Road to Qatar 2022: African Qualifiers Reach the Final Stage
DR Congo Look to Rewrite History as Problems Persist in Morocco Camp
DR Congo begin their final hurdle to book a place in what will be their second-ever appearance at a World Cup, when they face AFCON quarterfinalists Morocco in the play-offs. Their first appearance at the 1974 World Cup is of distant memory to many natives for various reasons. They were known as Zaire and became the first country from Sub-Saharan Africa to participate in the global showpiece.
The dream of Zaire soon became a nightmare as their appearance in what was supposed to be a memorable and historic moment in African football became one of the most bizarre displays in tournament football. They finished bottom of their group with a negative goal difference of 14, losing all three group games.
The unfolding events were surprising considering Zaire came into the World Cup as winners of the Africa Cup of Nations in 1968 and 1974. Mwepu Ilunga, who was a defender with the team, revealed that things went south after the players realised they were not going to receive their bonuses. Players were unmotivated and reluctant to play the game against Yugoslavia but eventually gave in. Zaire were defeated 9-0 in what remains the largest margin defeat in World Cup history.
Before the final group game against Brazil, Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko told all players and journalists that if they lost 4-0, they won’t return home. Zaire lost 3-0.
48 years later and DR Congo are on the cusp of rewriting history. The Leopards qualified for the play-offs in very dramatic fashion beating second-placed Benin 2-0 in the final group game. Dieumerci Mbokani who has been around forever opened the scoring in the crucial game and has often been the difference in the qualifiers. The 36-year-old has four goals and one assist in the qualifiers so far – the most goal contributions by any DR Congo player.
Hector Cuper’s main objective after taking over as head coach of the Leopards in May 2021 was to guide them to Qatar. Despite DR Congo missing out on the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, Cuper has a strong core of experienced players who could cause an upset against Morocco. Aside Mbokani, the Argentine coach can rely on Cedric Bakambu, Chancel Mbemba, Gael Kakuta, Theo Bongonda, Christian Luyindama, and Neeskens Kebano.
On the other hand, Morocco have set sights on reaching consecutive World Cups for the second time in their history. The qualifiers have been smooth sailing for Morocco so far with the North African giants stamping their authority. The Atlas Lions picked up all available 18 points scoring 20 goals and conceding just once. However, concerns were raised about the legitimacy of Morocco’s form because all six games were played at home due to their opponents experiencing infrastructural issues and coup d’états. These concerns were vindicated during the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations which saw the Atlas Lions crash out to Egypt in the quarter-final.
Events in the past two months demonstrate the play-off tie against DR Congo could be a lot tighter than anticipated. The impasse between Vahid Halilhodžić and some key players notably Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui continues. Although the Chelsea midfielder announced his retirement after he was left out of the AFCON squad, he was included in the squad to face DR Congo alongside Mazraoui. Both players rejected the call-up in a social media post.
Halilhodžić was also expected to be without Sofian Chakla and Sofiane Boufal, as the pair got sucked into the derby against Egypt in the AFCON and would have been suspended for the DR Congo tie for “their violent behaviour” – following an appeal, both players had their suspension lifted for this tie. Boufal would have been be a big miss considering how crucial he has been for Morocco recently. The 28-year-old was the country’s top scorer at the AFCON with three goals and had the most chances created (11), shot-ending carries (4), end in chance carries (5), and shot-ending sequences (21) by any Moroccan at the tournament.
The head-to-head is evenly balanced between Morocco and DR Congo with each team winning once and one encounter ending in a draw. Perhaps, this suggests how close the tie will be.
Algeria Aims to Bounce Back and Pip Song’s Cameroon to a Place in Qatar
As far as the worst title defences go, Algeria stand tall after a horrendous performance at the 2021 AFCON. The Desert Foxes crashed out of the group stages failing to win a game, in the process and in ending their 35-game unbeaten run – just two short of the world record set by Italy.
Was Algeria’s disintegration in Cameroon surprising? Not entirely if you’ve been following recent trends. No country has managed to successfully defend their AFCON title since Egypt did so in 2010.
In fact, the winners of the AFCON have barely looked and played like champions in the past five editions. Egypt after winning in 2010 failed to even qualify for the next edition. Zambia won in 2012 and could not go past the group stage in 2013. Nigeria were crowned champions and could not even book a ticket to the next tournament. Ivory Coast after winning in 2015 were eliminated in the group stages of the 2017 edition. Cameroon broke the jinx and made it past the group stages only to be eliminated in the round of 16. Coming into the 2021 AFCON, our AI prediction model gave Algeria just an 8% chance of defending their title – making them sixth favourites for the tournament.
So, with this context, Algeria’s AFCON collapse wasn’t too bad. That could possibly explain why the Algerian FA decided to still stick with Djamel Belmadi, the man who ended their 29-year wait for an AFCON trophy. From a statistical point of view, Algeria were quite unlucky failing to finish off their chances. In their three group games, they accumulated an expected goals tally of 5.4 from 46 shots attempted whilst scoring just once. As a result, the reigning champions were one of only five teams who did not lead for a single minute of a game during the group stage of the 2021 AFCON.
In terms of squad announcements, West Ham United’s Said Benrahma and Al Sadd’s Baghdad Bounedjah have been surprise omissions as Algeria seek a fifth appearance at the World Cup with their best performance coming in 2014 when the Desert Foxes reached the round of 16 in Brazil.
Unlike Algeria, Cameroon sacked Antonio Conceicao despite finishing third at the 2021 AFCON and leading the Indomitable Lions to the World Cup play-offs. A statement by the Ministry of Sports read: “On very high instructions from the President of the Republic, the coach of the men’s national football team, Mr. Antonio Conceicao, has been replaced by Rigobert Song.”
It appears in their search for a new coach they followed the Senegalese template. Appoint a 45-year-old coach with dreadlocks? Check. Regarded as a leader and a defensive-minded player during their day? Check. The most important check Cameroonians will be looking forward to is whether he qualifies for a World Cup and eventually wins the AFCON. Cisse has embodied the Senegalese long-term project remaining at the helm for seven years. If Song, who has been Cameroon’s U-23 coach for the last three years, is to last then he needs immediate success against Algeria.
The former Cameroon captain inherits a very talented squad headlined by Vincent Aboubakar and Karl Toko Ekambi – the two leading scorers at the 2021 AFCON. Aboubakar’s eight goals saw him equal Laurent Pokou’s tally at the 1970 edition with Ivory Coast but fell one short of the all-time tournament record held by Zaire’s Ndaye Mulamba in 1974 (9). The Al-Nassr forward has scored three goals and provided one assist in seven games after the AFCON. If Cameroon are to reach the World Cup for a record-extending eighth time, then Aboubakar will have to put on a show in the play-offs.
History Awaits Mali as They Look to Upset Tunisia to Reach First Ever World Cup
This tie will see Mali and Tunisia face off for the fourth and fifth occasion across the last three years. In what can be described as a cross-cultural rivalry, both sides cannot seem to get the better of each other at this point. Mali won the most recent encounter in the 2021 AFCON but before that, Tunisia had one win with the other ending in a draw.
Tunisia were knocked out from the 2021 AFCON by familiar foes – the third time Burkina Faso had eliminated the Carthage Eagles from the quarter-final stage of the continental showpiece. Tunisia reacted and sacked head coach Mondher Kebaier just days after their elimination.
Kebaier’s assistant Jalel Kadri was appointed as the new coach with his immediate objective being to qualify Tunisia for the 2022 World Cup. Kadri didn’t change much from his predecessor’s AFCON squad with veteran forward Wahbi Khaziri expected to lead the team as they aim for a sixth appearance at the Mundial.
Khaziri starred in Cameroon for the Carthage Eagles scoring two goals and providing one assist. The St Etienne forward has also been in blistering form in the World Cup qualifiers so far with three goals to his name.
Mali were known to be one of the most consistent teams at youth level between 2015 and 2019. In that period, they won the U17 AFCON back-to-back, reached the U17 World Cup final whilst the U20 side finished third in the World Cup and won the U-20 AFCON.
Despite all these successes at youth level, Mali have never qualified for the World Cup and are now potentially just 180 minutes away from history. Well, at least you’d hope it would be 180 minutes – the meeting between these two sides at AFCON 2021 didn’t even reach 90 minutes, with referee Janny Sikazwe reportedly suffering heatstroke and losing track of time.
Yves Bissouma, Amadou Haidara, Diadie Samassekou, and Mohamed Camara all featured in the dominance of Mali’s youth teams and will now look to translate that to the national team on the global stage. They lead a generation of young players desperate to make history with the average age of Mohamed Magassouba’s squad sitting at 23 years old. Courted for years, Everton midfielder Abdoulaye Doucouré switched his nationality and has been included in Mali’s squad which only strengthens Magassouba’s midfield options.
The Eagles’ hopes of reaching a debut World Cup have been boosted by the announcement that their home tie against Tunisia can be played in Bamako. Mali was forced to play its home games for the World Cup qualifiers in Morocco after CAF ruled their home stadia unfit for international games. The Eagles still managed to soar in adversity and top their group with 16 points – seven ahead of second-placed Uganda.
Although Mali won all three group games in Morocco with a goal difference of 7-0, returning home to Bamako for the crucial game against Tunisia will provide a massive lift in the camp.
Nigeria and Ghana Battle It out in the ‘Jollof Derby’
Completely unrelated but Jollof has absolutely nothing to do with football. So how then does such a fierce rivalry clash get labelled by something so unconnected?
Jollof is a staple dish very popular in West Africa which originated from the Senegambian region – a geographical regional Senegalese river in the north and the Gambian river in the south. This region was ruled by the Jollof Empire, which is believed to have discovered jollof rice in the 14th century.
In recent times, Ghana and Nigeria have become the ambassadors of jollof rice fuelling a ‘Jollof war’ between both countries. Each country believes they make the best Jollof and this is an argument that has been ongoing for years now. This cuisine dispute is usually at its peak every August 22 which marks the celebration of “World Jollof Day”.
After the draw for the FIFA World Cup play-offs, Nigerian legend Daniel Amokachi said when Ghana and Nigeria play “it is no longer about football anymore.” There is history that suggests strained relations between both countries in the post-colonial era. The football match between the pair always reflects the long-standing socio-economic rivalry.
There is simply no game bigger for both countries. Nigeria have faced Ghana more than any other country. Across a 71-year spell, Nigeria have played Ghana 56 times. This will be the fifth time the two West African countries are playing each other in a World Cup qualifier after meeting in 1962, 1970, 1974, and 2002. In the most recent meeting in 2002, the Black Stars held the Super Eagles to a goalless draw in Accra, only to be thrashed 3-0 in Port Harcourt.
Although Ghana are currently unbeaten in their last four games against Nigeria, the feeling is that momentum is about to shift towards the Super Eagles. After a shock exit from the round of 16 stage of the 2021 AFCON, Nigeria have been decisive. The technical team was reconstituted with Augustine Eguavoen remaining as interim coach. Emmanuel Amuneke, who has previously coached the Tanzania national team, was drafted as Eguavoen’s immediate assistant with Salisu Yusuf named as second assistant coach and Joseph Yobo retaining his role as third assistant.
Nigeria were one of the first countries to name their squad for the play-offs, announcing a preliminary squad three weeks before the Ghana game. The attack of the three-time AFCON champions has been bolstered with the return of Odion Ighalo, Victor Osimhen, and Emmanuel Dennis – the trio missed the 2021 AFCON.
Ighalo scored a hat-trick for Al-Hilal in the final game before the international break as Osimhen singlehandedly kept Napoli in the title race with a brace which made him the fourth African player to score 10+ goals in back-to-back Serie A seasons. The only stain in Nigeria’s preparations will be the absence of Wilfred Ndidi (injury), Maduka Okoye (flu) and Alex Iwobi (suspension).
Ghana, on the other hand, comes off the back of their worst AFCON performance after finishing bottom of their group. The technical team of the Black Stars has since experienced a colossal revamp ahead of the Nigeria tie. Otto Addo has been appointed as interim coach and will be supported by former Newcastle United and Brighton coach Chris Hughton, who will assume the technical advisor role. Former Asante Kotoko coach Mas-Ud Didi Dramani will act as the first assistant whilst Aston Villa U23 head coach George Boateng will serve as the second assistant.
Ghana left it strangely late to announce a 27-man squad on Tuesday morning – just three days to the crucial tie. With the vastly experienced Andre Ayew set to miss the Nigeria game due to suspension and Kamaldeen Sulemana also out due to injury, Thomas Partey will be expected to assume responsibility and lead the Black Stars’ charge for a fourth World Cup appearance. The 28-year-old has completed more passes (992), made more tackles (43) and made more interceptions (23) than any other Arsenal midfielder in the Premier League this season, in an impressive campaign for the Gunners.
It wasn’t just the squad announcement which was delayed for Ghana. The decision on which venue to use for the first leg was only finalised with just a week to the game. The Cape Coast stadium which was initially submitted for the game was deemed as unfit to host international games by FIFA. Eventually, the Baba Yara sports stadium was approved for the play-off. In the long run, the switch of stadium might benefit the Black Stars who have won 75% of World Cup qualifiers at Baba Yara since 2006.
Egypt Looking to Avenge the AFCON Final Defeat to Senegal
The first part of the trilogy went all the way with Senegal edging out Egypt courtesy a very dramatic penalty shootout. It was a historic landmark for a star-studded Teranga Lions side who won their first-ever AFCON title. After weeks of celebration, the focus now switches to making it two consecutive World Cup appearances for Aliou Cisse.
Cisse was the first to admit that an encounter with a team they just defeated in the final will not be straightforward.
“This double confrontation with Egypt, the team that we have just beaten in the AFCON final on penalties promises to be tough and very difficult.”
What Cisse can rely on from their AFCON triumph is how stingy his side were defensively. Perhaps the most impressive statistic was the fact that Senegal went the entire tournament without falling behind at any stage. This was made possible by how the attacks of opponents were largely limited with Senegal facing 52 shots which averaged just 0.51 expected goals per 90 minutes across the tournament – the lowest of any team, while they conceded just twice in seven games.
Egypt chose the hard path during the AFCON and became the first team in history to have played extra time in four matches across a single men’s World Cup or confederation tournament (UEFA/CAF/Concacaf/AFC/OFC/CONMEBOL). In 2021 AFCON, Egypt ended up playing football in excess of 801 minutes, a number which was 97 minutes more than Senegal. Some believe this might have played into the arms of the eventual winners but then again, every team has the option of ending games in regular time.
Also, Egypt had to manoeuvre their way throughout a very demanding final without their head coach Carlos Queiroz, who was suspended for the game after being sent off in the semi-final against Cameroon. Queiroz’s ban was reduced, and he will be in the dugout for the two crucial games against Senegal. The Portuguese coach will have his eyes set on the ultimate prize which is a spot in Qatar because failure to reach a fourth World Cup for Egypt could lead to dismissal.
The dilemma for Queiroz will be who to go with in goal as Mohamed El Shenawy and Mohamed Abou Gabal are both fit and included in the squad. According to Opta’s goal prevented metric, Gabal (3.8) and El Shenawy (2.2) were the best two shot-stoppers in the AFCON earlier this year.
Gabal replaced an injured El Shenawy in the 88th minute of the round of 16 game with Ivory Coast and never looked back. The Zamalek goalkeeper went on to become the hero in two shootout victories over Ivory Coast and Cameroon in the semi-final. In the final against Senegal, he saved Sadio Mané’s first-half penalty, before stopping Bouna Sarr in the shootout.
The storyline in this tie will be focused on Mané and Mohammed Salah who are both championing a quadruple charge with Liverpool this season. Mané has had the upper hand so far winning Senegal’s maiden title and doing it in style as he was named player of the tournament. Out of respect for Salah, Mané asked Liverpool not to celebrate his victory.
The effects of Senegal’s triumph have been glaring when it comes to how Mané and Salah have performed for Liverpool after the tournament. Pre-tournament, everything went through Salah who had twice the number of goals Mané had and also had eight more assists and had created 20 more chances in the Premier League.
However, after the AFCON the pair have looked more balanced in terms of their numbers with both scoring four goals so far with Salah getting one more assist than Mané. This is also highlighted in the creation numbers as Salah (11) has created one more chance than Mané (10) in the Premier League.
The AFCON trophy swung the pendulum towards Mané leaving question marks on how the aftermath of the World Cup qualifier could affect Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp in the long run.
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