Thursday, June 11, 2015

Bracing for the 2017 Cup of African Nations Qualifiers....

Usually, Nigeria's qualification for the finals of the Cup of African Nations (CAN) is taken for granted. This has been the case since the mid 1970s after Nigeria became a footballing power in the continent. However, Nigeria has only made it to the finals of the tournament once in the last three editions! That is a shocking record considering the country's footballing pedigree.

But to reach the 2017 finals may well be more difficult than any qualifiers that Nigeria has been involved in for a long time, at least on paper. The major obstacle is Egypt, a country that has won the CAN more times than any other country. Yet only one of Nigeria or Egypt can be sure to make it. The chances of a second place team making it from the group is a crap shoot. Egypt will be just as desperate as Nigeria to be at the finals of the 2017. Egypt has missed the last three finals! Thus, the only guarantee is a battle to finish between the two.

One must acknowledge that even though Egypt is considered Nigeria's main rival in the qualifying group, there are two other countries in the group that will seek to overcome odds and take a qualifying place. Those two are Tanzania and Chad. They are certain to obtain a shock result against one of the big two -- Nigeria or Egypt. That is always the case. Such a shock result is likely to determine who qualifies as group winner between Nigeria and Egypt. Therefore, Nigeria must seek to take maximum points against both countries.

Of the three group opponents, Nigeria has never before played an international against Chad even though the countries share a border. Against both Egypt and Tanzania, Nigeria has a record of difficult games. Against Egypt, the result is tied after 18 games, six wins, six draws, and six losses! Against Tanzania, Nigeria has the edge with five wins and two draws in seven games. In the Tanzania games, Nigeria has only won by more than a goal in two encounters even though several of the games have taken place in Nigeria. In fact, one of the draws was in Nigeria. Thus, Tanzania cannot be taken for granted.

Ranking of Teams and Perceived Strengths
Considering that both Nigeria and Egypt are ranked in the top 11 teams in Africa (according to FIFA ranking system at the time of the CAF draws) the expectation was that both would be seeded placing each team at the top of two separate groups among the 13 qualifying groups. However, CAF devised a different system for grouping teams in the qualifiers. That system utilized performance at the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and the last three CAN qualifiers. It meant that Egypt could not be highly seeded because it was not at the World Cup and had been eliminated in the last three CAN qualifiers! Thus unseeded, Egypt found itself in a tough qualifying group with Nigeria.

Though Egypt has obtained recent poor results, it remains one of the most feared teams in Africa. Its clubs remain the most accomplished and celebrated. The country continues to produce top level talent and recently one of the most respected coaches in football, Hector Cuper, was named to manage the team. In essence, Egypt is expected to rise to the occasion. Though Egypt has suffered by the ban on fan attendance at games, this drawback is expected to change before it plays Nigeria in two games next March.

Tanzania is the third ranked team in the group but the Taifa Stars have been on the decline for years  after a brief revival under Brazilian coach Maricio Maximo. Nevertheless, two years ago Tanzania beat both Cameroon and Morocco. Those types of wins will be celebrated by the best African teams. Therefore, it will not be unexpected if Tanzania, now managed by Netherlands' Mart Nooij, takes valuable points from both Nigeria and Egypt in Dar es Salaam.

Chad will have the hardest time in the group and is expected to finish bottom. Ranked 151 by FIFA at the time of CAF's draws, Chad has never made it to the final stages of the CAN. CAN 2017 is not expected to be any different. CHad's ranking has since fallen to 172.

Analysis of Existing Records
Though Nigeria has played against Egypt in 13 competitive games, seven of those were on neutral venues. However, the 2017 qualifiers will be played in Nigeria and Egypt. Previous competitive games played in each other's home grounds have been split with Nigeria winning three of four at home and Egypt winning all two at home. Nigeria's only home loss to Egypt was back in 1959 when Nigeria was not a footballing power in Africa while Egypt was then Africa's most dominant team. Record wise, therefore, both teams are virtually even.

Nigeria, despite tough games against Tanzania, has mostly come out top. It has played Tanzania in four competitive games, winning three including a 2-0 outcome in Dar es Salaam. However, it is mindful that the only drawn game was in Nigeria in a World Cup qualifier.

Predicted Outcomes
The key is Nigeria taking maximum points in all games against both Chad and Tanzania. If that happens, the 12 points from those games should largely assure Nigeria a place at the 2017 finals. However, Nigeria is not a very good traveling team, historically, and thus an expectation of winning both in Nd'jamena and Dar es Salaam may not be met no matter how lowly ranked the two opponents are. Moreover, the structure of Nigeria's scheduled games point to a psychological let down. Recently, it has been difficult for Nigeria to maintain a string of victories in critical games. With its first game at home against Chad, the second game away to Tanzania may present problems and could be the let down. If Nigeria can overcome the usual barrier of a let down after a good result at home, Nigeria could be on the way to qualifying for 2017. Nigeria should take some points from the games against Egypt but the tussle will be decided by how both Egypt and Nigeria do against the other two teams.

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