BY APESIN ADEMOLA.
The qualifying series of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Matchday 4 will be concluded in 21 centres across the continent this Tuesday. But Nigerians attentions are focused on two locations where Group E matches will be played.
At the 18,000-capacity Stade Taïeb Mhiri in Sfax, Tunisia, Libya will play host to the Super Eagles, while the group’s whipping side Seychelles welcome current leaders South Africa to Stad Linité in Victoria, which has a capacity for 10,000 fans.
Going into these fixtures, Nigeria stand one point behind the Bafana Bafana, who have won two of their three matches, drawn the other and are yet to concede in 270 minutes of the group phase.
The Super Eagles are expected to sustain the momentum created in Uyo on Saturday when they thrashed Libya 4-0, three of the goals coming from the much criticized Odion Ighalo.
The good news is that Coach Gernot Rohr and his charges are not underrating the Mediterranean Knights despite their huge victory three days ago. “We need a big fighting spirit to beat Libya again,” the German said. “It will be a difficult game because after losing 4-0 in Uyo, they will be aggressive for revenge. We have to be stronger to win again. It’s not finished yet.”
Rohr will be expected to again start Ighalo, who turned from villain to hero in Uyo following his three-goal feat which enabled the Chinese club Changchun Yatai striker to top the qualifiers scorers’ chart with four goals, one more than Angola’s Gelson (full name: Jacinto Muondo Dala) and injured Mohamed Salah of Egypt.
Ogenyi Onazi, who plays for Turkey’s Trabzonspor, and Shehu Abdullahi, also plying his trade in Turkey with Bursaspor, will miss the Sfax encounter on account of injuries.
Nigeria require a win to either topple South Africa or remain on their heels. A win by Libya will see the Super Eagles drop to third spot going into the last two matches of the group stage. The Libyans have not been to the Africa Cup of Nations finals since their group stage exit in 2012.
South Africa, African champions in 1996 when they hosted, will seek to maintain their clean sheet in the qualifiers, a feat they share with Tunisia (Group J) and Uganda (Group L). If the Bafana Bafana triumph in Victoria as expected, they will require three points from their last two matches to be in the party next year in Cameroon. That will mark a return to the competition after falling to qualify for Gabon 2017.
In other groups, Guinea and Tunisia will become the first set of teams to join hosts Cameroon for next year’s finals. Guinea, in Group H, will have confirmed their slot if they record a double over hosts Rwanda, who lost 0-2 in the reverse fixture four days ago. The Syli Nationale’s best performance in the championship is runners-up in the 1976 edition.
The other teams jostling with Guinea – Côte d’Ivoire and Central Africa Republic – clash in Bangui. The Ivorien Elephants, champions in 1992 and 2015, have a three-point edge over their hosts going into this game.
Like Guinea, Tunisia will be going for their fourth win to seal Cameroon 2019 qualification. Currently Africa’s No 1 squad by FIFA ranking, Tunisia have bossed Group J, which include the continent’s most decorated side Egypt, who face Swaziland in that country’s second largest city Manzini. If Tunisia overwhelm Niger Republic, Egypt too will qualify for the finals in Cameroon if they achieve back-to-back victory over the Swazis.
Apart from South Africa, teams with seven points from three matches include Senegal, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and Mali. Others are: Uganda, Algeria and Cameroon, the host nation.
Senegal, who are the second best rated side in the continent, are in Group A with Madagascar. Both sides will be through to Cameroon 2019 if they win their respective Matchday 4 fixture, thereby eliminating Equatorial Guinea and Sudan.
Senegal, who file out against hosts Sudan, have never won the African title. They crashed out in the last eight in Gabon 2017 in a manner that disappointed neutral football fans. Featuring Liverpool winger Sadio Mané, the Teranga Lions beat Tunisia and Zimbabwe and fought Algeria to a deadlock to win Group B, only to get knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Cameroon on penalties after a barren regulation and extra time.
On their part, Madagascar will register for their first AFCON finals if they strike another victory over Equatorial Guinea. The fans will be expected to crowd Stade Municipal de Mahamasina in Madagascar’s capital to witness history.
Group G features Zimbabwe, who will begin preparation for Cameroon 2019 if they defeat DR Congo and Liberia fail to beat Congo Republic. The Zimbabwean Warriors are lightweights in Africa having never gone past the group stage the three previous times they qualified for the finals.
DR Congo, bronze medalists in Equatorial Guinea 2015 and quarterfinalists in the last edition, had won the African title twice when the country was known as the Republic of Congo (1968) and later Zaire (1974). Last Saturday, they lost 1-2 to Zimbabwe on their own ground in Kinshasa and will hope to inflict the same punishment on their hosts in other to enhance their qualification chances.
Congo Republic will strive to overcome hosts Liberia to acquire seven points and boost their hope for Cameroon 2019 having missed the previous tournament in 2017. Quarter-finalists in Equatorial Guinea 2015, the Congolese had won the title in 1972 in Cameroon when they were called the People’s Republic of the Congo.
Liberia occupied the last position in Group G, which is what one point from three matches means. The country of football legend George Weah, now the President of that West African nation, last featured in the championship in 2002.
In Group C, the Eagles of Mali will wrap up their campaign for Cameroon 2019 if they achieve what they couldn’t do at home against Burundi in Bamako last Friday when a barren outcome denied the hosts maximum points. But that will also depend on South Sudan, the group’s whipping side, beating Gabon in Juba. Mali’s best performance in the competition was placing second in Cameroon in 1972.
Gabon have never been a force in the continent. Despite hosting Africa twice (including as co-hosts in 2012), the country of Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have only reached the quarterfinals once; and that was at home in 2012.
The Panthers have only just ended a coaching crisis. Last month, the Gabonese FA announced Daniel Cousin and Pierre-Francois Aubameyang, father of the the national team captain Pierre-Emerick, as joint managers of the squad. The son immediately rejected the offer on behalf of his father following which the FA confirmed Cousin as the sole manager.
In Group L, Uganda will not have to bother about other results in the qualifying series if they collect maximum points in Lesotho, the team they beat 3-0 last Saturday in the reverse fixture. The Cranes exited in the group stage of AFCON 2017 but were runners-up to hosts Ghana in 1978, their best ever AFCON when they stopped Nigeria in the semifinal.
Cape Verde Islands also require victory in this group to keep pace with Uganda, who have a three-point advantage. In the first leg against their opponents, Cape Verde dismissed visiting Tanzania 3-0.
Both Tanzania and Lesotho have secured only two points in three fixtures.
Algeria will line up against Benin Republic as Group D leaders realising that victory will see them packing their luggage to Cameroon next year. African champions in 1990 when they beat Nigeria in the final match in Algiers, Algeria have fallen short of expectation in recent years. They failed to navigate the group from where the Super Eagles emerged to Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup, for instance. But it will be a big let down if the Desert Warriors fail to qualify for Cameroon in a group that have the Gambia and Togo as contenders.
Group B will produce only one team through the qualifiers as Cameroon have already qualified for the finals as host nation. That other team may well be Morocco, who last won the championship in 1976 but have been to five FIFA World Cup finals, including Russia 2018.
The Altlas Lions lost their first match of this current qualifying series by a lone goal to Cameroon and need to beat Comoros Islands and have Cameroon denying hosts Malawi victory to snatch the ticket to next year’s finals with two matches to spare.
Burkina Faso, the last team Nigeria played in AFCON finals, top Group I with six points, but with only goal difference advantage over Angola and Mauritania, while Botswana have no point.
Group K have Guinea-Bissau who have played four matches and garnered seven points to lead Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia, all three points behind. Whichever of Mozambique or hosts Namibia win at Sam Nujoma Stadium in Windhoek by at least a two-goal margin will go on top of the table.
For Ghana and Kenya, the decision of CAF on Sierra Leone will determine their standings in Group F. Sierra Leone had their two matches against Ghana cancelled as a result of CAF suspension of their FA. Kenya now have seven points from four matches, while Ethiopia have four points from same number of games. Ghana and Sierra Leone are however on three points from three matches.
Group E: Libya v Nigeria (first leg Nigeria 4-0) (7pm), Seychelles v South Africa (first leg South Africa 6-0) (2:30pm)
Group A: Madagascar v Equatorial Guinea (first leg Madagascar 1-0) (12:30pm), Sudan v Senegal (first leg ) (6:30pm)
Group B: Comoros Islands v Morocco (first leg Morocco 1-0) (1pm), Malawi v Cameroon (first leg Cameroon 1-0) (1:30pm)
Group C: Burundi v Mali (first leg 0-0), South Sudan v Gabon (first leg Gabon 3-0) (both 2pm)
Group D: Benin Republic v Algeria (first leg Algeria 2-0) (4pm), Gambia v Togo (first leg 1-1) (5:30pm)
Group G: Zimbabwe v DR Congo (first leg Zimbabwe 2-1) (6pm), Liberia v Congo Republic (first leg Congo Republic 3-1) (7pm)
Group H: Rwanda v Guinea (first leg Guinea 2-0) (2:30pm), Central Africa Republic v Côte d’Ivoire (first leg Côte d’Ivoire 4-0) (3pm)
Group I: Botswana v Burkina Faso (first leg Burkina Faso 3-0), Mauritania v Angola (first leg Angola 4-1) (both 6pm)
Group J: Swaziland v Egypt (first leg Egypt 4-1) (2pm), Niger Republic v Tunisia (first leg Tunisia 1-0) (4pm)
Group K: Namibia v Mozambique (first leg Namibia 2-1) (6pm)
Group L: Tanzania v Cape Verde Islands (first leg Cape Verde Islands 3-0) (3pm), Lesotho v Uganda (first leg Uganda 3-0) (5pm)