LESS than a month after the opening rounds of group-stage fixtures in Africa’s World Cup qualifying campaign, the continent’s sides are at it again as they aim to take further steps on the road to Qatar.
We tackle some of the big questions and the key talking points ahead of Game Days 3 and 4 of Caf qualifying round two.
Will Morocco regret fallout with Hakim Ziyech?
In a not-unfamiliar situation to fans of African national teams, one of the continent’s highest-profile teams must do without its star man due to a fallout with the national team coach.
Morocco boss Vahid Halilhodzic has opted to ignore Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech once again — having done so for the previous round of fixtures — after deciding the player’s behaviour was unacceptable.
“Every player has his limits,” Halilhodzic said last week.
“This wasn’t for a single incident of indiscipline and we tried to talk about it. However, it continues, and there are limits when you have to say stop. It’s sad, it’s a mess, but it’s a shame, too. I choose not to respond to the controversy.”
The coach said also that he regretted not taking a harder line with Ziyech earlier after the player had refused to show up — citing unverified injury — ahead of the friendly against Ghana in June, and then refused to warm up after being benched in the Atlas Lions’ next fixture.
Ziyech responded to the next Morocco squad announcement — when he was overlooked — with a mocking post on Instagram, and relations between the player and coach appear to have broken down completely.
With fewer than 100 days until the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, this is bleak news for Morocco and for African football fans who wish to see the continent’s best players at the biennial showpiece.
Noussair Mazraoui of Ajax also continues to be overlooked by the head coach, while a potential replacement for Ziyech — Marseille — has also been ignored, with Halilhodzic issuing a withering appraisal of the latter.
The Atlas Lions — whose latest qualifier against Guinea was postponed after a coup d’etat in the West African nation — should have enough quality to dispatch Guinea-Bissau in their qualifying double-header this week, but can they forge a coherent creative unit without one of Africa’s finest playmakers in the world today?
If the results don’t come, or if the playing style doesn’t improve from recent stodgy outings, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation may need to make a decision between a divisive head coach and their star player.
Milovan Rajevac returns to Ghana
C K Akonnor may have been a midfield legend for Ghana, but his 22-month reign as head coach of the Black Stars will not live long in the memory.
Ghana have secured qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations, but they won just two of six competitive games during his tenure, and defeat by South Africa in their latest qualifier has left them with work to do to remain in the hunt for Qatar.
To replace Akonnor, the Ghana Football Association turned to Milovan Rajevac, whose previous two-year stint included the dizzying highs of the Black Stars’ unforgettable run to the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals.
The current Ghana side lacks the talent, character and experience of that magnificent generation, but it nevertheless features quality players, and Rajevac could have the makings of a fine team if he can get the best out of Thomas Partey, Mohammed Kudus, Kamal Deen Sulemana and Emmanuel Gyasi while coaxing performances from veterans Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew and Mubarak Wakaso.
Egypt under new management
Egypt are also under new management for this international break, having dismissed the unpopular Hossam El-Badry even though he oversaw an encouraging start to the campaign in which the Pharaohs took four points from Angola at home and Gabon away.
In his stead, the Egyptian Football Association have turned to ex-Real Madrid head coach and former Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz.
During his time with Iran, Queiroz integrated many players from the Iranian diaspora and oversaw their first qualification to back-to-back World Cups, while his team kept clean sheets against Nigeria and Argentina (at least before Lionel Messi’s stoppage-time winner) during the 2014 tournament.
In 2018, Iran beat Morocco — their first World Cup victory in 20 years — and then held Portugal to move within touching distance of the knockout stages.
Egypt can call upon one of the world’s finest players in Mohamed Salah, and they will be desperate for Queiroz to emulate and surpass his achievements with Team Melli.
Expect Algeria’s run to continue
Algeria’s six-game winning streak may have come to an end when they were held by Burkina Faso in their latest World Cup qualifier, but the 1-1 draw nonetheless extended their record undefeated streak to 29 games.
Their double-header against Niger represents a golden opportunity for the Fennecs — who haven’t lost since October 2018 — to extend that run further to 31 matches.
For context, this would take them above the undefeated streaks of France (mid-1990s) and Italy (mid-1930s), while they would tie the Argentina team that went 31 games unbeaten in the early 1990s.
Only Brazil and Spain — both of whom accrued undefeated streaks of 35 matches — and the current Italy side, who have not tasted defeat in 36 games, will have amassed more consecutive games without a loss if Djamel Belmadi’s men win both games against Niger.
Will Cameroon prove Africa Cup of Nations credentials?
Concern is growing in Cameroon that the domestic heavyweights aren’t well placed to emulate the Indomitable Lions of 1972, who marked their hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil by reaching the semi-finals.
The Lions are struggling to string together positive results, and victory over Malawi in the previous international break was followed by a loss to Sebastien Haller; those results left Cameroon in grave danger of being out of the World Cup running before the Nations Cup comes to town in January.
That would be a humiliating scenario for the Central African team that has featured at the World Cup more times than any other of the continent’s sides.
This current side — under Portuguese coach Toni Conceicao — last won back-to-back fixtures when they faced Mozambique in November 2020, and, against the same opponents, it’s imperative they register the maximum six points this time around.
They were handed some bad news before the window even began, after forward Paul-Georges Ntep — attempting to make his comeback after several years in the international wilderness — was ruled out through injury.
Conceicao now only has one opportunity — the November break — to integrate Ntep into the squad in time for the Afcon.
Nigeria had to cope without a swathe of Premier League players during the last international break, due to the ban on UK-based players travelling to red-list countries, but they nonetheless dispatched Cape Verde with aplomb away from home. — ESPN.