Nigeria vs Ethiopia
The First Leg: Stephen Keshi’s young Super Eagles side overcame the altitude and atmosphere of Addis Ababa to secure the only away victory of the first leg fixtures. Nigeria looked nervy in the opening stages, but sprung into life after a Vincent Enyeama mishap gifted Ethiopia an opener. Emmanuel Emenike, a forward of genuine class and growing influence, responded with a brace – the second goal being of exceptional quality – to change the complexion of the tie.
The Key Men: Emenike, along with Liverpool’s Victor Moses, possess pace and power enough to trouble Ethiopia. If either of these two hit the ground running then Nigeria could finish the contest swiftly. Enyeama and John Obi Mikel will be called upon to calm their compatriots should the Walias’ pluck unsettle Keshi’s young squad; the latter will be crucial as he dictates play and organises those around him from the heart of the midfield.
Ed Dove’s Prediction: Stephen Keshi will be confident that, with the tie still firmly in their own hands, Nigeria can secure World Cup qualification on Saturday. It is imperative, however, that the Super Eagles settle quickly, absorb the inevitable Ethiopian pressure, and close the tie before the visitors are allowed to believe once more.
Egypt vs Ghana
The First Leg: Despite being billed as the clash between two continental heavyweights, the first-leg was remarkably one-sided. The Pharaohs’ initial vigour soon evaporated as waves and waves of Black Star attacks were met with feeble, trembling resistance. While Egypt’s fragility stole the headlines, Ghana’s supremacy was outstanding. The West African powerhouses bulldozed their opponents 6-1, and made a major statement ahead of the World Cup next summer.
The Key Man: Michael Essien has a lot to prove having endured some injury-ravaged seasons and some time away from the national side. The fact that he missed the last World Cup (and Ghana’s triumphant run to the quarter-finals) surely only adds to his motivation. Along with Kwadwo Asamoah, Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Emmanuel Badu and Andre Ayew, Essien forms part of one of international football’s most impressive midfield stables.
Ed Dove’s Prediction: Surely a no-contest. Ghana have scored in every game they have played so far this season. Should they find the net in Cairo, the Pharaohs will require seven goals to win the tie. It’s just not going to happen, is it?!
Senegal vs Cote d’Ivoire
The First Leg: A dominant first hour from the hosts looked to have killed the tie before an expectant home crowd in Abidjan. Perhaps already dreaming of the Copacabana, Cote d’Ivoire took their foot off the gas and let Papiss Cisse score a late goal. Could it prove to be more than just a consolation prize?
The Key Man: Gervinho, with his searing pace and direct running, is perhaps the most likely contender to kill off the Senegalese resistance. The Ivorian’s current form ought to imbue the Lions’ backline with fear. If Alain Giresse’s men are to remain competitive in Casablanca, then they will need to get a handle on the midfield, where Yaya Toure is such a dominant figure. Lille midfielder Idrissa Gueye may, therefore, prove to be a key actor. He continues to go from strength-to-strength in Northern France and his dynamism and power will be vital in both protecting the Senegalese defence and supplying the team’s sublime collection of strikers. Mohamed Diame will also need to be at his best.
Ed Dove’s Prediction: While Cisse’s late goal in Abidjan adds a vague shade of doubt to this contest, it is not enough to dissuade me from backing the Elephants. The Ivorians haven’t failed to qualify for an international tournament for a decade and I don’t see that changing on Saturday.
Cote d’Ivoire Qualify
The First Leg: Tunisia enjoyed the best of the action as they and Cameroon played out a dour 0-0 draw in Rades. Indomitable Lions keeper Charles Itandje was the star of the show as he repeatedly repelled the North African attacks to preserve the parity between the two teams.
The Key Man: Samuel Eto’o has long taken on the goal-scoring burden for Cameroon. These days, however, the nation is suffering from a dearth of creative midfielders – a reality that was abundantly evident during the blunt first leg. It may be that Eto’o will be required to operate in a deeper role and forge the moves rather than simply finish them off. If he can excel in this role, one not too different to that which he played in Russia with Anzhi Makhachkala, then he may well be the game’s most influential contributor.
Ed Dove’s Prediction: I suspect that Cameroon’s electric home support, an inspired Itandje, and the nation’s impressive banks of defensive talent will make the difference against Tunisia. If Eto’o can bring his recent Chelsea form back home, then they should be fine. If not, or if Tunisia score first, then things might get fairly tetchy!
Algeria vs Burkina Faso
The First Leg: Perhaps the least star-studded of the five play-off ties, but arguably the most intriguing. Burkina Faso and Algeria are two sides with obvious weaknesses, and both were exposed in the first leg. That contest finished 3-2, with the North Africans particularly aggrieved about a late, controversial penalty that has surely given the Stallions an invaluable advantage.
The Key Man: Both sides possess key men who could, on their day, be the difference between jubilant celebration and lonely failure. For Algeria, Adlene Guedioura, of Crystal Palace, has the presence and the power to take control of the midfield and mute the Burkina Faso offensive, or at least stifle the influential Charles Kabore. The Burkinabe are about much more than Kabore, however, and in Jonathan Pitroipa, Afcon 2013’s star attraction, Alain Traore, a player for the big occasion, and the colourful Aristide Bance, they possess enough talent to threaten Algeria’s return to the World Cup.
Ed Dove’s Prediction: Almost too close to call. My head tells me that the Blida crowd, Algeria’s experience, and their two away goals, makes them favourites for the tie. On the other hand, however, this has already been a year of unprecedented success for the Stallions – World Cup qualification would represent the perfect end to 2013.
Burkina Faso Qualify … just!
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