitude that our teams are at the level that they really can beat any other country.

“You have to dream big to win the big things.

“If you only think small, you will only achieve little things.”

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