BY MUYIWA AKINTUNDE
By next Tuesday, 19 more slots will be filled to complete a field of 24 finalists for the Cameroon 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.
The 33rd edition of the continent’s flagship football tournament will be held not this year, as earlier proposed, but in January and February 2022. The earlier date of June and July 2021 was disrupted by Coronavirus that virtually brought the world on its knees.
Apart from Cameroon (Group F), the host nation who are in the qualifiers just to keep in shape, four other nations have gone through with two matches to spare. Defending champions Algeria (Group H), last edition’s finalists Senegal (Group I), 2004 winners Tunisia (Group J) and 1972 runners-up Mali (Group A) have booked their places in Cameroon 2021.
For the Super Eagles of Nigeria and several other teams, qualification may be confirmed on Matchday 5, which runs from Wednesday, 24th March to Saturday, 27th March 2021.
When Gernot Rohr’s side file out in Porto-Novo, the port city that is the capital of the Republic of Benin, on Saturday, they would have known the result of the other Matchday 5 fixture in the group; that between Lesotho and Sierra Leone. If that match goes the same way as the first leg in Freetown which ended in a draw (1-1), Nigeria would have picked their 19th ticket to the finals in the 33 times that the continental competition would hold since the inaugural edition in 1957.
And should both hosts Benin Republic and Nigeria go on to share honours, the Squirrels would also be among the finalists, even as both sides would then have one more game to wrap up the qualifiers.
The Super Eagles are all set to put smiles on the faces of their compatriots who were so let down by the team on Matchday 3. Soaring at 4-0 by the 30th minute of the match against Sierra Leone in Benin City, the Eagles were brought down to earth 4-4 by the minnows, who even threatened to win. The reverse fixture four days later in Freetown ended goalless, to place Nigeria a point ahead of second placed Benin Republic in Group L.
The Super Eagles’ camp in Lagos is bubbling; all invited players in camp and rearing to go on the boat trip Porto-Novo. European clubs’ Covid-19 restrictions mean that some key players had to be replaced by Rohr. Among those missing were Samuel Kalu of Bordeaux, FC Nantes’ Moses Simon, both French top flight sides; Kenneth Omeruo of Leganés and Sadiq Umar of Almeria, both in Spain.
They were replaced by Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray), Paul Onuachu (Genk) as well as home-based stars Adekunle Adeleke (Abia Warriors) and Enyimba striker Anayo Iwuala.
With four goals already, Napoli’s striker Victor Osimhen leads the scorers’ chat in the qualifiers and is among the stars in camp. In-form Kelechi Iheanacho returns after missing all national team fixtures since he scored the opening goal of the team’s 1-1 result in a friendly against Tunisia on 13th October last year.
Iheanacho has been in superb form for Leicester City. He produced a hat-trick in his last English Premier League outing against Sheffield United, and added a brace plus an assist to eliminate Manchester United from the FA Cup on Sunday. Eight goals in all competitions this month is a fantastic harvest for any player indeed!
Also listed are winger Samuel Chukwueze, Wilfred Ndidi, William Troost-Ekong, Ola Aina, Semi Ajayi and non-playing captain Ahmed Musa, among others.
Benin Republic made special flight arrangements for the bulk of their players in France, a major Covid-19 logistics requirement. And they are encouraged by their having not lost at home since 9th June 2013 when Algeria won a FIFA World Cup qualifier 1-3.
That match was at the same Stade Charles de Gaulle where Saturday’s game will hold. Will the Super Eagles re-enact the Algerian feat?
If they fail to qualify on Saturday, the Super Eagles will have another opportunity against Lesotho on Tuesday at Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos in the last match of the qualification rounds. At that time, Sierra Leone or Lesotho will remain in contention for any of the two group’s tickets if they won their previous match.
Wednesday will see six matches in five groups with four more teams likely to qualify for the finals.
In Group A, Chad Football Federation was suspended by CAF following government intervention, which means that their remaining two qualifying matches are awarded to their opponents – Mali and Namibia. Mali are through to Cameroon 2021, and if Guinea beat Mali, the Syli Nationale, who exited in the Round of 16 of Egypt 2019, will book their spot for the 13th time in the continental finals.
Burkina Faso, Nigeria’s victims in the 2013 final in South Africa, will be among Cameroon 2021 finalists if they triumph in Uganda on Wednesday afternoon. But the Ugandan Cranes will not let go since they are aware that victory will all but put them through.
While Burkina Faso and Uganda are separated by just a point, Malawi and bottom-placed South Sudan also have a point between them. Any of these teams that come out unscathed will have hope of making it on the last Matchday.
In Group C, Sudan are determined to make the section a three-horse race, which also include Ghana and South Africa. The east Africans are away to already eliminated São Tomé and Príncipe on Wednesday night, while South Africa host Ghana on Thursday.
The Black Stars and the Bafana Bafana are tied at the top with nine points each, while Sudan are three points short.
Cameroon are on the verge of winning Group F. But what matters here is the team that will qualify with the Indomitable Lions for the finals. With only two points from four matches and placing last on the log, Rwanda host Mozambique on Wednesday afternoon in a must-win game. If they succeed in their mission, Rwanda will move second behind Cameroon, in place of Mozambique, while awaiting Friday’s Cape Verde Islands v Cameroon encounter.
Mozambique and Cape Verde are at the moment on four points each.
Madagascar, one of the sensational teams of Egypt 2019, are battling to emerge from Group K. They are second to Côte d’Ivoire only on account of the Elephants’ head-to-head advantage.
But Madagascar stand the risk of losing ground as they play away to Ethiopia on Wednesday. Their hosts are just a single point behind, while the Ivorien Elephants will be away to Niger Republic on Friday. All the four teams here remain in contention.
Among the countries hoping to qualify on Thursday are the continent’s most successful side, the Pharaohs of Egypt. A point in Kenya will be just enough, which is all Comoros Islands require at home against Togo to break the jinx in their seventh attempt in the qualifiers.
Group D may produce at least one team among the finalists on Thursday. Here, Gambia and Gabon are on top of the log with seven points each, with DR Congo just one point short. Angola, the whipping side which have one point so far, will hand Gambia their first qualification if they lose in Banjul.
It’s the same situation with Gabon, who will have captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the squad for this match only. Arsenal will not allow their captain to play in Angola on Monday due to Covid-19 concerns in that country.
In Group H where Algeria have already emerged, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia in that order are jostling for the second ticket. Only victory over the African champions Algeria will keep Zambia in the race till the last Matchday, while Botswana will place second if they beat visiting Zimbabwe.
Like Algeria, Tunisia have no worries in Group J, leaving the other three teams to battle for one spot. Libya, back at home after the ban on international sporting activities on the troubled country was lifted, will have to beat Tunisia to stay on course. But that is if Equatorial Guinea fail to dismiss Tanzania, their guests.
On Friday, Morocco will join the Cameroon 2021 elites if they avoid defeat in Mauritania in Group E. It’s a game the hosts must win, otherwise the winners between hosts Burundi and Central African Republic will set up a nail-biting finale on Tuesday – the last Matchday.
Congo Republic have Senegal as stumbling blocks in Group I. Les Lions de la Téranga will be playing for pride after claiming one of the tickets here. Will they remove their foot from the pedals and concede their first match of the qualifiers?
Whichever team that triumphed between Eswatini and Guinea-Bissau will be in the reckoning on the last day of the qualifiers.
MATCHDAY 5 FIXTURES
Wednesday, 24th March 2021
- Group B: Uganda v Burkina Faso (first leg 0-0), South Sudan v Malawi (first leg Malawi 1-0) (both 2 pm)
- Group F: Rwanda v Mozambique (first leg Mozambique 2-0) (2 pm)
- Group K: Ethiopia v Madagascar (first leg Madagascar 1-0) (2 pm)
- Group A: Guinea v Mali (first leg 2-2) (5 pm), Chad Republic v Namibia (first leg Namibia 2-1) (Cancelled)
- Group C: São Tomé and Príncipe v Sudan (first leg Sudan 4-0) (8 pm)
Thursday, 25th March 2021
- Group G: Comoros Islands v Togo (first leg Comoros Islands 1-0) (2 pm), Kenya v Egypt (first leg 1-1) (5 pm)
- Group C: South Africa v Ghana (first leg Ghana 2-0) (5 pm)
- Group D: Gabon v DR Congo (first leg 0-0), The Gambia v Angola (first leg The Gambia 3-1) (both 5 pm)
- Group H: Botswana v Zimbabwe (first leg 0-0) (5 pm), Zambia v Algeria (first leg Algeria 5-0) (8 pm)
- Group J: Libya v Tunisia (first leg Tunisia 4-1), Equatorial Guinea v Tanzania (first leg Tanzania 2-1) (both 8 pm)
- Group I: Eswatini v Guinea-Bissau (first leg Guinea-Bissau 3-0) (2 pm), Congo Republic v Senegal (first leg Senegal 2-0) (5 pm)
Friday, 26th March 2021
- Group E: Burundi v Central African Republic (first leg Central African Republic 2-0) (2 pm), Mauritania v Morocco (first leg 0-0) (8 pm)
Saturday, 27th March 2021
- Group L: Benin Republic v Nigeria (first leg Nigeria 2-1) (5 pm), Lesotho v Sierra Leone (first leg 1-1) (2 pm) [13:39, 24/03/2021]