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Continental contenders

Stuttering start for African challengers

June 9, 2010
HushBy Andrew Hush

As hosts South Africa prepare for their second fixture of the 2010 finals, African nations have registered just one win from their opening six matches combined; the performances of the host continent's representatives have been reflective of the slow start the World Cup, as a whole, has made.

Asamoah Gyan
GettyImagesGhana were the only African side to win their opening game, courtesy of Asamoah Gyan

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There were positive moments. The spectacle of the opening ceremony was matched by arguably the best game of the competition to date as South Africa served notice they may have what it takes to qualify for the knockout rounds. Meanwhile, although Ghana's victory over Serbia was not necessarily a surprising result, the manner in which it was achieved perhaps was.

Less impressive, however, is the statistic that shows only two goals have been scored by African countries, three of which have already suffered defeats that put at risk their hopes of advancing beyond the group stage.

Ghana's young squad may have come of age with victory over Serbia. Despite fielding a starting line-up with an average age of just 25 years and nine months, one which was without the midfield triumvirate of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah that was so effective in 2006, the Black Stars emerged victorious against a side tipped by many as a dark horse in South Africa.

Kevin-Prince Boateng was excellent in midfield as were, on the flanks, Andre Ayew and Prince Tagoe. Appiah's experience was useful off the bench and will be again, especially if his inexperienced colleagues find it difficult to maintain their form. Muntari could also play a role in the game against Australia, a match which presents Ghana with a fantastic opportunity to almost guarantee qualification for the second round.

South Africa looked nervous early against Mexico only to grow in confidence and give great encouragement to those that have predicted they will continue the trend of host nations advancing beyond the group stage. Indeed, were it not for a momentary lapse in concentration at the back and some ill luck in front of the opposing goal, Bafana Bafana could be sitting atop Group A as their second match begins.

South Africa play Uruguay on Youth Day, which celebrates the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, and Steven Pienaar spoke this week of the team's desire to mark the occasion in style. To do so, Carlos Alberto Parreira said 'we have to take some risks otherwise we will go nowhere'.

A high energy approach, backed by a partisan Pretoria crowd, is likely to be the order of the day against opponents who defended well against France but who also feature a pair of strikers that can put the home defence under pressure: Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez.

Salomon Kalou is replaced by Didier Drogba
GettyImagesDidier Drogba put in a confidence-boosting stint against Portugal

Ivory Coast were marginally the better side against Portugal but the Elephants were unable to turn their pressure into goals, even after Didier Drogba came on in the 66th minute. The introduction of the talismanic striker made the Ivory Coast's style of play more direct but the alteration actually led to a drop in passing quality with Ivory Coast's accuracy dipping from 87.5%, without Drogba, to 75.9% after he came on.

That being said, the desire to get the ball forward quicker almost paid off but Drogba was unable to finish when played through in stoppage time. The question now, for Sven-Goran Eriksson, is whether or not to start him against Brazil on Sunday. The other main plus point from Ivory Coast's opener, given that they conceded six goals in three games in 2006, was keeping a clean sheet.

Nigeria may have mixed feelings after their defeat to Argentina. Falling behind so early suggested the Super Eagles could be in for a heavy defeat but, while they were indebted to the heroics in goal of Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria nevertheless had chances late in the game to snatch a point.

One of the keys to the Nigerian improvement was the impact made by their substitutes: Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins and Kalu Uche, the latter of whom missed a great opportunity to equalise. All three will push for a starting place against Greece, a game that Lars Lagerback's men must surely win if they are to have any chance of reaching the second round. Influential left-back, Taye Taiwo, will be available despite limping off against Argentina.

Algeria were on track for a deserved point until Faouzi Chaouchi's mistake gave Slovenia victory in Polokwane. Until then, the Desert Foxes had looked solid at the back, with Madjid Bougherra particularly impressive. At the other end of the field, however, the forward line struggled to create opportunities, registering just two shots on goal.

Rabah Saadane, who was pleased with his team's ball retention and organization, may select an unchanged team against England, a match in which he will hope for more out of his creative players, especially from wide areas. Against Slovenia, of the 19 crosses Algerian players attempted, none connected with a teammate. Abdelkader Ghezzal will not be available to help in the effort to improve on that disappointing return, as he is suspended.

Following Cameroon's defeat to Japan, one blogger asked whether Paul Le Guen had sabotaged the Indomitable Lions. That may be going a little far but there is no doubt that the Frenchman has room for improvement after a disappointing display by a side he picked, which featured a number of questionable selections.

Pierre Webo Cameroon dejected
GettyImagesPierre Webo is left dejected after Cameroon's defeat to Japan

Out went Carlos Kameni as first-choice goalkeeper, while also left on the bench were Achille Emana, Alex Song and Geremi. Joel Matip and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, aged just 18 and 21 respectively, both started while Samuel Eto'o, deployed on the right side of a front three, struggled to get into the game.

Geremi provided width after he came on as Cameroon ended the game on the front foot and, along with Emana, who also made an impact, may have done enough to convince Le Guen that, with the country's future in the tournament on the line, experience should supplant experimentation when it comes to team selection.