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By Tijjani Abdulsalam
Africa has 5 representatives at the World Cup, Russia 2018, let us assess their chances…
The Pharaohs have won four AFCON trophies since the last time they showed up at the World Cup and there is no better chance to prove to all that they are indeed, no local champions. Egypt would have their hands full from day 1 when they take on Uruguay, with Suarez, Cavani and friends. Egypt, on their day, should better the hosts and their fellow Arabs in their next group games.
The Egyptians would have to work out an alternative attacking system that can, to a great extent, do without top marksman, Salah. Should the Liverpool Man be neutralized in any game, as is very possible in a tournament of this magnitude, the entire team stands at risk.
Expectations are that Egypt should pull through their group successfully.
On paper, Morocco seems the least favoured African team going to Russia. The Atlas Lions are pitched with Iberian giants-Spain and Portugal, alongside a very stable and steadily improved Iranian team. Morocco first take on Iran, in a match they cannot afford not to win, before ties against Portugal and Spain. While much progress has been made since Mr White Shirt, Herve Renard came on board, the task ahead may just prove too uphill for his newly resuscitated side. Yet again, football is not played on paper.
With proven top level performers like Mehdi Benatia and Younis Belhanda, and the impressive Hakeem Ziyech, the Lions can indeed cause an upset against either of Spain and Portugal. Should the going get tough, as it surely will, the Moroccans can also look to history for inspiration. The Atlas Lions were the first African team to win a World Cup group (incidentally including Portugal) and also to qualify for the second round in 1986. Never underestimate the power of additional inspiration.
Expectations? No one would lose any sleep should Morocco fail to progress.
Whatever the secret love affair between the Super Eagles and the Albiceleste no one knows. What we know is that they will continue their bitter-sweet (depending on which side you are on) romance in Russia 2018. Nigeria play Argentina after matches against Croatia and Iceland. Croatia is no stranger to big tournaments and have two of the World’s best midfielders in their ranks-Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Iceland have also held their own in Europe over the past few years and finished top of their qualifying group, banishing Croatia to the playoffs. The Super Eagles should fancy their chances against the two Europeans if they play to their strengths and with the right attitude.
Argentina may present a tougher challenge, but should the Eagles do the needful in their first two matches, the tie may not solely determine their continued stay or exit from Putin-Land. To do this, Rohr and team have until the World Cup to plug glaring loopholes in the goal keeping, left back and central striking positions and also to provide credible back-ups for every other position.
Expectations? With those loopholes blocked or at least, well patched by the coaches, this team will be even stronger than they are. They should be able to hustle their way out.
Tunisia return to the World Cup stage since Germany 2006. This time, the Carthage Eagles have to negotiate their survival in a group including a renewed England, an outrageously talented Belgium, and new comers Panama. Going by squad quality, pedigree and form, few would bet on the present crop of players led by GK Aymen Mathlouthi and Striker, Yousuf Msakni causing a shocker against either European giants. It will be a remarkable tournament for the North Africans if they are not already deleted by the time they take on Panama in their last group match.
Expectations? Tunisia should get the better of Panama and salvage some pride going back to Tunis. I will be happy to be proven wrong.
Senegal return to the World Cup 16 years after shocking the world with their remarkable run through the last eight in Korea-Japan. Today, Aliou Cisse, a member of that team, assumes the role of the legendary Bruno Metsu and would want to recreate that piece of history. The West Africans have to overcome a group comprising Poland, Colombia and Japan. Poland and Colombia present tougher tests, while Japan, on paper at least, seems the least worrisome.
That said, the Lions squad have more than decent talent to successfully navigate their way out. Cisse, Tony Sylva and Omar Daf currently manage the National team and were all part of the legendary 2002 squad. Cisse’s crew be able to inspire the current generation of Diafra Sakho, Sadio Mane, Kalidou Coilibaly, Biram Diouf, Idrisa Gueye and co., to a repeat of 2002 or at least, a stage less.
Senegal should progress from the group. Anything below that is failure.
Caveat: Football is played on grass, not paper.
Tijjani Abdulsalam is a History lover, Football afficionado, he can be reached via Twitter:@TeejayKool, Instagram:@teejay.kool