By Rami Ayari
Africa's best will soon begin the arduous journey to become the continent's proud representatives of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as the qualifying campaign kicks off in June.
For teams that failed to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) or performed poorly at the tournament, these games represent a shot at redemption. For others that have done well or shown signs of improvement, these encounters will give them a chance to gauge their level of progress ahead of Brazil 2014.
Below, Goal.com has picked out the standout fixtures from each of the 10 groups.
|10. GABON VS BURKINA FASO
When the Stallions head to Gabon, they will be playing for much more than just restoring the lustre that was lost during their poor showing at the 2012 Afcon. The match in Libreville on June 8 will go a long way to determining who qualifies from a group that also includes fast-improving Niger and Congo.
For Gabon it will be a chance to reassure their fans that the progress made during the continental championship they co-hosted will be built on with future success. This match will also be a chance to see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang go head to head with Jonathan Pitroipa. With a final game in Ouagadougou in September on the horizon, the first encounter takes on added psychological significance.
|9. SOUTH AFRICA VS BOTSWANA
After finishing the 2012 Afcon qualifiers in embarrassing fashion, the South Africans will be desperate to do everything they can to make sure that the celebrations in the last fixture of this campaign will be genuine. Fans will be demanding a result without any excuses against regional rivals Botswana, who astonished many when they became the first to book their ticket to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Bafana Bafana remain the stronger team on paper but this match, as well as the first fixture in Gaborone on June 8, is an important test of their character. Another major slip-up could cost Pitso Mosimane his job. Meanwhile, their opponents are out to confirm the changing of the guard in Africa.
|8. TUNISIA VS EQUATORIAL GUINEA
Tunisia limped into the 2012 Afcon, owing their qualification to a last second Chad equaliser against Malawi that eliminated the Flames. However, by the time they left Gabon, they had shown clear signs that they were beginning to re-establish themselves as a force on the African continent by beating Maghreb rivals Morocco, and coming close to knocking out Ghana in the quarter-finals.
Thus, their first 2014 World Cup qualifier will be an opportunity for them to continue on this upward trajectory. The game is especially significant as it comes against an Equatorial Guinean public with enhanced expectations following their team’s surprise quarter-final progression. With the element of surprise gone and playing far away from their adoring fans, will they be able to repeat the feat against a Carthage Eagles side that are historically strong at home? That will be their challenge.
This clash features a stark contrast between one team that failed to qualify for the 2012 Afcon and another that defied all expectations to qualify even though their homeland was being ravaged by a brutal civil war. The 2014 World Cup qualifiers represent Denis Lavagne’s first true test at international level.
African football fans are all eagerly waiting to see whether the Frenchman is able to restore the Indomitable Lions' image that has been bruised by an all too common dispute between players and their FA over win bonuses. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see whether the freshly nicknamed Mediterranean Knights can continue to produce miracles in the post Gaddafi era. They have already shown that they have a great deal of heart, but do they have the requisite consistency that would make them a real force in Africa?
Similar to the aforementioned encounter between Libya and Cameroon, this clash is between a team that punched above their weight at the 2012 Afcon and another that failed to qualify despite participating in the 2010 World Cup. On the strength of their third-place finish in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Mali are certainly the favourites, but that might not mean much as Algeria are notoriously more dangerous when they are billed as underdogs.
The teams first face each other on June 8 in Bamako, but the match that looks more enticing is the final fixture on September 6 in Algiers, which could very well end up being the clincher. Vahid Halilhodzic pulled out a 3-1 comeback win in Rwanda recently to reassure Fennecs fans that he is the right man for the job. Mali are a tougher proposition, though, and the Bosnian will need his players to be at their absolute best if they are to overcome Alain Giresse’s squad.
The match between the Super Eagles and the Flames is a compelling fixture as it pits a declining African power against an ever-improving former unknown. The contrasts do not end there as Nigeria have had a quick succession of underachieving coaches and underperforming European-based players while Malawi have benefitted greatly from the stability of coach Kinnah Phiri and a cohesive unit of home grown players.
With both sides considering themselves unlucky not to qualify for the 2012 Afcon, there is a great deal at stake in these qualifiers and it could all come down to the last match on September 6 in either Lagos or Abuja. Given the Nigeria Football Federation’s track record with sacking coaches, Stephen Keshi’s job is undoubtedly on the line and he must get out of this group to keep it.
Needless to say, the 2012 Afcon was a disaster for the Teranga Lions. While missing out on the knockout stage is always a disappointment for a team with so much talent, what made it worse was that it came at a time when it looked like Amara Traore had finally restored team unity and removed the selfishness and in-fighting from the squad. Now, whoever takes over the hot-seat will have it all to do again along with the extra task of regaining the trust of a dejected fanbase.
Standing in Senegal’s path to redemption are the Angolans, who were made to pay for their lack of killer instinct at the last continental championship. Looking at the fixture list, two matches that stand out in a group that also includes Liberia and a much-improved Uganda are the ones between the pool favourites on March 22 in Dakar and June 7 in Luanda. The latter is arguably more intriguing given that it will be the most serious test away from home for the Senegalese.
As long as there is still everything to play for by the time this fixture takes place, the match that everyone will have circled down is the final encounter on September 6 that Egypt will host. Or will they? That is an burning question considering the depressing state of Egyptian football in the wake of the on-going revolution and the tragic events of Port Said, where 74 football fans lost their lives.
Given the continued instability, the country has more pressing issues on its hands than a return to glory, but no one can deny that making it to Brazil 2014 is important to Egyptians, especially since they have not been to a World Cup finals since 1990. On the other hand, Guinea are coming off a 2012 Afcon where they left a great impression despite being eliminated in the first round. Their athleticism and increasing chemistry could cause the Pharaohs some problems, especially if Bob Bradley’s men are not benefitting from proper preparation at club level.
The Ghanaians need little reminder of the Emmanuel Mayuka goal that ended their quest for the 2012 Afcon and allowed eventual trophy winners Zambia to advance to the final. That is merely one reason why the June 8 match in Lusaka will be an absolute cracker. Herve Renard is used to springing surprises but now, his players are marked men and revenge is in the air.
Some would say that the final qualifier on September 6 in Accra is more crucial but the earlier fixture seems more so because it will establish the aggressor in this group. Should Ghana triumph away from home, it will ramp up the pressure on a Zambian side that are not necessarily used to being in the spotlight. However, a Chipolopolo victory could mean that the southern Africans are ready to embrace the favourites tag that comes with the continental title.
|1. COTE D'IVOIRE VS MOROCCO
The names speak for themselves, as these are two teams that boast some of the best individual talent the continent has to offer. However, that is where the similarities end as Cote d’Ivoire have made it to the past two World Cups and gone on impressive runs at multiple African Cups while the Moroccans’ last notable showing as a team was back in 2004 when they made it to the Afcon final in Tunisia.
It seemed to many that coach Eric Gerets had finally pulled the team together when Morocco trounced Algeria 4-0 in qualifying, but the recently recurring theme of failing to progress to the knockout stages has allowed doubt to seep back into the camp. If the Atlas Lions are to halt the Elephants’ run of three successive World Cup finals appearances, then it is almost certain that they will have to do so in the final qualifier in Abidjan on September 6, unless of course Gambia and Tanzania punch above their weight like so many other African teams have done in recent times.
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