The key question facing Augustine Eguavoen ahead of Friday’s meeting with rivals Ghana in Kumasi is ‘who will replace Wilfred Ndidi?’ with the influential midfielder ruled out with a medial ligament injury.
How he answers this query may decide how the Super Eagles fare at the Baba Yara Stadium, although the form of Victor Osimhen will also be key.
Back in contention after missing the Africa Cup of Nations, the striker has struck braces in his last two Napoli games—for the first time in his career—and has the quality to fire the Eagles to Qatar.
With Ndidi absent for Nigeria, the Black Stars will surely see the midfield area as a key battleground as they look to take the initiative in the first leg.
Thomas Partey has hit some fine form in the Premier League, and has been a key figure as Arsenal have consolidated their grip on a top four position.
Whoever Eguavoen picks in the heart of the midfield, it’s imperative that Partey dominates the contest and drives Ghana to a positive result in front of their own fans.
The Eagles will be looking to repeat their last performance against Tunisia, when they defeated them 1-0 amidst controversial circumstances at the World Cup.
Midfield will again be a key area of the contest, and Mali have swelled their already stocked options with the arrival of Everton man Abdoulaye Doucoure, who’s finally committed to the West African nation.
At 29, he has the experience required to negotiate a demanding match-up with the North Africans, while his physical frame and engine can be key assets in a contest that will doubtless be cagey.
The Carthage Eagles can also welcome back some experienced faces in the form of Ferjani Sassi and Taha Yassine Khenissi, but it’s Wahbi Khazri who has the greatest potential to be their match-winner.
He excelled at the 2018 World Cup, has the grinta to make the difference in contests such as this, and, with nine goals in Ligue 1 so far this season, continues to excel in a more advanced role where he can trouble the opposition goalkeeper.
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Sadio Mane reaffirmed his influence for Senegal during the Africa Cup of Nations, when he was named Player of the Tournament as the Teranga Lions won the first title in their history.
He had a hand in five goals during the contest, and while he missed a penalty in the final against Egypt, he ultimately stepped up to net the decisive spotkick during the shootout.
Perhaps of concern, the Pharaohs did neutralise him effectively during the course of that contest, and Mane must demonstrate that he can evade the North Africans’ stiff marking.
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Mohamed Salah is the only Pharaohs player who would be guaranteed a spot in Senegal’s starting XI, and it’s little surprise that Egypt’s qualification hopes rest on his shoulders.
Despite impressing in spells at the Afcon, he was left in Mane’s shadow, and will be desperate to eclipse his Liverpool brother on Friday evening.
Salah has inspired Egypt to one World Cup already, can he do it for a second time?
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It remains to be seen how the Indomitable Lions will fare in Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Algeria in Douala, with the Central Africans somewhat flattered by their third-placed finish at the Nations Cup on home soil.
Central to that success was Vincent Aboubakar, an Afcon champion in 2019, who bagged eight goals en route to the bronze medal, and inspired Cameroon’s comeback in their third-placed playoff against Burkina Faso.
His goal threat can help the Lions mask some limitations elsewhere in the squad.
The Fennecs have a massive point to prove after their miserable title defence earlier this year, although while their campaign in Cameroon was catastrophic, there’s no doubting they have immense talent in their ranks.
Riyad Mahrez was subdued during the Nations Cup—including that miserable penalty miss against the Ivory Coast—but his form with Manchester City this season has been sensational, notably with six goals in eight Champions League matches.
This is the kind of contest when he must rise to the occasion and bring his quality to bear on the biggest stage, as he did against Nigeria in the 2019 Afcon semi-final.
With Hakim Ziyech calling time on his international career, Sofiane Boufal will continue to be Morocco’s main inspiration in the final third.
Boufal excelled at the Nations Cup, making up for lost time in a stop-start international career, and it’s a massive relief for Morocco that his suspension for this fixture has been lifted.
Alongside Achraf Hakimi, Boufal is the Atlas Lions’ most likely match-winner, and the Democratic Republic of Congo may struggle to contain him.
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Democratic Republic of Congo
Chancel Mbemba has proved his big-game aptitude in recent seasons, notably during FC Porto’s Champions League run last term.
Still only 27, he’s massively experienced at international level, with a decade of Congolese caps behind him, and would love to make up for failure to reach the Nations Cup by inspiring the Leopards to their first World Cup since 1974.