As the Scorpions of the Gambia prepare to open their campaign for a place at the 2014 Brazil World Cup against the Atlas Lions of Morocco at the Independence Stadium tomorrow, all eyes will be on the new Italian head coach Luciano Mancini to begin his tenure on a strong note.
The Italian-born tactician was confirmed as the head coach this week with the hope that he can mastermind what no Gambian dares dream of when the draw pitted the Scorpions against the Elephants of Ivory Coast and the Atlas Lions in the same group:a maiden World Cup qualification.
It is difficult but not impossible, but any hope of defying the odds in this strong group like Angola did in 2006 when they qualified ahead of Nigeria, the Gambian team will have to recover from missing several of its star players to beat the star studded North African side, that also has French league championsFC Montpellier Younis Belhandaas as their key player.
The Gambia will make do without the services of Caykur Rizespor forward Ousman Jallow and Sainey Nyassi of the New England Revolution, both out injured while Kebba Ceesay, Omar Jawo and Abdoulie Kenny Mansally will also sit out the game on Saturday. But Tijan Jaiteh and Pa Modou Nda Jagne have both been recalled after they were dropped for disciplinary reasons.
Though Pa Modou might relinquish his position toPa Saikou Kujabi, Tijan Jaiteh is expected to partner Mustapha Toubabo Jarju in midfield. Tijan's absence in the Scorpion's February's 2-1 home defeat to Algeria was blamed by many for the frequent loss of possession by the Gambian side especially in midfield and his return will come as a welcome boost to team morale.
Lamin Basmen Samateh, Mamadou Futty Danso and Abdou Jammeh are the likely options to join Pa Saikou in defence with Captain Pa Dembo Touray -who was expected in town by the time of going to press- occupying his place between the sticks. Momodou Ceesay is expected to start upfront and with the absence of his strike partner Ousman Jallow, Cherno Samba could be given the nod to play alongside him.
But despite the absence of most of his players, assistant coach Peter Bonu Johnson told Observer Sports in an interview this week that he remained optimistic his boys will put up a respectable performance on Saturday. Bonu said they are preparing very hard for the game, which is very crucial for The Gambia in the sense that it will be a good start for the country's hopes of making it to their first ever World Cup appearance. Those comments were echoed by Italian Mancini on Wednesday while speaking at a pre-match press conference.
The new Scorpions coach said he has confidence in the foreign and local based players, his technical team and the entire squad. He also said they are working very well to achieve a result on Saturday. While admitting that they had a few problems as regards the late arrival of players, Mancini said they are hoping to recover all of them in time for this "important game". "I can see it in the eyes of the players and the determination and passion they have shown in representing The Gambia made me believe that we will come out with a good result. We know that Morocco is a strong team but so too is the Gambian team," he said.
The Italian-born coach described the quality of the Gambian players as 'excellent' while hailing the local based players, saying they are the future players of the country's national team. He noted that the foreign and local based players blended excellently and commended the seniors for creating an enabling environment for the junior players.
Excellent, yes, they are but they have to show that on the pitch on Saturday if they are to erase the memories of that ill-fated game against the Desert Foxes and stand any chance of securing a place at the 2014 World Cup. The ten group winners will all qualify for a playoff game with the five winners to represent Africa in Brazil.
After admitting to have let down Gambians the last time out, Vice Captain Mustapha Toubabo Jarju said they are ready for the battle tomorrow.
His words: "I accepted that we all failed in the last game against Algeria but we hope to rectify the situation against Morocco on Saturday. This is our country and we will die defending it, if we know that we cannot do it, I wouldn't have come here today so we need the support of the entire country. "We all know the importance of the game on Saturday because we don't want to disappoint you like the last game which was a mistake and we were talking among ourselves to rectify that."
Another player who is confident of a Saturday victory is T-boy Jammeh who assured that the country will come out on top in the upcoming three games to be played in a fortnight. The FC Kazma defender said they fear no one and even asked to bring on Argentina and Barcelona's superstar Lionel Messi.
The former Steve Biko player added the last one year was a difficult transition for the majority of the players and the lack of consistency in the team selection over the years affected the performance of the team. So with Tanzania and a second leg African Cup of Nations qualifiers against Algeria waiting around the corner before a double legged affair against the Elephants, victory on Saturday is crucial as it could set the benchmark for the team's smooth participation in the two qualifiers.
So go Scorpions and secure a result against the Atlas Lions on Saturday before travelling to Darussalam for the second Group C game on June the 8th where a win could see the team secure maximum points before that all important return leg in Algiers on the 16th of June.