Africa will finally conclude its long, hard slog through qualifying and determine its five World Cup entrants over the next few days.
Perennial powers Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria all look well placed to secure their berths with a professional performance in the second leg of their ties. The remaining two spots, however, remain decidedly in the balance with four teams all harboring genuine hopes of progressing to the showcase in Brazil next summer.
Here is a brief look at the landscape ahead of the decisive fixtures poised to unfold across the continent:
Nigeria – Ethiopia (Saturday, 11:00a.m. ET in Calabar – Nigeria leads 2-1 on aggregate)
Can Ethiopia withstand the pressure?: Nigeria isn’t a contemplative team. The Super Eagles want to obtain possession and transition quickly through the middle of the park toward Fenerbahçe forward Emmanuel Emenike (both goals in the first leg). It works well for this athletic group given its creative and technical limits. Ethiopia struggled to cope with those robust qualities in the first leg. Unless the rank outsiders (the lowest ranked side left in African qualifying) can slow the tempo on the break and snatch two goals against the run of play, their magical run toward Brazil will end at the last hurdle.
Senegal – Côte d’Ivoire (Saturday, 2:00p.m. ET in Casablanca, Morocco – Côte d’Ivoire leads 3-1 on aggregate)
How much will the transgressions of the past harm Senegal in the present?: This match will take place on neutral soil after a fan riot in Dakar halted an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier between these two sides 13 months ago. Côte d’Ivoire led that series 6-2 on aggregate at the time to provide a glimpse at the gulf between the two sides at that stage. Senegal boss Alain Giresse has inspired an improvement since taking charge earlier this year and Papiss Cissé did throw his side a lifeline with his second-half stoppage time goal in Abidjan, but the task against the continent’s best side looks a bit too daunting without the benefit of the home support.
Cameroon – Tunisia (Sunday, 9:00a.m. ET in Yaoundé – series tied 0-0 on aggregate)
Can Cameroon produce the goal or two required to go through?: It isn’t the sort of question expected from a side led by Samuel Eto’o, but the Indomitable Lions often struggle to produce the required sharpness in front of goal. Eto’o needs more aid from Pierre Webó and more support from elsewhere (this isn’t the most creative of midfield groups with Jean Makoun leading the way) to ensure he receives the proper service. If Cameroon continues to flail around in front of goal and leave Eto’o adrift, then the Carthage Eagles – another side admittedly short in the final third – could nick this tie from a set piece.
Egypt – Ghana (Tuesday, 11:00a.m. ET in Cairo – Ghana leads 6-1 on aggregate)
How will Bob Bradley’s tenure conclude?: Bradley deserves a decent parting gift for the commitment and the energy he devoted to the Egyptian national side over the the past couple of years. His stellar record – unblemished in World Cup qualifying despite the absence of a domestic league – did not earn him much latitude after the heavy defeat in Accra in the first leg. Ghana possesses all of the tools to replicate the feat against an Egyptian side incapable of matching that sort of tempo. But if the Egyptians can sort out their defensive issues and summon the usual magic from Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Salah, then a cathartic result against a side all but qualified could reduce the damage and send Bradley off in style.
Algeria – Burkina Faso (Tuesday, 1:15p.m. ET in Blida – Burkina Faso leads 3-2 on aggregate)
Will the return of Alain Traoré push the Burkinabé to their first World Cup?: A hotly debated late penalty decision in the first leg in Ouagadougou provided Burkina Faso with a narrow advantage to take into this leg. The likely return of Lorient striker Traoré offers a viable target up front to lead the break and play directly against a Desert Foxes side – presumably bolstered if injury doubt Hassan Yebda (calf) recovers in time – in need of a narrow victory on home soil to advance. Algeria scores with some regularity (16 goals during the group stage) despite the absence of a top striker. The home side will expect to tally at some stage and place the pressure squarely on the visitors to respond. The onus will fall on Traoré or Jonathan Pitropia to locate it in order to ensure those dreams come true.
Images provided by Getty.