This one is different. The International break- for much of it- is received with some sort of dread, gloom. And yet, with the 2022 Qatar World Cup nearing, and its qualifiers in its final rounds across the globe, the anticipation is higher, now more than ever.
17 Nations have qualified already, even more, will book their places this weekend. Uruguay and Ecuador (CONMEBOL), Canada (CONCACAF), Saudi Arabia and Japan got on the train yesterday.
The playoffs to determine the final three teams from Europe began yesterday with the semi-finals. Indeed, the results have been quite shocking. If one of Italy or Portugal was guaranteed not to be at the tournament, the former was dumped out by North Macedonia 1-0 in stoppage time.
A Selecao have a relatively easier job in the final on Tuesday against the small country.
Gareth Bale rolled back the times with an excellent brace in Wales’ 2-1 win against Austria. They will face either Scotland or Ukraine.
Poland who qualified automatically for the final following Russia’s ban will take on Sweden. The Blagult managed a 1-0 win against the Czech Republic.
There will be even more drama in the playoffs in Africa set to kick off this Friday.
DR Congo vs Morocco
Morocco seems the overwhelming favourite to pick the World Cup ticket at the expense of DR Congo based on form and quality. However, this fixture will be anything but straightforward.
Hector Cuper’s men finished top of the group in round 2 ahead of Benin Republic. And while they failed to qualify for the 2021 Afcon, they have lost just once in eight matches since 2020.
The Leopards will look to sit deep and break on the counter, utilising the pace and directness of their forwards.
Dieumerci Mbokani and Cedric Bekambu will be the key men with a combined 35 international goal tally. In defence, Cuper will count on Porto’s Chancel Mbemba to cut the excesses of the visitors.
The hosts will be relying similarly on their fans to give them the advantage.
On the other hand, the Northern African team blazed through the second round of qualification, winning all six matches. However, they seemed to falter when it mattered most in the quarter-finals of the Afcon.
It is left for Valid Halihodzic’s men to take the game to the opponent, attempting to force the issue.
Achraf Hakimi will look to replicate his Afcon performance, while Youssef En-Neseyri will hope to hit form for his country.
Prediction: Over 1.5 goals
Mali vs Tunisia
This feels like one of the few finely-poised fixtures in this playoffs. And with both teams coming off the back of their respective quarterfinal exits, it is fair to expect an end-to-end matchup.
Mohammed Magassouba’s men were impressive in the group stages, winning all but one of their matches.
Kamou Malo has called up a strong squad for this one. Brighton’s Yves Bissouma will hope to dictate the pace of the game from midfield as Moussa Djenepo will be desperate to impress in attack.
Tunisia, if anything, will be riding on their impressive performance against Nigeria at the Afcon.
Expectedly, Lofti Kadri has seemed to favour a rather defensive approach to key matches. This seems likely to continue.
Aissa Laidouni will be important on the break alongside the experience of Wahab Khazri.
Prediction: Over 2.5 goals
Cameroon vs Algeria
Cameroon comes into this fixture on the back of a relatively successful hosting of the 2021 Afcon. And to be fair too, they were exciting for most of it.
The Indomitable Lions will have their sights on an eighth appearance at the World Cup. And yet, newly-appointed Rigobert Song is in the firing line against one of the continent’s heavyweights.
The duo of Toko Ekambu and Vincent Aboubakar will fancy their chances, hoping to take confidence from their exciting showing at the Afcon. Fai Collins will be instrumental from right-back.
Djamel Belmadi’s men will be desperate to atone for their awful performance at the last competition.
The likes of Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani are the obvious threats for the Desert Warriors. The objective, you suspect, will be to press high and win possession in dangerous areas.
Both teams will go toe-to-toe for respective reasons and will likely deliver goals.
Ghana vs Nigeria
This is one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures, not least, the nature of the rivalry between both countries. At times, even beyond the football.
Ghana was disappointing at the last competition, leading to the sacking of its coach and the appointment of Otto Addo. Chris Hughton is now the Technical Director.
Worth mentioning that the Black Stars had progressed to this stage at the expense of South Africa on controversial grounds.
Even then, there has been an air of pessimism in the country, especially with Andre Ayew suspended for this tie.
And yet, Daniel Kofi-Kyereh has been one of the team’s shining lights, as well as Arsenal’s Thomas Partey.
Nigeria looks favourite, at least, for the first time in six meetings. They were decent at the last Afcon until the knockout stages.
The Super Eagles will miss the presence of Wilfred Ndidi. However, Victor Osimhen and Emmanuel Dennis will fancy their chances against a lacklustre opponent.
Prediction: Nigeria win
Egypt vs Senegal
This is a repeat of the 2021 Afcon final. Indeed, both teams have not played a match since Senegal lifted the title at Egypt’s expense on penalties.
Without trying to be entertaining, the Pharaohs effectively forced their way to the final. They did not win any knockout game in 90 minutes.
Carlos Queiroz will likely set up the same way, soaking up the pressure and breaking with a few passes. Mohamed Salah is the obvious outlet in offense. Trezeguet will also look to free himself.
The Teranga Lions will be brimming with confidence ahead of their visit. They will try to take the initiative, trying to pick spaces in behind the opponent.
Sadio Mane and Ismaila Sarr will get the license to stretch the play on both wings.
There certainly will be drama and fireworks in this encounter.
Prediction: Over 2.5 goals.
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