Wednesday, July 9, 2008
South Africa or bust
A busy month of African World Cup qualifying has concluded and a number of traditional powerhouses face an uphill task if they are to join South Africa in representing the continent in 2010.
Kolo Toure (L) fires a shot at Botswana's keeper Modiri Marumo (GettyImages)
Among those facing an anxious conclusion to this stage are 2006 World Cup attendees Togo and Angola, while current Africa Cup of Nations holders Egypt also have work to do. Meanwhile, hitting form at just the right time are some of Africa's previously less well-known nations, such as Cape Verde Islands, Libya and Burkina Faso.
Each of the 12 group winners advances to the third stage of qualifying, where they will be joined by the eight runners-up with the best records. Those 20 teams will then be split into five groups, the winners of which will qualify for South Africa. Additionally, the top three from each group secure a place at the 2010 African Cup of Nations.
Despite being held to a surprising draw away to Tanzania, Cameroon are in command thanks in the main to a miserly defence which has yielded just one goal in its opening four matches. At the other end, the Indomitable Lions have been fired by the form of Samuel Eto'o, who has notched four goals in as many games, including an 89th minute winner in the return match against Tanzania.
Cape Verde are the closest rivals to Cameroon for top spot, trailing by one point, having won three straig ht games since a 2-0 reverse against the group leaders. Standing 85th in July's FIFA rankings, Cape Verde have been indebted to the goals of Osasuna's Dady, who has struck the winner in each of the last two games.
The group recommences on 6 September when Cape Verde meet Cameroon. With just one point separating the two sides, the winning side is almost certain to qualify in top spot.
Guinea top the group having maintained the form that saw them reach a third straight African Cup of Nations quarterfinal in January. However, the Syli National's advantage is a thin one over Kenya, whose surprise win over Guinea in Nairobi has proved the catalyst for a somewhat unexpected challenge.
The top two have seven points and seem set to fight it out for the number one spot, although Zimbabwe and Namibia remain capable of a late charge themselves. Guinea face arguably the toughest run-in, with a trip to Zimbabwe followed by a home match against Kenya, whose penultimate match is at home to Namibia.
One thing that does seem likely is that, with all four sides capable of taking points off each other, this is a group from which just one country could qualify.
On the back of an unbeaten start to group play, Benin are the surprise leaders. Home and away victories over group minnows, Niger, have revitalized the Squirrels, whose form in recent matches is a far cry from that which they showed in their opening game, a 3-0 defeat to Angola.
Benin are two points ahead of Angola after the 2006 World Cup qualifiers stumbled following their impressive start. One point from a possible six against Uganda has stifled The Black Antelopes, who enter their crucial encounter with Benin on 7 September knowing that anything less than victory could have a terminal effect on their qualification hopes.
Best placed of all to benefit might be Uganda, who should easily collect three points at Niger, which would set up a potential winner-takes-all home showdown with Benin on 12 October.
With South Africa qualifying automatically as the host nation, three teams - Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea - began group play involved in a battle to join them. With two rounds of matches remaining, that number is down to two after Nigeria took maximum points to secure their progress.
Showing form that was rarely seen in the Cup of Nations, the Super Eagles have recorded four straight wins and are yet to concede a goal. Their unlikely hero has been Joseph Yobo who, in addition to marshalling an impregnable backline, scored winning goals in consecutive games against Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea.
Those winners severely damaged any hopes either of the losing sides had of making progress as a runner-up. All four of Sierra Leone's points came from their games against South Africa, while Equatorial Guinea have lost three straight.
Ghana remain favourites to advance but the Black Stars have made life difficult for themselves. After only just withstanding a late Lesotho charge that saw a three-goal advantage cut to one, Ghana were beaten 2-0 by Gabon. That setback, combined with Libya's surprising form, means that the most recent hosts of the Cup of Nations travel to Tripoli on 5 September leading the standings by goal difference only.
Just over a decade since being banned from participating in the World Cup by United Nations sanctions, Libya have emerged as a legitimate contender. Such a development looked unlikely when they lost their opening match to Ghana, 3-0 but, since then, three straight wins have been recorded. Libya's challenge is built on its defence, which has not been breached for 296 minutes.
Meanwhile, hoping that Libya and Ghana take points of one another are Gabon, who currently trail the top two by three points. They will be confident of taking maximum points versus Lesotho before concluding their schedule at home to Libya.
Senegal left the Cup of Nations under a cloud after ignominious on-field displays were compounded by the disciplinary action taken against a number of their squad for breaking a curfew to visit a nightclub. However, the Lions of Teranga are back and on top of their group after making an unbeaten start to their qualifying campaign.
Two wins and two draws have Henryk Kasperczak' side in the box seat and victory in Algeria on 5 September will almost certainly guarantee first place for Senegal. However, that they have been held twice away from home suggests that three points are unlikely, meaning that, heading into the final round of matches, three nations may harbour hopes of first place.
Algeria and Gambia recently split six points and, assuming Liberia are beaten, much will depend on how each side fares against Senegal as to whether they will advance or not. Algeria may hold a slight edge due to their schedule, which concludes against Liberia. Gambia finish in Senegal.
Ivory Coast are in control after an unbeaten start, but the Elephants have hardly stampeded through their first four games. Without Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast laboured to a 1-0 over Mozambique to start their campaign before being held on the road at Madagascar and Botswana. Only when they thrashed the latter opponent at home, 4-0, did new coach Vahid Halilhodzic finally see his charges in full flow.
Despite that defeat, Botswana remain second, three points in arrears and, with both games against the Ivory Coast out of the way, must take maximum points away to Madagascar and at home to Mozambique, both of whom remain in contention, albeit with only an outside chance.
With Mauritania rooted to the foot of the table after conceding 14 goals in four defeats, it's a three-horse race featuring Morocco, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Morocco are currently on top but only on goal difference from Rwanda, with Ethiopia three points back. The Atlas Lions have been in control since commencing their schedule with a 3-0 win over Ethiopia, who provide their next opponent on 5 September.
Morocco were beaten in Rwanda in their last away game and failure to take anything from their trip to Addis Ababa would likely mean they will relinquish top spot to the Wasps, who face Mauritania next. Ranked 87 in the world, Rwanda are seeking their first ever berth at a World Cup finals and may hold their fate in their own hands on 10 October when they host Ethiopia.
Both Burkina Faso and Tunisia are almost certain to advance to the third stage, standing as they do on 12 and nine points respectively, comfortably ahead of Burundi and the Seychelles.
Burkina Faso have a 100% winning record, which began with a remarkable late show away to Tunisia. Trailing 1-0 as the match entered its final five minutes, the Stallions galloped level with and then past their opponent thanks to a double strike from Yssouf Kone.
Moumouni Dagano was next with the scoring heroics, the Sochaux striker scoring all five of Burkina Faso's goals in wins over Burundi and the Seychelles. In all, Paulo Duarte's side has scored 11 goals in qualifying thus far, a mark matched by Mali and exceeded only by Congo DR. Despite their fine start, however, the form of Tunisia means that there is still work to do for Burkina Faso.
After impressing en route to the Cup of Nations quarter-finals, the opening game defeat came as quite a surprise to the Eagles of Carthage. However, three straight wins since then mean Tunisia know that victory at Burkina Faso on 6 September will draw them level on points at the top ahead of the final round of matches, in which they are likely to face less opposition at home to the Seychelles than will the Stallions away to Burundi.
When Fredi Kanoute was named 2007 African Footballer of the Year, more than a few eyebrows were raised, given the form of the likes of Didier Drogba and Michael Essien. The performances of the Sevilla man in World Cup qualifying suggests that Kanoute would like a repeat win of the award to prove that last year was no fluke.
Six goals in three games have seen Kanoute contribute more than half of Mali's total strikes and, with Seydou Keita contributing three goals of his own, Mali are in control of their own destiny.
However, Congo lurk in second despite losing as many games as they have won and have a chance to draw level with the Eagles when the two sides meet in Brazzaville on 7 September. Congo have yet to drop a point or concede a goal at home.
Meanwhile, hoping for slip-ups from each of the top two are Sudan and Chad, who play the game in a hand they both have against each other a day before Congo and Mali meet.
This three-team group only has two matches remaining and just one point separates Swaziland, Zambia and Togo, the latter of which would seem to have the best opportunity to progress, given that they have a game in hand.
However, nothing to this point has been straightforward for the Sparrow Hawks, who are attempting to qualify for their second straight World Cup finals. After beating Zambia 1-0 in their opening match, Togo slumped to a 2-1 defeat away to Swaziland. On 5 September, Togo play away at Zambia before the group concludes with them hosting Swaziland.
Coached by South African, Ephraim Mashaba, Swaziland have burst up the FIFA rankings to their current position of 123rd after an impressive start to the qualifying which sees them currently top the group. Their record of one win, one draw and one defeat is identical to that of Zambia.
Leading scorers with 13 goals they may be, but an opening match defeat to Egypt means that Congo DR cannot yet make plans for the final stage of qualifying. The Leopards' superior goal difference means they hold first place ahead of the Cup of Nations winners with the two countries set to meet in Kinshasa on 7 September.
If they can avoid defeat in that game, Egypt will be favourites to qualify in top spot, as they face Djibouti in their last game. The Shoremen of the Red Sea have shipped 23 goals in their four matches. Hoping that the top two slip-up are Malawi who, with a win over Egypt already, cannot be discounted.
While DR Congo and Egypt battle it out, Malawi should have few problems with Djibouti, meaning that, come the final day of this stage of qualifying, they will have nine points entering their home game against Congo DR.
If nothing else, whichever side emerges on top from that encounter should advance as one of the top eight runners-up.