BY KUNLE SOLAJA
The road to Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup for the African teams have been mapped out and the race has begun in earnest. Two match days have gone for 38 of the 40 teams as only Guinea and Morocco still have their matchday 2 fixture suspended owing to the political situation in Guinea.
Some teams have already surged forward in their respective groups and are set to consolidate on their leadership. One of such is the Super Eagles of Nigeria which have maximum points obtainable from the two fixtures gone.
From their two matches and some others that have direct relevance to their future fixtures, some lessons could be gleaned.
- Impossible is nothing: There were initial fears occasioned by Britain’s refusal to allow Premiership football players to travel to certain countries which included that of Nigeria’s matchday 2 opponents, Cape Verde. The direct consequent of that was that no fewer than 10 regulars were excused from playing against Cape Verde. Playing such a crucial match against a team that once ranked among Africa’s top 5 and was at brink of making it to Brazil 2014, was really worrisome. Nigeria had to field previously five uncapped players. To have come out victorious in such a delicate situation underscored the strength and resilence of the team. The lesson here is that determination and zeal are key to victory.
- No team is a push over: When the draw for the final competition of the Africa Cup of Nations was conducted, most Nigerians attention were primarily focussed on a potentially explosive encounter with Egypt. The secondary attention was on Sudan while debutants, Guinea Bissau only got passing attention as they were considered as merely making up the numbers. Guinea Bissau forced to play their home match against Guinea forced a 1-1 draw against one of the power houses of African football. Going away to Omdurman to play Sudan, the same team they will open their Group D Africa Cup of Nations, encounter with Cameroon next year, the hitherto unrated Guinea Bissau ran riots with goals, scoring four times against hosts, Sudan who needed added time to reduce their deficit to 4-2. This is an eye opener for the Super Eagles ahead of their 19 January 2022 Group D match with Guinea Bissau. Another lesson here is that no team can be under rated. Such should be the mindset next month in the back-to-back World Cup qualifying clash with Central African Republic.
- No team is invincible: Egypt may be the most successful team in the Africa Cup of Nations and therefore draw tremendous respect in the their fixtures. They are therefore logically considered as the main foes in Nigeria’s Group D next year. The Egyptians have been demystified in the two matchdays so far in the World Cup qualifiers leading to a change in the team’s technical crew. They struggled to a 1-0 win in their opening match in Cairo against Angola. They depended on the lottery of an early penalty kick to carry the day. They again needed an injury time goal to salvage a point in Gabon in the matchday two. If Angola and Gabon can box Egypt to the corner, the Super Eagles should aspire to do better.
- Maintaining winning mentality: If the Super Eagles can win their next fixtures, the back-to-back fixtures with Central African Republic, they will take a step higher than their performances in the last qualifying group for Russia 2018 as they will this time pick the group leadership, even with two matches to go. The only crucial match would then be the matchday 4 against Liberia in Monrovia as Nigeria’s last group match will be the home game with Cape Verde.
- Dividends of winning: If current winning mentality is maintained, the Super Eagles have a seven projected competitive matches up till the end of the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations on 19 January. If they go all the way to the final, that brings their match schedule to 11 matches. They therefore have ample number of matches to improve on their FIFA ranking as that will be used for seeding in the final qualifying stage. There will be 10 group leaders at the end of November. These teams will be grouped into five groups of two teams to play in home and away direct elimination. The five top teams will be seeded in March. Potentially, the top group leaders Nigeria stand to avoid will be Algeria (Group A); Tunisia Group B); either Cote d’Ivoire or Cameroon (Group C); Egypt (Group G); Senegal (Group H) or possibly Morocco in Group I.