Mere months after new kings of the continent were crowned at the Africa Cup of Nations, Africa’s top sides are now focusing on the World Cup.
The qualification process reaches its climax this week the five African representatives in Qatar will be decided following the final round of two-legged playoffs.
The previous round saw 40 nations divided into 10 groups of four with the 10 table-toppers advancing to the next stage. These teams being Algeria, Cameroon, DR Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.
Curiously, or perhaps typically when it comes to things of this nature in African football, the draw for the playoffs was made during this January’s AFCON, perhaps somewhat distracting from the tournament as it was going on.
Nevertheless, the draw threw up some tantalising encounters to decide which of Africa’s top sides will be at the World Cup this winter.
EGYPT V SENEGAL
A rematch of the AFCON final just a matter of weeks earlier after Sadio Mane slammed home the winning penalty in the shootout to give Senegal their first African title at the expense of Egypt and his Liverpool teammate Mohamed Salah.
Although considered worthy winners over the course of the competition, Senegal found it very difficult to break down a very resolute Egypt side who will be confident of frustrating their opponents again over two legs.
Pharaohs boss Carlos Queiroz will shrug off any criticism of his team’s conservative style of play should they advance, and will be counting on a determined Salah to make the difference.
Extra incentive for Salah will come from the fact that injury impacted his and Egypt’s 2018 campaign, however, a star-studded Senegal side will be in no mood for favours as they look to travel to Qatar as the continent’s champions.
NIGERIA V GHANA
The big one! The two west African giants with a huge rivalry both on and off the pitch face off in a tie that will mean more than simply a World Cup place, but also bragging rights for a lifetime.
Both sides come into the game in a state of unrest after managerial upheaval and poor showings at the AFCON – Ghana were eliminated in the group stage while Nigeria were beaten by unfancied Tunisia in the first knockout round.
The Black Stars will be managed by former midfielder Otto Addo who takes charge on an interim basis following the sacking of Milovan Rajevac, and will be looking to Thomas Partey to continue his recent good form for Arsenal when his pulls on his national shirt in these two games.
They face a daunting task, however. Despite their feeble elimination, Nigeria looked a strong outfit in their group matches and will have both Emmanuel Dennis of Watford and Napoli’s mercurial striker Victor Osimhen to call on after both were absent in Cameroon.
“We are Ghana and we have what it takes to come out victorious,” said Addo in an address to the whole of Ghana in the build-up while Nigeria’s boastful sports minister Sunday Dare has declared that Nigeria will “beat the s***” out of their old rivals this week.
CAMEROON V ALGERIA
The AFCON hosts missed out a potential triumph at home solely by virtue of a semi-final loss on penalties to Egypt.
Despite this, perhaps due to home advantage, they were arguably the team of the tournament, scoring 14 times – 8 of which came through Vincent Aboubakar who claimed the golden boot.
If the Indomitable Lions are to make it to Qatar, they must overcome Algeria, who, after a shambolic AFCON showing, will be out to re-establish their place as the top side on the continent.
Defeat to Equatorial Guinea in the group stage saw a 35-match unbeaten run come to an end for the deposed champions hope to get back on track and reach the finals in Qatar where an iteration of their team recently lifted the Arab Cup.
DR CONGO V MOROCCO
DR Congo were actually the first sub-Saharan African side to reach a World Cup back in 1974 when they were known as Zaire.
Sadly, things on and off the pitch haven’t exactly run smoothly since but team now find themselves within two matches of returning to the biggest stage.
Managed by veteran Argentinean Hector Cuper, this could be the Leopards best chance but in Morocco face another side who impressed at the AFCON before coming unstuck in a penalty shootout against Egypt of course.
The likes of Youssef El Nesyri, Ashraf Hakimi and Sofiane Boufal could prove too much for DR Congo, putting a pin in any unlikely fairytale story.
MALI V TUNISIA
What happens when dark horses face another set of dark horses?
Tunisia are perhaps some way away from their strongest, yet still managed to pull off a huge shock at the AFCON by knocking out Nigeria while Mali, admittedly not the most entertaining side, have confounded expectations to get the where they are.
Unbeaten in the group stage of World Cup qualifying, their only setback since last June – coincidentally, a friendly loss to Tunisia – was the penalty shootout elimination at the hands of Equatorial Guinea in the AFCON last 16, so a first ever World Cup appearance is not out of the question by any means.
These two teams recently faced off in their opening match in Cameroon, which was memorable of course for some questionable timekeeping by the official in charge.
Tunisia will no doubt see the controversial ending to that game as some incentive this time around but whatever the outcome of their playoff encounters, everyone involved will be hoping football is the talking point.
The first legs take place on March 26 with the return matches on March 29.