Nigeria to disappoint, Morocco and Senegal to progress: How will the African teams fare in Russia?
With two days to go until the World Cup starts, we take a look at how the African nations will get on.
With FIFA extending the African quota for the 2018 World Cup, there will be five teams from the Confederation of African Football heading to Russia when the finals begin in June.
In Brazil in 2014, both Nigeria and Algeria made it through the group stages and into the Round of 16 where they lost to France and Germany respectively.
This time around, a repeat performance would represent a good World Cup for the African nations. But how well will they fare in Russia?
We look at each African side and assess their chances ahead of the tournament’s opening this week.
In case you didn’t know, Egypt’s fortunes hinge on the recovery of Mohamed Salah.
With an entire system built around countering with the Liverpool attacker’s pace and clinical conversion, Sergio Ramos has inadvertently destroyed coach Hector Cuper’s only plan.
Fortunately for Egypt, though, they have been placed in the kindest group when compared with the other African nations at the tournament.
Added to this – and unlike their African counterparts – they are also proudly defensive under Cuper and play a brand of risk-averse football that could pay dividends in tournament football.
The only nagging issues is the question of who will now score goals on the break for Egypt. With only one recognised striker in the squad, the subpar Marwan Mohsen, the warm-up friendlies have laid the Salah problem bare.
Prediction: Group stage exit. The Pharaohs are not brimming with confidence and it’ll be a miracle if Salah is at his optimum best by the start of the tournament.
The pre-World Cup friendlies have raised more questions about Nigeria than provided answers.
Gernot Rohr appears to be experimenting with a new 3-5-2 formation that he could potentially unveil for the first time in a competitive action in the opening game against Croatia.
The importance of that first game can’t be overstated. It does look like Nigeria will need those sorts of marginal gains to overcome a Croatia team with great chemistry and world class players in its midfield.
Indeed, all the teams in Group D are ranked above Nigeria in the FIFA rankings. The Super Eagles also have issues in critical positions, namely goalkeeper and striker.
The unintimidating history of Croatia and Iceland in the tournament give Nigeria hope but they will really have to overperform to progress to the second round.
Prediction: Group stage exit. They have the potential to defy expectations but they have major issues hanging over them heading into the tournament.
The most in-form African side and, judged by his CV since the turn of the decade, the best coach of an African team at the tournament in Tyrone Lannister doppelgänger Herve Renard, Morocco could be one of the surprise packages of the tournament. Renard, the mastermind of miracles in Africa, gives Morocco hope to set themselves free.
Morocco’s style of football and high pressing can leave opponents dazed and confused and, for the last 18 months, it has made them just that. Yet the question remains: can they sustain such intensity against an ultra-technical side like Spain?
It’s one thing doing it in Africa against the hapless likes of Mali and Gabon in front of a baying home crowd, quite another doing it again two of the most astutely coached sides under the floodlights of the World Cup.
There is a danger they could worry too much about Spain and Portugal. First, they have to overcome a well-drilled Iran, probably by taking the game to them, before they look to slay the big beasts in the group.
The versatility of Morocco’s personnel means they should be able to be reactive and proactive.
Prediction: Second round. Slaying Spain is a tough task, slaying Portugal is a more realistic one given their form and the track record of their coach.
The Teranga Lions now seem like a team. This may sound like a trite statement to make but that that’s because the core of their problems recently can be traced to getting the basics wrong.
A tactically solid coach would be able squeeze more out of this group of players in key moments that require tactical curveballs. However, they might struggle to reproduce the avuncular manner of Aliou Cisse that has galvanised the squad.
Cisse will look to the spine of this team to activate the target of reaching the second round. Napoli’s towering centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly will set the tone at the back.
An aggressive, dogged midfield that includes Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate will be difficult to play against. Senegal also have one of the tournament’s glittering individuals in Sadio Mane and he will be their main source of creativity, especially in a team that desperately lacks players of his ilk.
The Lions have perhaps the second most favourable draw out of the African sides after Egypt. The second round is a reachable destination but their key players, especially Mane, will have to be at their best.
Prediction: Second round. It’ll be tight as Aliou Cisse isn’t the most wily tactician but Senegal are hard to beat and Cisse has fostered a feel-good factor in this team which may work in his favour.
Goals have always been in short supply in this Tunisia team and the injuries to their best marksmen, Youssef Msakni and striker Taha Yassine Khenissi, give coach Nabil Maaloul an incurable headache.
The men Maaloul may now turn to are Wahbi Khazri and Naim Sliti. If these two can translate their club form into this World Cup, they can bring what Msakni would have brought: goals and assists, albeit without the pizzazz.
Tunisia have shown plenty of heart during qualifying, with laudable results away to Guinea and DR Congo in their wake but it’s hard to foresee them displaying that when playing against such dynamic sides and when they have lost their protagonist to injury.
While Morocco have the cohesiveness and coach as a platform to mastermind a shock, that isn’t quite the case for Tunisia. Even being at their best may not be enough against dynamic England and Belgium sides.
Prediction: Group stage exit. They’ve done well to be at the World Cup but it’s hard to envisage them in the second round.
Which African side will finish furthest in the tournament? Let us know by commenting below.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.