Qualifying matches are slated throughout Africa this weekend for next year’s World Cup finals in Russia.
The competition between Nigeria and Cameroon will draw the most attention when World Cup qualifying in Africa returns with two matches squeezed into six days.
While Nigeria and Cameroon tussle over one qualifying place available in their group, there are other intriguing possibilities for next year’s World Cup in Russia:
Congo, which has played in only one World Cup — a tumultuous debut in 1974 when it was known as Zaire — leads Group A. Burkina Faso, which has never been to a World Cup, is in position to qualify from Group D. And Egypt, the most successful team in Africa but a regular underachiever in World Cup qualifying, is in control of Group E.
A look at how it stands in Africa, with four games remaining and only the five group winners qualifying for the World Cup in Russia.
Congo is on the rise, spurred on by a third-place finish at the African Cup of Nations two years ago, the team’s best result in a major championship for nearly 20 years.
With Dieumerci Mbokani and Yannick Bolasie contributing important goals, Congo has two wins from two games in qualifying, including a crucial 2-1 victory in Guinea.
Ahead is the toughest test yet, a trip to Tunisia on Friday and a return game at home against the Tunisians four days later. Tunisia also has two wins but Congo leads the group on goals scored.
Guinea and Libya are the other two teams in the group and are both without a point ahead of their double-header.
Nigeria, clear at the top by four points, will be just about there if it beats Cameroon at home in Uyo on Friday. But Cameroon is a different proposition from the team that drew its first two World Cup qualifiers last year.
Since then, Cameroon has become the African champion, winning the title in February to bring back some of the glory for a country that was the first from the continent to reach the World Cup quarterfinals.
“The players know what it means,” Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr said. “They need little or no reminding of how important this match is.”
The motivation for Cameroon, which then hosts Nigeria on Monday, is that they don’t want to be the champion of Africa but sitting out the World Cup.
Also in Group B are Zambia and Algeria. The Algerians, who had the top-ranked team in Africa at the last World Cup, are struggling at the bottom.
Ivory Coast leads Morocco and Gabon by two points in Group C with Mali last, but only three points separate top and bottom. While Morocco faces Mali, Ivory Coast returns to Gabon for its qualifier on Saturday aiming to re-establish itself as one of Africa’s leading teams.
At the African Cup in Gabon seven months ago, Ivory Coast was the defending champion but exited from the group stage without winning a game. Since then, Ivory Coast has hired former Belgium coach Marc Wilmots in an attempt to get back on track. The two games against Gabon will give a clue as to whether Wilmots can do that.
It’s tight in Group D as Burkina Faso aims to hold off the challenges of South Africa and Senegal in what would be one of the most unexpected results in World Cup qualifying.
Once known as Upper Volta, Burkina Faso would likely be the most intriguing of all the teams traveling to Russia should it qualify. The job is far from done. It must now play Senegal twice in four days while South Africa has the relative luxury of two games against last-place Cape Verde.
Egypt is on the way up and Ghana is going down in Group E. Egypt has two wins from two matches, with Mohamed Salah a scorer in both victories. Hector Cuper led Egypt to the final of this year’s African Cup — and so nearly to a record-extending eighth title — after the country had failed to qualify for three straight tournaments.
If he also ends Egypt’s World Cup drought, which stretches further back to 1990, the Argentine would become a national hero. Cuper said the two games coming up against Uganda, two points behind the group leaders, are the “major games” in Egypt’s campaign.
Ghana, third with only one point, is in danger of missing the World Cup for the first time since 2002 and desperately needs positive results — ideally two wins — against Republic of Congo.
Report/write up/Obiora Ani