It’s the Final Countdown: 6 Days

To continue our 10-day countdown to the World Cup, we are now six days away from the world’s biggest sporting event.  Six is appropriate given there are six African countries competing in South Africa.

There is added pressure on all of these teams since their continent will host the competition for the very first time.  Let’s take a look at the chances, and some background info each of the six.

South Africa.  Most would agree that the host country for 2010 is the weakest squad of all the African countries.  This is the third time in the last four competitions Bafana Bafana have qualified (likely would not have done it this year, but the host country does not have to qualify).  Their only World Cup victory came in 2002, when they defeated Slovenia.  They have never advanced to the knockout stages.

In a balanced group that also includes France, Mexico and Uruguay, how can the South Africans get through?  The Crowd.  We’ve seen the home crowd inspire remarkable results in the past, most notably South Korea in 2002.  They played well at home in the Confederations’ Cup last summer, and did well just to hang in there with Spain in the 3rd place game.

Will it be enough though?  Sadly, I just don’t think so.  As I mentioned earlier, they have three stiff tests awaiting them and are going to be underdogs on paper in each game.  All three opponents are very capable going forward, and I would expect keeper Itumeleng Khune to be in for a long three games.  There is simply not enough quality throughout this squad.  Steven Pienaar is easily their best player, and they are going to need a heroic performance from the playmaking midfielder to reach the knockout stages.  The exclusion of their all-time leading scorer Benni McCarthy leaves us to wonder where the goals are going to come from.  FC Twente forward Bernard Parker is the most talented striker they have, but he has had a difficult time making the transition to Dutch football and has yet to bag a goal in the Eredivisie.

They have an established coach in Carlos Alberto Parreira who will be leading a record-tying 5th different national side to the World Cup.  Parreira won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994, and is used to managing underdogs in the competition (Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia).  Can he provide the magic for the host country?

My prediction:  Three and done, and still looking for their first appearance in the knockout stages.

Nigeria. The Eagles barely edged out Tunisia to qualify for 2010, but nonetheless they are here.  Nigeria will be making their fourth World Cup appearance, and have been fairly successful.  Their first two trips in 1994 and 1998 saw them reach the knockout stages, bowing out to Italy and Denmark respectively in the round of 16.  The Eagles have a formidable squad, and could very well get through the group.  They have the unenviable task of opening against Argentina, but the remainder of the group (South Korea and Greece) give them a chance.  Their inability to have any sort of stability with their coach seems to be the recurring theme for the Nigerians.  Nine different managers in the last ten years support this notion.  Manager Lars Lagerback has World Cup experience with Sweden, whom he took to the round of 16 in 2006.

The Nigerians are strong at the back, and have a wealth of forwards to choose from.  The biggest question mark for them remains in the midfield, where you have to wonder who is going to create opportunities for the likes of Yakubu, Obafemi Martins, John Utaka and Kanu.  John Obi Mikel and Dickson Etuhu are very strong holding midfielders, but offer little going forward.  For me their key will be Mikel, and whether or not he can keep his head on straight.  Mikel is always a red card waiting to happen on the pitch, but he will have to be an effective box to box player if Nigeria are to achieve succes.

My prediction:  The round of 16, maybe even the quarters with some luck.  They would likely face the winner of Group A (assuming Argentina win their group), and while Group A is one of the more balanced groups, no team in particular looks like a world-beater.

Algeria. It must be incredibly frustrating for Egyptian fans to see this, but they are here.  For a proper comparison, Algeria are like the Stoke City of African football.  Despite being completely outclassed by Egypt in a tiebreaker, they sqeaked a 1-0 victory.  Algeria’s only two World Cup appearances came in 1982 and 1986, where they were unable to get out of the group each time.  They are a very organized bunch, and survived the most arduous of African qualifying groups.

As with South Africa, where are the goals going to come from?  Youngsters Karim Matmour and Abdelkader Ghezzal will be counted on mightily.  Neither player has established himself as true goal scorers at the club level, as both play an attacking midfield role for Monchengladbach and Siena respectively.  Ghezzal has showed a bit more ability in front of goal, so look for him to be the one to step up if Algeria is to have any success. Nadir Belhadj has a sweet left foot and will be a danger from set pieces. Karim Ziani might be the most important player for Algeria as he is their most creative force in the midfield.

Manager Rabah Saadane has been part of Algerian football for nearly 30 years and has never coached outside Northern Africa. He knows his players and is going with his “group” as opposed to the 23 most talented Algerian players.  The question will remain, can they get enough going foward? If this team trails against anyone in Group C, it will be most interesting to see if they have enough to come back.

My prediction: 3 and done – the first World Cup in 24 years for the Desert Foxes will end in disappointment.

Ghana. Before Michael Essien went down, I thought this sqaud looked as strong if not stronger than African heavyweights Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. Without him, they will have a tougher time trying to get out of a balanced Group D. Ghana are appearing in just their second World Cup, and in 2006 their debut was one of the biggest surprises of the tournament. In what was considered the “Group of Death,” they managed to emerge from a four-some that also included Italy, the U.S. and the highly ranked Czech Republic.

This team is strong up the middle, with a wealth of experience at the back and in their midfield.  Stephen Appiah was one of the better centre-mids in the world back in 2006, but injuries in the last two years have seen him play very little. Appiah played just two club games, starting back on May 9, 2010, since losing his contract with Fenerbahce back in 2008.  He did keep is place in the Ghana team however and will be used in more of an attacking role with the emergence of Anthony Annan.  Annan is an rising star, who you can expect to play in one of the major European leagues sooner rather than later.  Annan’s partnership in the middle with Sulley Muntari will be hard for any side to break down and provide the backbone for this Ghana team in Essien’s absence.

They have little depth up front, but Asamoah Gyan is capable of scoring goals in bunches.  The success of the Black Stars this tournament will depend largely on Asamoah, who holds the distinction of scoring the first ever Ghanian goal in the World Cup, as well as scoring the fastest World Cup goal against the Czechs in 2006.  They have two comparable sides in Australia and Serbia in their group, along with the favorites Germany.

The team is coached by Milovan Rajevac who is in his first job as a national team coach, having spent his entire career coaching various Serbian clubs. He led Ghana to the finals of this year’s African Cup of Nations losing to Egypt, but they will be high on confidence going into 2010 even without their star in Essien.

My Prediction:  They get through to the Round of 16, where they will bow out to Group C winners England.

Cameroon. For me, Cameroon are the strongest African nation front to back.  This will be their sixth World Cup, and they will be hungry after not qualifying in 2006.  When you look at this squad, the first name everyone will notice is Samuel Eto’o.  Rightfully so, without Didier Drogba and Michael Essien in the tournament, it has to be said that Eto’o is the best African player in the field. Known for his hot temper, it can be the only measure stopping Eto’o from having a big tournament. Coming off back to back Champions League titles with Barcelona and Internazionale, he is not shy to the big stage.

The “Indomitable Lions” have a wealth of center-halves and defensive midfielders, and depending on their opponent, you will likely see them play three and four at the back.  Alexandre Song had a great season for Arsenal, and will be depended on to anchor their midfield. Jean Makoun is a similar player to strong and the holding midfielder’s form with French club Lyon have him on the radar of England’s top clubs. They also have Africa’s unquestioned best keeper in Espanyol’s Carlos Kameni, just another element to this very balanced squad.

My biggest question mark with the Cameroonians is where they are going to get that bit of creativity in the midfield. They play a lot deep balls on the counter that Eto’o typically chases down, but they will need more than that this summer. Attacking midfielder Achille Emana will be need to have a big tournament if Cameroon are to break their string of group stage exits. Coach Paul Le Geun is in his first international job, but has been successful in the clubs ranks in France and Scotland over the first 10 years of his coaching career.  So how will the the Lions fare next this month?

My Prediction:  They will get through the group, as expected.  I don’t think they have enough to overtake the Dutch, but they should see off Denmark and Japan with relative ease. They are capable of upsetting the likely winners of Group F in Italy.  I will stick my neck out there, and say they do take down the aging defending champs.  Quarters, but no more for Cameroon.

Cote d’Ivore.  Better known as the Ivory Coast, are known for their attacking flare.   It has been a somber last 24 hours for the Elephants, with the news that star forward Didier Drogba is out of the tournament with a fractured elbow.  It was always going to be a stiff task for the Ivorians, being drawn with both Brazil and Portugal in their group.  Many people looked at the Ivory Coast- Portugal game as one of the most intriguing of all group games, as that one would likely decide who will join heavy favorites Brazil.  It should still be an entertaining match, but you have to wonder if the Ivorians will possess enough quality up front to upend the Portuguese.

The Ivory Coast are appearing in their second straight and overall World Cup.  Their first one in 2006 ended in disappointment as they failed to advance past their group, and they had a lot of reason to believe they could do serious damage this summer.  You will see this side play some exciting formations, most of which include three and even four forwards.  They absence of Drogba will obviously change their thinking to an extent, but don’t expect them to pack it in by any means.  They still have Chelsea man Salomon Kalou up front, and the speedy forward will be counted on to replace Drogba. Along with Aruna Dindane, expect youngsters Seydou Doumbia and Emmanuel Kone to fill in for Drogba along the frontline.

The Ivorians possess a strong backline, which includes Premier League regulars Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue. Didier Zokora is a strong defensive midfielder who will work his socks off, but his passing leaves much to be desired. Yaya Toure will be counted on to have a big tournament if the Ivory Coast are to manage knockout stage qualification.  There are many rumors concerning the holding midfielder’s status with his club Barcelona, so it will be interesting to see how this affects his play as he will look to impress.  Abdul Keita provides a creative force in the team, and is just one more component to a balanced African side.

Coach Sven Goran-Eriksson brings loads of experience to this Ivorian side who desperately need it. He has achieved club success all across Europe, and is well known for his five-year spell with the England National Team. He will have a little extra incentive to get past Portugal as his England side famously lost to the Portuguese in 2006 on penalties. Is Sven’s expertise enough to get them over the hurdle and into the final 16?

My Prediction:  No.  I didn’t think the Ivorians could do it WITH Didier Drogba, and I think they are now dead in the water.  They still have a chance to beat Portugal in what should still be an aesthetically pleasing game, but I just don’t think the have the quality to get past Portugal (even with their own recent struggles). Three and done, with a comprehensive thrashing of North Korea as their only consolation.

It is about time the beatiful game’s biggest stage took place in Africa, and these six teams will make this first all the more special.

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