Friday, October 7, 2011
The final reckoning
The scramble for Africa reaches its climax this weekend with the final round of African Nations Cup (ANC) qualifiers being played around the continent. Three of the 11 groups have already been decided and six countries have confirmed their participation in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon next year, leaving plenty of room for a final scrap as ten tickets wait to be claimed and 21 countries battle to secure them. Here is the definitive guide to last round of qualification fixtures.
A win for Mali over Liberia will see them earn an uncomplicated passage to the continental showpiece, but even if they draw or lose they still have an outside chance of going through. Zimbabwe are breathing down their necks but can only leapfrog Mali at the top of the group if they beat Cape Verde and Mali lose.
Mali have participated in four of the last five tournaments and have beefed up their ranks for their clash with Liberia. Top-scorer Modibe Maiga makes his return to the squad, as does goalkeeper Oumar Sissoko. All eyes will be locked on Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita, who was personally thanked by Mali's president Amadou Toumani Toure for making himself available for their previous match against Cape Verde.
Zimbabwe may at least be heartened by Mali's squad composition , which includes nine defenders and four strikers, but before they contemplate what that might mean for them, they will have to beat Cape Verde. Financial problems have held them back, with the Zimbabwean squad unable to have a training camp at home because of the costs involved in flying players back, and they only met up for the first time in [Cape Verde capital] Praia. Coach Norman Mapeza is concerned that his team will have to rely on the result of the other match and said: "If our qualification was only dependent on our match, I would be in no doubt that Zimbabwe would be celebrating on Saturday."
Nigeria and Guinea square off in the group's most significant match. Guinea are currently on top and only need a draw to qualify for the main tournament while Nigeria have to win either by a 1-0 scoreline or two goals to progress. Ibrahima Barry, secretary general of the Guinea football federation, was not wrong when he said "pressure is on the Nigerian side", aided by the fact that the Super Eagles last missed out on an ANC in 1986.
They have made some significant changes to their approach, having resurfaced the pitch in Abuja after defender Joseph Yobo complained about the Madagascan field on which Nigeria played their last qualifier. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has been dropped after he criticised travel arrangements to the island last month, but Nigeria welcome back striker Peter Odemwingie, and coach Samson Siasa has made it clear that Nigerian hopes lie with the West Brom man. "We need goals and we know you can deliver that for us," he said.
Guinea will not go down without a fight and Barry said he has prepared the team to do everything necessary to ensure they hold on to top spot.
A straight shootout will take place in Chingola where Zambia and Libya meet. Libya are undefeated in the qualifying stages - having beaten Zambia in their first clash in Tripoli in June last year - but are well behind on goal difference. Luckily, that won't matter in this winner-takes-all match.
Libya will be sporting their new white kit and will sing the country's pre-Gaddafi national anthem for the second time, after its first appearance against Mozambique last month. Four of the squad members played an important part in the ongoing revolution, with goalkeeper Juma Gtat even speaking to the BBC about his efforts to oust Gaddafi.
While the spirit of victory is coursing through Libyan veins, Zambia are determined to avenge their defeat to the North Africans, with goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene saying that the defeat in Libya was because the referee made it "impossible to play football". Zambia could sneak through on goal difference as one of the best runners-up even if they lose.
A fairytale could become reality in this group if the Central African Republic manage to qualify. Known as one of the weakest teams on the continent, they have enjoyed a successful two years in international football and may be ready for their chance in continental competition. It's a tough ask for them because they will need to beat Algeria away from home and then hope that Morocco slip up against Tanzania in Rabat. One factor in their favour is that they stunned Algeria 2-0 at home last year and are a rapidly improving side.
Morocco will prove no pushover and are set to put up a stern fight against Tanzania. The North Africans have had a poor record in the last few ANCs and did not even qualify for the most recent, so will want to make amends.
Tanzania have lost their captain, Shadrack Nsajigwa, to a groin injury, which he picked up while training with the squad on Monday. They have managed to secure all of their seven foreign-based players for the match.
Senegal have already qualified for the tournament. Cameroon lie in second place, with a goal difference of +6, but do not stand a chance of being one of the best runners-up, because goals scored against the lowest-ranked team do not get taken into account. Cameroon put eight past Mauritius in their two matches.
Burkina Faso have already qualified for the tournament. However, they are involved in a dispute about the eligibility of Cameroon-born Herve Zengue, which may result in them losing their spot to Namibia. Zengue is married to a Burkinabe, which the Stallions believe is enough for him to play for them. But, under FIFA statues, a player who does not have a father, mother or grandparent born in a country must live there for five years before qualifying to represent them.
Namibia complained to CAF that Zengue does not meet this criteria and that he was ineligible to play in both matches against them. Should CAF rule in Namibia's favour, they will be awarded the points for the matches against Burkina Faso and will go through to the final tournament. CAF postponed a ruling on the matter on September 29 and a decision is still being awaited.
Recent World Cup hosts South Africa and would-be ANC debutants Niger will be watching each other closely in their final group stage games. Niger only need a win against Egypt, who are fielding an under-23 side after they were knocked out of contention earlier. Although the Pharaohs have had a dismal few months, they will want to impress on home soil and could prove tricky for Niger.
South Africa will be cheering for Egypt all the way, because they need to beat Sierra Leone and for Niger to lose in Cairo in order to qualify. Bafana Bafana have steadily climbed the rankings since they became the first host nation to crash out of the World Cup in the first round and, under a local coach, Pitso Mosimane, have looked like starting a new, brighter era for South African football.
Striker Katlego Mphela has already thrown the first punch, saying he does not believe Niger are good enough to beat Egypt. Mphela may find himself left speechless when he discovers his own team have historically been unable to defeat Sierra Leone - in fact, South Africa have never even scored against the Leone Stars. Their task will be made tougher because they are without captain Steven Pienaar plus Tshepo Masilela and Davide Somma.
Bafana goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune is hopeful of victory. "I am confident we can deliver," he said. "This match reminds me of the first leg clash against Egypt when no one gave us a chance but we did it."
Ivory Coast have qualified for the tournament. Burundi have an outside chance of getting through as one of the best runners-up but have to beat the mighty Elephants and hope other results go their way.
Two teams with strongly positive goal differences battle for qualification as Sudan host Ghana in Khartoum, where the afternoon fixture is set to be played in 40 degrees Celsius heat.
Sudan have gone unbeaten in the campaign so far, with four wins and a draw against Ghana. They also competed with Ghana in the qualification group for the 2010 World Cup and lost both matches but are now familiar with the Black Stars and, according to coach Mohamed Abdallah, ready for them. "I think we have convinced people that we have a strong chance to win and that we deserve to go to the finals," he said. "We are not afraid of this match or the challenge. We are very confident." Abdallah said Sudan are benefitting from having all their national players based at home and believes they have built a strong base.
Ghana, who were Africa's most successful team at the World Cup, will not want to be dumped out of the continental showpiece and are expected to put up an almighty fight. They have dropped experienced but clubless goalkeeper Richard Kingson and Andre Ayew but Asamoah Gyan, who made headlines with his move to the UAE, said he is confident of a win. "Our training camp in Kenya has put us in a good shape," he said. "We are not underrating the Sudanese but we are determined to go there and get the result that our country needs to qualify without any questions."
It's not winner-takes-all in this clash, because both teams could still go through on goal difference irrespective of the result.
Uganda can pave an uncomplicated path to the main tournament with a win over Kenya at home. Having not participated in the competition for 34 years, they are hungry for a shot at the big time. According to the team's Scottish coach Bobby Williamson, there has been enough development going on in Ugandan football for them to deserve higher honours.
The match is also an important one for him personally. "It means everything to me," he said. "I want it for the fans - they have supported us well the few years I have been here. I have seen a lot development in Uganda football." Uganda lost their last match against Angola and captain Ibrahim Sekagya has promised that it won't happen again.
The clash is marred by a ticketing controversy because the Ugandan Football Association reduced the number of tickets available for Kenyan fans to 2,000 from 5,500 earlier this week. They have also delayed the dispatching of tickets for fear of fake ones being printed.
In the group's other match, Angola will have to beat Guinea-Bissau and hope Kenya win in order to qualify while Kenya can only make it through by beating Uganda and if Guinea-Bissau win.
Africa's newest sweethearts, Botswana, have already qualified, but because this group has five teams, the runner-up will also go through. Malawi have the best chance of making it, needing only a win over bottom-placed Chad.
They are on an upward trajectory under coach Kinnah Phiri, who took them to the competition in 2010 and hopes to repeat that success. Phiri is missing only one regular starter, in Esau Kanyenda, and Malawi's daily newspaper, the Nyasa Times, claims the team has a midfield that "could solve Arsene Wenger's problems at the Emirates". If they lose and Tunisia beat Togo, the North Africans will go through.
The draw for the 2012 African Nations Cup will take place on October 29 in Equatorial Guinea