Africa’s World Cup draw: Expectation for Senegal, cautious optimism for Ghana,Morocco,Tunisia,Cameroon

Africa’s five World Cup qualifiers learned their group opponents in Friday’s glitzy draw in Doha, Qatar, with each of the quintet having some reason for optimism after the four pots were drawn into the eight pools.

Whenever any World Cup rolls around, the pressing questions for Africa’s contingent are how many can realistically hope to reach the knockouts, and whether any sides can be expected to equal or surpass the three teams — CameroonSenegal and Ghana — that have reached the quarterfinals.

A favourable group stage draw can make a major difference in a side’s prospects, even if Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2006 and 2010 overcame stern opening-round tests to make the knockouts.

However, what could have been successful campaigns for promising teams such as Ivory Coast in 2006 or 2010, and even South Africa on home soil, were halted prematurely after they found themselves in a particularly tough group, although Senegal in 2018 demonstrated that being pooled in the so-called ‘Group of Life’ is no guarantee of progress.

This time, with all of the 2022 groups looking fairly balanced, and many of the heavyweights harbouring vulnerabilities, each of the continent’s five qualifiers have reason to be cautiously optimistic — if not hopeful — of their prospects of progression.

It’s Senegal upon whom the hopes of the continent lie primarily.

The Teranga Lions are the reigning African champions (finally), dispatched Egypt and Mohamed Salah in qualification, and are enjoying a steady trajectory of progress under Aliou Cisse, a veteran of the 2002 side.

He’s now qualified them for their third World Cup — the first time they’ve reached successive tournaments — and they are the only African team that should fundamentally “expect” to progress to the knockout stages after a lovely group draw.

Qatar may have home advantage, but the tournament debutants were comfortably the weakest of the Pot One teams and recent underwhelming friendly results suggest they have much work to do.

The presence of the Netherlands from Pot Two — one of the tougher propositions in that pool — somewhat mitigates the favourable Pot One team although the Dutch aren’t a team that should strike fear into Senegalese hearts.

The Dutch defence may be fearsome, but Senegal also have a rugged backline — they kept five clean sheets at the Africa Cup of Nations — and the two teams should be content with a draw when Liverpool teammates Sadio Mane and Virgil van Dijk clash in their opening match.

A young Ecuador side — fast and physical — complete the pool, and, again, they were one of the weaker sides in Pot Four.

As mentioned, however, the Teranga Lions conspired to fall at the first hurdle despite being drawn into a favourable group in in 2018 — Colombia, Japan, Poland — and they must find a cutting edge in time to reach the knockouts for a second time.

They could come up against England in the Round of 16, but equally a second-round fixture against perhaps the United States or Wales could be in the offing if they top the group.

Can Senegal become the first African side to reach the quarterfinals twice?

Certainly, the continent’s champions — currently ranked No. 20 in the world — are the best placed of Africa’s five teams to progress.

Ghana will also fancy their chances of progressing to the knockouts for the third time in four tournament appearances.

PortugalUruguay and South Korea represent testing opponents, on paper, but, in truth, the first two sides are — at best — in transition and don’t represent the threat they have done at times in recent tournaments.

Both rely on veteran forwards whose best days are behind them — Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez respectively — and lean heavily on creaking defenders who can struggle when dealing with pace and movement.

With a disastrous Nations Cup campaign retreating into the distance after their rousing playoff success against fierce rivals Nigeria, Ghana suddenly have momentum again and there’s an exciting new generation breaking through including the likes of Mohammed KudusFelix Afena-Gyan and Abdul Fatawu Issahaku.

South Korea — with Son Heung-min leading the line, can doubtless hurt Ghana — but the attention will be on that matchday-three fixture against Uruguay, and a rematch of the 2010 quarterfinal that featured the ‘Hand of Suarez’ and Asamoah Gyan’s missed penalty that cost the Black Stars a history-making place in the semifinals.

The anguish of that elimination at Soccer City still hangs heavy over Ghana and their fans, and it will be cathartic if they are to make amends 12 years later?

Morocco, like Ghana, bounced back from a disappointing AFCON to secure a morale-boosting result in the playoffs, and they will fancy their chances of progressing from a group containing BelgiumCroatia and Canada.

As is the case for Ghana, the two heavyweights in the group — Belgium and Croatia — appear to be coming to the end of superb cycles, with the former relying on a defensive partnership (Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen) with a combined age of 69, and the latter still heavily dependent on Luka Modric, who will be 37 by the time the tournament rolls around.

Morocco have defensive ruggedness — with a three-man backline protecting the excellent Yassine Bono — while the likes of Achraf HakimiSofiane Boufal and Youssef En-Nesyri are genuine match-winners.

Tarik Tissoudali and Azz-Edine Ounahi are strong recent additions by embattled head coach Vahid Halilhodzic, and the Atlas Lions can be genuine dark horses — certainly if he can make peace with Hakim Ziyech.

Belgium and Croatia each have recent history of going deep in major tournaments — and this experience can serve them well — but Morocco have the vibrancy and dynamism that both have struggled to demonstrate recently.

Certainly, things look easier than 2018, when they went close to progression despite being drawn against Spain and Portugal, although Canada – ranked 38th in the world and back at the World Cup for the first time since 1986 – carry a threat and cannot be ruled out.

For Cameroon and Tunisia, things look trickier.

The Indomitable Lions are back at the World Cup for a record eighth time after dispatching Algeria — remarkably — in the playoffs, and they’ll be desperate to improve their underwhelming record of just one victory, against Saudi Arabia, at the tournament since 1990; they have not got out of the group in their past five attempts.

With Samuel Eto’o and Rigobert Song running the show, they should at least avoid the ignominy of the in-fighting and bonus row that characterised their 2014 campaign, but BrazilSerbia and Switzerland represent a tricky group.

Brazil top the Fifa World Rankings and haven’t fallen at the first hurdle since 1966, while they have defeated Cameroon twice — in 1994 and 2014 — at the World Cup already.

Serbia are vulnerable, but they carry an immense goal threat that could trouble a Cameroon backline that conceded three goals in one half against Burkina Faso in the AFCON bronze-medal match, while Switzerland are a solid, if unspectacular, outfit that finished ahead of Italy in their qualifying group.

“Tough Group G, but I believe Cameroon can compete with Switzerland, Serbia and Brazil,” UFC champion Francis Ngannou wrote on Twitter after the draw, and certainly the Lions should give their opponents something to think about given their forward line containing Vincent AboubakarKarl Toko Ekambi and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.

Finally to Tunisia, chasing a first berth in the knockouts at the sixth attempt.

The Carthage Eagles will be expected to struggle against defending World Cup champions France and Denmark, who demonstrated at Euro 2020 what they could do without a returning Christian Eriksen, but they might feel they can get a result against Australia, Peru or United Arab Emirates.

Denmark, surely, will have too much for the Tunisians, and Les Bleus also have a major advantage even though the battle between colonial ‘power’ and former colony, and the fact that several of this Tunisia side were born in the metropole, could give that fixture an extra dimension.

France have faced two of their former African territories — Senegal, Togo — with mixed results at the World Cup, and this first meeting in a major tournament between two countries whose histories are inextricably linked will be fascinating.

Credit: Source link