This international window represents a final golden opportunity for Africa’s five World Cup-bound teams to add finishing touches to their tournament preparations, and integrate new players into the fold, before the kick-off in Qatar on November 20.
None of Africa’s quintet are the complete package heading to Qatar, with each of the five sides still having clear areas to work on and problems to solve before the tournament.
Ahead of this international window, ESPN assesses the unanswered questions and the issues to resolve for each of Africa’s Big Five.
Ghana – How does Otto Addo integrate the new dual internationals?
The Black Stars’ improvement since the Africa Cup of Nations at the start of the year, when they crashed out in the group stage with just one point, has been superb, as a change of regime has ushered in a new culture, fresh players, and a rediscovered optimism.
As such, they will head to Qatar in fine fettle, with competition across the pitch, some key players in excellent form, and a healthy blend of experience and youth.
Addo, credited with masterminding their bounce back following the AFCON and their playoff triumph over Nigeria, has been influential in convincing several dual nationality players to commit their international futures to Ghana — naturally using the allure of playing in the World Cup to the country’s advantage.
He must now ensure that the influx of new faces — five players could debut for the team against Brazil on Friday — doesn’t destabilise the camp and create tensions among those who ensured Ghana qualified for Qatar in the first place.
Their late introduction to the squad is worryingly reminiscent of Ghana’s decision to recall the likes of Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari during the final stage of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, an act which preceded a tournament rife with controversy, rifts and infighting.
There shouldn’t be so much drama this time around, although Addo has some tough decisions to make about whether he parachutes the trio of Tariq Lamptey, Mohammed Salisu and Inaki Williams straight into his starting XI.
Salisu has been delivering stronger performances at club level than either of the first-choice centre-back duo Daniel Amartey and Alexandre Djiku, although either of that pairing would feel hard done by to be dropped after conceding just once across the 180-minute playoff against the Super Eagles.
The Ayew brothers started up top together for the ill-fated final AFCON group game against the Comoros, and one imagines neither would take being cut for Williams — two goals in La Liga so far this season — too magnanimously.
The new arrivals certainly boost Ghana’s quality, but they’ve left Addo with some delicate decisions to make — this international window should offer a glimpse as to the head coach’s plan of action.
So far, he’s resisted some far-fetched calls to recall Asamoah Gyan — Africa’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup — although presidential intervention ensured Baby Jet went to the 2019 AFCON, and a similar scenario isn’t impossible this time around.
Addo must also manage the fitness of star midfielder Thomas Partey. He’s been instructed by Arsenal on the optimal routine to give the 29-year-old the best chance of staying healthy, and those of both a Black Stars or a Gunners persuasion will be praying that the fragile midfielder navigates the international window without further injury setback.
Morocco – Can Regragui help Atlas Lions turn a new leaf?
Morocco have established themselves as the bastion for good governance and professionalism in African football in recent years, and so by their standards, parting ways with head coach Vahid Halilhodzic just three months before the start of the country’s sixth World Cup appearance was not part of the plan.
Yet the Bosnian coach’s handling of some of the squad’s most high profile stars was a persistent problem during his reign, with the talented trio of Hakim Ziyech, Noussair Mazraoui and Amine Harit all missing the Nations Cup after falling foul of the 69-year-old.
At the time, the FRMF stood with their manager — prompting Ziyech to announce his international retirement — but as the World Cup approached, the federation steadily ran out of patience for Halilhodzic’s fractious approach.
His replacement, Walid Regragui has no experience at this level — his only previous coaching job outside Morocco was with Qatari side Al-Duhail — but he has a reputation as an able tactician.
He guided Wydad Casablanca to the Champions League crown by playing a direct, counter-attacking style with a rigid defensive structure.
He has the tools to replicate this successful strategy with Morocco, and this international break should demonstrate how closely Regragui will attempt to replicate his Wydad model with a much more talented group.
The federation will be expecting him to get the best out of star names like Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi and Youssef En-Nesyri, while the new man must also assess replacements for injured centre-back Zayef Aguerd.
Senegal – Do the Lions of Teranga still have momentum?
When the World Cup draw was made in April, Senegal looked comfortably to be the African team best placed to reach the knockouts. As Africa’s reigning champions, they were coming off the back of a fine campaign in Cameroon – with quality across the park, and were buoyed by a favourable draw.
The optimism has faded a little now, and certainly, head coach Aliou Cisse must focus on generating momentum during this international break following a considerable turnover of players over the last six months.
Of the 10 players who started the AFCON final against Egypt, three are not even in the squad for this international break, with Bouna Sarr injured, Famara Diedhiou recovering from injury, and Saliou Ciss without a club.
Sarr and Ciss’s absences mean it’s all-change for Senegal at full-back, and an area of strength for the side tha won the AFCON has become an area of weakness.
Youssef Sabaly, Ciss’s replacement, is also out with a muscle problem, and his would-be deputy Noah Fadiga will also miss out on his first cap after being concussed in a recent Ligue 1 game against Ajaccio.
It’s left Cisse without a recognised right-back in the squad for this international break, and he may have to turn to midfielder Moustapha Name in this unfamiliar position.
There are concerns about Sadio Mane and Edouard Mendy’s recent form, and the latter will be unable to get back into the groove this week after picking up a knee complaint.
Senegal aren’t looking as strong or as settled as they did earlier in the year, and there’s a lot for Cisse to worry about with the World Cup less than two months away.
Cameroon – What will Eto’o do next?
Such is the persistent intrigue around headline-generating FECAFOOT president Samuel Eto’o, that he has firmly become Cameroon national team’s main talking point yet again.
For recent Indomitable Lions fixtures, the country’s greatest player has courted controversy by telling his players to ‘prepare for war’ against Egypt, only days after the Olembe Stadium stampede claimed the lives of eight supporters in Yaounde, and reading his players the riot act after their underwhelming victory over Burundi in June.
These will also be the first fixtures for Cameroon since Eto’o unilaterally decided to terminate their contract with sports manufacturer Le Coq Sportif and replace them with little known One All Sport.
As yet, no new home kit has been officially released, and this decision may yet have longer term consequences for the controversial Eto’o.
On the field, coach Rigobert Song has opted to rest influential midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, while experienced Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting has also been dropped as he works his way back to fitness with Bayern Munich.
Tunisia – Can Carthage Eagles establish World Cup blueprint against Brazil?
Tunisia, like Ghana, will meet Brazil during the international break in one of the most high-profile friendlies in the nation’s history.
In an African context, we all known what Tunisia are capable of; they rarely exhibit exhilarating attacking football, but have kept clean sheets in their last seven matches and will represent stern opponents for their Group D foe.
The match against Brazil is an opportunity for Tunisia to demonstrate that they can stymie and neutralise some of the best attackers in the world game — the Selecao will be able to call upon Neymar, Vinicius Junior and Antony among others — which should serve them well ahead of their group meeting with France.
If Tunisia are to go beyond the group stage for the first time in their history, then their infamous defensive resolve will need to see them through a tough opening round assignment in Qatar. A positive result against Brazil could provide a blueprint to make history in Qatar.
In an ideal world, the Carthage Eagles’ most high profile players — most of whom are based in the Middle East and North Africa — would prove that they can give a bloody nose to one of the World Cup contenders… but that might be too much to ask.
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