The final international break ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was instructive to a large extent, with African fans getting a glimpse of what to expect from their national teams at the finals.
Players invited for September’s tune-up games should feature in the global showpiece, barring injury setbacks in the next seven weeks or so.
Africa’s representatives are Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco and Tunisia, so it will be interesting to see if history will be made in the Gulf, with no nation from the continent ever making it to the semi-finals of the most prestigious football competition in the world.
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Africa’s big five
Of the continent’s participants in Qatar, only Senegal have the same head coach in charge from four years ago — although Cameroon and Ghana played no part in Russia — with Aliou Cisse still in situ.
Fascinatingly, the only side to have kept the same coach from this year’s Africa Cup of Nations are the Lions of Teranga.
Cameroon let go of Toni Conceicao (replaced by Rigobert Song), Morocco jettisoned the problematic Vahid Halilhodzic for Walid Regragui in late August, Ghana promoted Otto Addo after Milovan Rajevac’s disastrous Afcon, and Tunisia appointed Jalel Kadri in January shortly after exiting at the last eight in Cameroon to Burkina Faso.
All five nations played two games each in this final window before the competition’s commencement, with no side able to claim victories in both their matches.
In this feature, GOAL grades the continent’s representatives.
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Africa’s highest-ranked side heads into the World Cup, perhaps, with the continent’s best chance of matching or possibly outdoing Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010).
Some things have changed since their Nations Cup success in February, with starting full-backs (Bouna Sarr and Saliou Ciss) expected to miss the finals, Keita Balde banned until December and the form of key players like Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy questionable.
Strikingly, these did not pose problems in recent friendlies, with the African champions defeating Bolivia 2-0 and playing out a 1-1 draw with Iran.
Formose Mendy and Ismail Jakobs played commendably in Tuesday’s draw, suggesting the West African nation’s full-back replacements are capable.
Cisse’s team dominated both encounters and could have hit Carlos Queiroz’s side for five or six, only to be let down by their profligate finishing and some timely defensive interventions.
The Lions of Teranga coach believes African sides have what it takes to stun superior sides this year, so it was commendable seeing the continent’s best team navigate the final tune-up games looking in far better shape than many imagined.
Indeed, Senegalese supporters hope their big players return to form before their opening clash with the Netherlands on November 21.
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Vahid Halilhodzic’s sacking in August stunned many as it came just three months to the Atlas Lions’ opening game with Croatia on November 23.
The Bosnian has now been jettisoned by three nations — Ivory Coast, Japan and Morocco — despite guiding them to the World Cup finals. Regragui will take the North African nation to Qatar.
Morocco’s change means all five of the continent’s sides will be managed by native coaches for the first time in the competition’s history.
While the Atlas Lions’ form post-Afcon has been outstanding, the managerial change leaves observers questioning their prospects.
Regragui has recalled Hakim Ziyech, who fell out with the Franco-Bosnian, while Noussair Mazraoui returned after a two-year absence for tune-up encounters with Chile and Paraguay.
Morocco rode their luck at times against Alexis Sanchez and co. — who hit the woodwork twice —before running out 2-0 victors. They created enough chances to have won their second friendly, which ended 0-0.
Ziyech hit the post with an effort from range and was involved in some of the team’s best moves on the night.
Along with Achraf Hakimi, the Atlas Lions’ potential strength of the Paris Saint-Germain wide defender and the Chelsea man down that flank will trouble sides in Qatar.
On the one hand, you are disinclined to be fatalistic after Tunisia’s 5-1 thrashing by Brazil — probably pre-tournament favourites —especially after the North African side’s form since the Nations Cup.
But on the other hand, the naïve and unforgivable pressing and defending against Tite’s crew left much to be desired.
For the first goal, Kadri’s troops kept their defence line high, but gave Casemiro the freedom to pick out Raphinha. For Richarlison’s strike (Brazil’s second), Youssef Mskani stood off Raphinha on the right flank, allowing him the time to spot the Tottenham Hotspur attacker’s run.
Lucas Paqueta nearly netted from a similar situation in the 27th minute, where Marquinhos picked out the West Ham United man’s run in behind.
With the high stakes, the Eagles of Carthage cannot afford such schoolboy tactical errors against top-level opposition with France, Denmark and Australia to come in Qatar.
While it may be reactionary to denigrate Tunisia after one game against arguably the best side in the world, that defeat highlighted a weakness that could be exploited at the World Cup.
There is a feeling Rigobert Song’s team made it to Qatar through good fortune rather than significant tactical acumen.
The Indomitable Lions defeated Algeria at the death in the playoffs, precipitating that bellow of frustration from Djamel Belmadi.
Cameroon’s defeats by Uzbekistan and South Korea have done little to quell those doubts about the Central African nation.
While Bryan Mbeumo’s integration into the side offers optimism, the African giants’ first-half performance against the nation from East Asia was shocking, especially after Song promised an improvement to the 2-0 loss to the Uzbeks.
They struggled to string passes together, and their decision-making and execution were disappointing.
You expect Andre Zambo Anguissa and Karl Toko Ekambi’s introduction to enhance this team’s ball progression and menace. Still, their teammates and Song must step up in Qatar to navigate a group comprising Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia.
Let us not even get started on the increasingly vocal and controversial Samuel Eto'o who seems to be in the news every other week now.
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The utmost challenge facing Otto Addo was to integrate the team’s new players who pledged allegiance to the Black Stars.
Mohammed Salisu, Tariq Lamptey and Inaki Williams all made their debuts off the bench in the 3-0 defeat by Brazil last Friday, but only the centre-back and Athletic Club striker started the 1-0 success over Nicaragua.
The latter match should have had a bigger score line, but for some inefficient shooting, seeing Ghana end the international break with a much needed victory.
Much will depend on the new boys dovetailing with the old guard if the West African side are to have a chance of making it out of a group that contains Portugal, South Korea and Uruguay.
The fitness of Thomas Partey remains a worry, with the Arsenal midfielder suffering a pre-game knock which ruled him out of the Brazil encounter, and how his increasingly fragile body will hold out during the demands of tournament football.
Mohammed Kudus’ is the undoubted in-form Black Star, and Addo will hope the Ajax man sustains his performances heading into the finals.
Ghana’s blend of experience and youth promotes optimism, but the absence of goals in their forwards could thwart the Black Stars’ chances at the quadrennial showpiece.