I have never been to Brazil, but I know for sure it doesn’t take three hours to get there from any part of Africa. However, after quenching the Flames of Malawi, Nigeria’s Super Eagles have just about three hours (of football) to “arrive” in the land of the Samba Boys for next year’s World Cup.
In the next and final round of African qualifying series, the highest ranked five teams amongst the 10 group stage winners will be seeded to play the next five over two legs. This means the Super Eagles, who rank in the top five in Africa, will most likely be pitched against one of Senegal, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Cameroun or Ethiopia. At this stage, not one of these teams is to be taken.
Ethiopia look like under-dogs on paper, but on the pitch, they can be giant-killers. They were part of the reasons the Eagles’ failed to qualify for the 2012 AFCON after they took two points from the Nigerians in Addis Ababa. Burkina Faso came out top in their group to prove that their runners-up placing at the last Nations Cup was not a fluke.
The fact that Senegal, Cameroun and Egypt failed to qualify for the last World Cup will only double their determination this time, and you can bet they will deploy every trick in the book to upstage the African Champions, if their paths happen to cross.
The Eagles on their part have been progressively impressive - if not outright lucky - in the run-up to this stage, exhibiting unquestionable hunger and determination. However, the team still has to pay attention to certain salient details if it is to cross this last bridge.
I do not believe very much in history or statistics in football because of the unpredictable nature of the contemporary game, but when a team shows continuous signs of a particular frailty, there is cause for worry.
This team has not been very convincing when playing away from home – and this could be very vital in these closing 180 minutes to a World Cup berth. The Eagles have laboured to draw all the other away games (even drawing at home against Kenya); conceding or equalizing in the nick of time in most cases.
Another source of worry is the goal conversion rate. After the Nations Cup, the team reverted to its hallmark single-goal-per-match syndrome. In 6 matches of the group stage, the team only scored more than a goal in the last game against Malawi (the second, a questionable penalty). With a meager 7 goals in 6 matches against minnows Namibia, Kenya and Malawi, there is fear in the land…
With the next two qualifying games coming in the middle of the European football season, there is the chance of injury to players, as well as “unavailability-due-to-club-engagement”. This is another source of worry for a team that is ever so dependent on certain players. The prospect of playing a crucial last qualifying game in Dakar or Cairo without two or more of Emenike, Mikel, Moses and Omeruo does not seem very appealing…
A seemingly unending experiment evident in the gamble with sub-standard players – which the team has only been lucky to get away with on several occasions – is another concern in these ‘dying’ 180 minutes. Much more talented and experienced players have been consistently overlooked for under-performing ones in the last year-and-half (and a lucky Nations Cup victory is being used to justify it). We may just be pushing our luck too far if this practice is re-enacted at this crucial stage…
The Eagles have not lost to African opposition competitively since late 2011, but the next two matches will definitely be two of the most decisive for the current team.