Group D of the African qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup cannot be the ‘Group of death’. In my estimation this description is exaggerated by analysts based more on the reputation of the four teams in the group – Algeria, Cameroon, Zambia and Nigeria – than on their current strengths in football.
Understandably, the four countries have each won the African Cup of Nations Championship at one time or the other in their history, and three of them (except Zambia) have also qualified and represented the continent at the World Cup proper.
But in the past three years Zambia, Cameroon and Nigeria have all been struggling in the continent to find their feet. The feeling I get as the first matches on the eve of the matches this weekend is that the reality on ground is very far from the expectations of people.
This group looks sewn up even before the first ball is kicked. Algeria, or the Cameroon will top it, not Nigeria or Zambia! Let me take you through my thoughts.
The match between Zambia and Nigeria should be generating unprecedented interest. Apparently is not.
Nothing about it portends a great encounter. I mean, not many analysts are looking in the direction of Ndola, Zambia, for an epic performance, or even a shocking result, which is a big surprise given the antecedents of the two countries.
To start with, of the four teams in Group D, Nigeria, at 64, and Zambia, at 92, are the lowest ranked in the current FIFA ranking.
Both teams are also in the process of rebuilding their national teams.
Both teams have new or temporary coaches whose names and records do not conjure any excitement.
The football federations of both countries have been at different stages of internal crisis that have afflicted their national teams in recent times.
All of these are not the ingredients of a match in your classic ‘group of death’.
Let’s look even closer.
Nigeria goes to Zambia with an all-foreign based team of several new rising stars.
The squad is depleted. Some of its recent, regular, quality players -Victor Moses, Isaac Success, and Leon Balogun – are all down with injury.
The team’s two most experienced players that, between them, share the responsibility of captain of the team – Mikel Obi and Musa Ahmed – have not been playing regularly in their respective English clubs, an indication they may not be in their best form and shape. Indeed, Mikel has not featured in any match in the league this season for Chelsea.
Add to all of that the poor state of Nigeria’s football administration that has been at loggerheads with players and coaches over finances for some time.
Look at the Zambians. They are no better off than the Nigerians on the current state of their football.
Several of the more experienced players that lifted the team to the top of African football only 4 years ago have left with the ousted Kalusha Bwalya-led football administration.
A new team is now been built with a preponderance of local players. The new squad comprises fourteen players from the domestic league and nine from professional teams outside Zambia. Of the foreign legion of players only two play in small clubs in France and Russia. The other seven pros are playing ‘abroad’ in African teams in South Africa and DR Congo.
Unable to finalise the hiring of a preferred foreign coach, the Zambian Football Federation drafted a temporary indigenous coach, Wedson Nyirenda, to take charge of the Chipolopolo for the Nigerian match.
That is the setting of the match between Zambia and Nigeria this weekend, two countries that have both failed to even qualify for the African Cup of Nations in January 2017 in Gabon.
The Zambians have shown fear, their vulnerability, as well as their intention to make the best of a bad situation by moving the match away from the pressures of the fans in Lusaka, the country’s capital, to Ndola, a smaller town with a very compact stadium, where lower tensions and the slight high altitude (over 1300 metres above sea level) of the Copperbelt would offer some kind of minor advantage to their weak team.
Inside the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium, the Zambians are expecting to somehow awaken the spirit that will sustain the tradition of never losing to the Super Eagles at home! Indeed, no Nigerian national team has ever beaten the Zambian national team on their home soil, not even when the Super Eagles were at their very best in the mid to late 1990s.
That reassures the Zambians somehow. They are confident they will survive the Eagles, and, even with a little bit of luck, overpower them and render Zambia’s lowest FIFA ranking position meaningless!
So, the match will not likely be an explosive encounter. Although the Nigerian team has more quality players, plus an emerging very formidable trio of strikers upfront – Iwobi, Ighalo and Iheanacho – all playing regularly in their top English teams and doing well, they have not played together long enough in the Super Eagles to strike a rhythm that would pose a real threat to the Zambians. Nigeria are surely not yet a well-oiled machine.
Finally, as I have discovered from personal experience and observation, somehow, Nigerian football has always suited the Zambian style of play. That’s why Nigeria never finds it easy playing against Zambia, purely on the basis of their playing styles. The fast paced, quick passing, very physical, pressing and running of the Zambians are usually very effective against the slower, long range passing, less organised and scrambling style of the Super Eagles.
On the balance of what both teams bring to the table in Ndola this weekend, therefore, I foresee a very low key and low scoring match that may be decided by a lone goal.
This first match matters a great deal to Nigeria and puts some kind of unwanted pressure on the players. The last two times Nigeria failed to qualify for the World Cup they lost their first group matches and never recovered till the end of the qualifying matches.
So, as we settle down to watch the match in Ndola this weekend, I shall stick out my neck and make the following general predictions about the match: Zambia will not lose to Nigeria in Ndola; Nigeria needs to survive and come away unscathed (with a draw) to sustain any further hope of qualifying from the group.
This encounter has ‘ordinary’ and a ‘draw’ written all over it!
Algeria versus Cameroon
Meanwhile, Cameroon and Algeria also play a nail-biting match this weekend. Both teams are globally higher ranked and have posted better results than Nigeria and Zambia by qualifying for the African Cup of Nations.
Algeria, in particular, are probably in their best shape since 1982 when they dazzled the world during that year’s World Cup in Germany. Their recent performances reveal a team loaded with exceptional talent way ahead of all the other teams in the group.
Cameroon have a way about them when it comes to the World Cup that defies simple explanation or understanding. They play their World Cup matches like a possessed team, as if their world would end should they lose. They can only be written off even now at great peril to the team that chooses to do so.
Having said that, Algeria will win this encounter!