Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The final hurdle in Africa
With just one round of qualifying matches left, half of Africa's six places at next year's World Cup are still up for grabs, as teams battle desperately to be involved in the first finals to be held on the continent.
Ivory Coast's Elephants were the latest team to clinch 2010 qualification this weekend, joining Ghana and hosts South Africa. Although they lost their 100% record, Didier Drogba's men secured top spot in Group E with a 1-1 draw against minnows Malawi in Blantyre - leaving coach Vahid Halilhodzic's unbeaten side on an unassailable 13 points.
Drogba, rested for Saturday's match before coming off the bench to score the all-important equaliser, hopes the Elephants can now stamp an indelible footprint on South Africa 2010.
"It is going to be a challenge," Drogba said. "To make it to the final will not be easy because there are great teams like Brazil and Germany who have won the World Cup for many years."
"But my team-mates and I want to make history and change the way the world sees African football. I hope we'll be the team that is going to go to the final and win the competition."
The Ivorian captain is setting his sights high but then the Elephants are well placed to go far in the finals, with the likes of Kolo Toure, brother Yaya of Barcelona, Salomon Kalou and Emmanuel Eboue amongst those boasting a wealth of European experience.
Elsewhere, Group B leaders Tunisia were only a minute away from being able to book their tickets to the World Cup until Nigeria's late, late show against Mozambique in Abuja on Sunday.
In the 93rd minute of a match the Super Eagles had to win, Obinna Nsofor managed to finally find a way past keeper Kapango, who had been in inspired form. The Nigerians' 1-0 win keeps them second with nine points, two behind a Tunisian side which maintained its advantage with a similarly slender win at home to Kenya.
The pressure is clearly telling on these African heavyweights, with both sides still unbeaten and both facing away games next month for their dates with destiny. If the Carthage Eagles triumph in Mozambique, they will automatically qualify but any North African slip-up in Maputo - where Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal have all been held in recent years - will clear a path for the Super Eagles.
But first, John Mikel Obi, Joseph Yobo, Obafemi Martins and company must beat Kenya's Harambee Stars in Nairobi, before allowing thoughts to turn to proceedings in Mozambique.
"I know the match is going to be a cracker because it is going to determine our fate in the World Cup," said Nigeria's under-fire coach Shaibu Amodu. "In this game there are no minnows any more. Our last game will be approached with seriousness."
These are hardly the words to raise confidence among Nigerian fans, some of whom were so enraged by the Super Eagles' limp display that they stoned the team bus as it left the stadium after the Mozambique game.
The two remaining groups where the World Cup place is still up for grabs feature a fight to the finish between just two candidates: Cameroon versus Gabon in Group A, and Egypt looking to usurp table-topping Algeria in Group C.
Bottom of their group just last month, the Cameroonians continued their renaissance under French coach Paul Le Guen when beating Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo 3-0 in Yaounde. Goals from Geremi Njitap, Jean Makoun and Achille Emana kept the Indomitable Lions atop Group A, their ten points just the one better than high-flying Gabon.
Under the astute guidance of another Frenchman, 1984 European champion Alain Giresse, the Gabonese stayed in contention when beating hapless Morocco 3-1 in Libreville.
Which means the final day of Group A promises fireworks aplenty, as Togo (5 points) host Gabon and Morocco (3 points) entertain Cameroon - both home sides targeting the 2010 Nations Cup, the away teams dreaming of South Africa.
Last and by no means least, we turn to Group C which promises to deliver an unforgettable qualifier as reigning African champions Egypt host bitter North African rivals Algeria. Both sides can still make the World Cup, but Egypt will only qualify with a victory - as their 10 points are currently inferior to Algeria's 13.
The Pharaohs won 1-0 in Zambia this weekend, courtesy of Hosni Abd Rabou's stunning strike, and greeted the final whistle as if they had won the World Cup itself. Meanwhile, the Algerians downed Rwanda 3-1 at home - Karim Ziani's last-minute penalty proving crucial as it took the Fennecs' goal difference to +7.
With the Egyptians boasting a goal difference of +3, a three-goal home victory in Cairo next month will be enough to take the six-time African champions to their third World Cup (and first since 1990). In reply though, the Algerians, superbly marshalled by wily coach Rabah Saadane, know that just one away goal could prove enough to book a surprising place among the world's best 32 teams next June. The possibility of drawing lots is also very real.
Group D was the only group to have been decided last month, when Ghana wrapped up qualification, and with their mission already accomplished the Black Stars lost 1-0 in Benin on Sunday.
"We're satisfied to have won at home, and especially to have scored against Ghana," Benin coach Michel Dussuyer said. "I am proud of my boys."
Striker Mohamed Aoudou scored two minutes into stoppage time to earn a famous victory that sends the Squirrels to the Nations Cup, where they will be joined by Mali.
Another late winner, this time in the 89th minute, from Frederic Kanoute gave the Malian Hawks all three points at home to Sudan, for whom defender Saaed Mustapha Balla was red carded in the first half.
Some 11 teams in total have now joined hosts Angola at the Nations Cup: Cameroon and Gabon (both Group A), Tunisia and Nigeria (Group B), Algeria and Egypt (Group C), Ghana, Mali and Benin (Group D) as well as Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso (Group E). With the top three in each group qualifying, the four remaining places will be filled by one of Togo/Morocco, Mozambique/Kenya, Zambia/Rwanda and Malawi/Guinea.