The final rounds of the African version of playoffs for Brazil 2014 World Cup get underway this weekend in five venues across the continent. The first legs have come and gone with the stage set for last lap which pundit say could be a do-or-die affair. Africa has only five spots in the 32-nation tournament and out of the ten nations that topped their respective groups in the last stage, only five will advance to the World Cup in Brazil. SALIFU USMAN previews the five fixtures, the excitement and battle of nerves that trail this weekend's encounters across Africa.
Nigeria vs Ethiopia
African champions, Nigeria hosts their Ethiopian counterparts today at the U.J. Essuene Stadium, Calabar for their 2nd leg playoffs. The Walias Antelopes will find it difficult to contain the Coach Stephen keshi tutored boys on home ground in Calabar; a venue where they have never lost a game.
Super Eagles enter this game with a 2-1 lead from the first leg in Addis Ababa courtesy of AFCON 2013 top goal scorer, Emmanuel Emenike. But Keshi is not taking anything for granted, insisting his team is not overconfident after the Addis Ababa victory. Emenike's brace won the first leg leaving the Super Eagles needing just a draw to book a flight to Brazil next year for their fifth World Cup finals appearance.
He said his boys will confront their East African visitors as if they have never met: "We still have to play Ethiopia as if we never played them, and we'll take it from there."
He commended the Ethiopians for fighting hard to keep the Eagles on their toes in the first half of the first leg only to tire down in the final stretch. "Ethiopia were awesome, they played good," he said of a team who took an early second-half lead through Behailu Assefa before Emmanuel Emenike scored a brace to silence their teeming supporters.
"We went there with our game plan; we just wanted to see how Ethiopia play at home and they did well. Now, we have 90 minutes to play and we have to go to Brazil," he said.
The African champions are bolstered by star players like Chelsea midfielder, John Obi Mikel, Liverpool striker, Victor Moses, Ogenyi Onazi of Lazio and Emmanuel Emenike with a 2-1 lead from the first leg going into today but the coach says his ward will not underestimate the Ethiopians in Calabar.
This is because the Ethiopian captain, Degu Debebe, is of the belief that they can cause an upset today in the Paradise city. According to him, they lost the first leg in Addis Ababa due to poor officiating: "We missed some good scoring chances, but we are capable of going to Nigeria and also winning. We badly needed a win at home, but we have lost. We need to go back to the drawing board and work hard to be able to win away from home," added the skipper.
Senegal vs Cote d'Ivoire
The Senegalese are not out after going down 3-1 in Abidjan during the first leg. The Ivorians looked to have won by three clear goals but a last minute strike by Newcastle United star Papiss Cisse gave the Teranga Lions some measure of hope going into the second leg in Morocco this weekend.
The Ivorians cannot afford to slip up in the last match on their road to the World Cup and they are likely to be too strong for the Senegalese sides that are without Chelsea striker Demba Ba. Former Chelsea hitman Didier Drogba and Manchester City interim captain Yaya Toure will as usual lead the Elephants to Morocco in the battle for a place in the 2014 World Cup and their third time in a row.
This tie will again evoke painful memories for most Senegalese football fans who would recall that it was during the second fixture like this in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier between these sides that resulted in the Teranga Lions being barred from playing games at home for a year. The ban means most of the Senegalese football fans would not have the opportunity of watching their soccer ambassadors today since the game will be decided in faraway Morocco.
Les Elephants were leading by two Didier Drogba goals when that game was prematurely terminated and had won the reverse by a convincing 4-2 score.
The stakes are even higher this time, as Senegal's latest generation of footballers would be seeking to copy the script written by their predecessors who lighted up Japan/Korea 2002 notwithstanding the 3-1 disadvantage. Cote d'Ivoire on the other hand has been ranked Africa's finest for a while now and are chasing a third successive World Cup qualification armed with a star-studded side.
Cameroon vs Tunisia
For some, the Cameroonians are overwhelming favourites having been able to hold Tunisia to a goalless draw in Tunisia a fortnight ago. But Samuel Eto'o and his colleagues must be careful not to concede a goal at home that will give the Tunisians an advantage.
The Carthage Eagles under the guide of Dutch tactician, Ruud Krol who is currently acting as an interim will do everything possible to reach the first World Cup finals as a coach after leading the Netherlands to the runner-ups spot in 1974 and 1978 as skipper.
The Cameroonians are just not ready for a big tournament after failing to reach the African Cup of Nations in their last two attempts and the Tunisians can get back in the mix after missing out on the 2010 edition on African soil. Both teams are unbeaten in the last six competitive games but their forms have not been up to the mark. Tunisia got through the qualifying group in the stead of Cape Verde penalised while Cameroon won their group to qualify for the playoffs.
Twenty-four years ago, goals from Emmanuel Kunde, Francois Omam-Biyik and Louis-Paul M'Fede over two legs secured a 3-0 result against Tunisia to set Cameroun on a path of unprecedented glory at the 1990 World Cup. At an identical stage in the race for Brazil 2014, the two former African champions are pitted for an encore, and Tunisia might as well have cold revenge in mind. Neither nation has enjoyed a rather pronounced presence in continental action in recent years and would desire to launch themselves back into the spotlight with an appearance on the sport's biggest stage. Both sides have their strengths and weaknesses.
Egypt vs Ghana
The first leg in Kumasi, Ghana recorded one of the highest scoring matches in African football with Ghana thrashing Egypt 6-1 to have a leg in Brazil. The away loss for the Pharaohs dented their hopes of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time since 1990 as the feat to overturn a 6-1 deficit looks an impossible mission for a country that does not have league football running at the moment.
Ghana will cruise to the World Cup finals for the third time in a row, from Germany 2006 to South Africa 2010, where they were African surprise pack in the tournament and almost became the first African country to reach the semifinals at the World Cup. Asamoah Gyan missed a last minute penalty that would have taken them to the semifinal.
If the Ghanaians hope to replicate their outstanding performance in the last World Cup in Brazil next year, they have to do away with their fear over security ahead of the second leg playoffs in Cairo on Tuesday. Coach James Kwesi Appiah recently revealed that he was scared that an Egyptian elimination on Tuesday from the World Cup could spark a tremendous amount of violence from fans. He noted that he is afraid that his players will also be harmed as reactions from fans.
"Our players are professional and I don't think anything will intimidate them if the security situation is right. If Egypt loses, they may attack their players, involving us. It is a situation that I hope is sorted soon," Appiah was quoted by Ahram Online.
Appiah said he expects his team to play the game despite Ghana Soccer federation's opposition to the idea of playing in Cairo. "I told the players that we had just finished 45 minutes of a 90 minute game, because it is a home and away encounter, and until you have finished the away game you can't celebrate," said Appiah. "The return leg is the most important game now. We need to go in as if we are down by a goal."
Ghana holds a 6-1 aggregate advantage heading into the final match and would need to lose by 5-0 or more to be eliminated from the World Cup. While this peak is seemingly insurmountable, the constant mention of fear from the Ghanaian camp could give Egypt an edge heading into the match. While the narrative should be about Egypt feeling the most pressure heading into the game, Ghanaians have seemingly turned the pressure on themselves with constant references to danger.
Meanwhile, world soccer governing body (FIFA) has unveiled a security plan designed to ensure 'total protection' for all delegations that would be at the second leg playoff in Cairo. The delegations are those of Ghana, Egypt and FIFA and the plan covers from arrival to departure.
The Ghana Football Association (GFA) said on its website on Monday that FIFA informed Ghanaian authorities about the comprehensive security plans to ensure the safety of the Black Stars, following a request by Ghana's Minister for Youth and Sports Elvis Afriyie-Ankrah.
GFA said FIFA revealed that a Ghana security delegation, sent to the Egyptian capital to peruse the plans laid out by the host nation for the November 19 clash, was satisfied with the preparations done by the Egyptians. "We take this renewed opportunity to confirm FIFA's captioned qualifying match will be held in Cairo on 19th November, 2013 as per the initial calendar," FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke was quoted as writing in a letter to the GFA and the Ministry of Youth & Sports.
Ghana had petitioned FIFA to have the match played at a neutral venue because of security concerns, given the volatile political atmosphere in the North African country. Under the security plan conveyed through Valcke's letter, police escorts will permanently cover each and every transfer of the delegations, as well as an ambulance, while the hotels will be totally secured by the deployment of sufficient security guards. In accordance with the plan, the training sessions will also be taken care of in the most thorough and comprehensive security approach and delivery, while the different security perimeters will filter the ticket-holders who will be searched individually before accessing the inner perimeter.
Burkina Faso vs Algeria
The first leg of this tie turned out to be one of the most exciting encounters in the history of African football. The Algerians, who made a surprise appearance in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, looked to have snatched a draw with two away goals but the referee of the day awarded a late penalty to raise the hopes of the Stallions. Though a 3-2 loss in the first leg still favour Algeria, who are going to play in their backyard boosted by away goals, but the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations runners up, Burkina Faso can achieve result anywhere if they repeat the performance that led them to the 2013 African Cup of Nations finals. The second-leg will see them being boosted by the return of Abdou Traore, who missed out in the first leg due to injury.
This is the playoff stage and it is who wins the two legged tie that will make it to the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil. So, there is too much to play for this encounter. The Algerians have been in great form this year and they were on a five games winning run before their 3-2 loss in the first leg.