Wednesday, March 23, 2016

2017 Nations Cup Qualification: Nigeria Confronts Egypt

Nigeria's qualification for the 2017 Cup for African Nations (CAN) hangs in the balance in two games against Egypt scheduled for Nigeria on March 25 and Cairo, Egypt on March 29. Egypt is currently in the driver's seat with two points in front of Nigeria. The team that finishes first qualifies automatically and the second placed team may well be out of contention even before the last phase of the qualifiers in September. Both teams failed to qualify for the finals of the last competition in 2015 and yet it is a competition where both countries are among a few elite teams over the years (see Graph). That underlines the importance of the two matches against Egypt.

Decoding the Graph
The graph below is based on 12 points for winning the CAN, 10 for second place, 8 for third, 6 for 4th, 4 for quarter-finalist, and 2 for group elimination. Zero applies to year of non-qualification.

The head to head result between both teams stand at 6-6-6 (Wins-Ties-Losses). However, eight of those games were played on neutral venues. What then is important is the home-away records between the two. After all, the CAN qualifying contests between the two are based on a home-away format. At home, Nigeria has a 4-3-1 record over Egypt but is 0-0-2 away in Egypt, all time.

In any case, with Egypt's record of earning maximum points in its two games so far in the qualifiers for 2017 CAN, Egypt appears well ahead of Nigeria in preparations. That may be so, but Nigeria definitely can be back in serious contention if it can take four of the six points available against Egypt in the two games. It is a tall order but it is not unrealistic. Egypt has won all its games but two since Argentine Hector Cuper was appointed coach early in 2015. The two losses? away to Chad in a World Cup qualifier and then at home in a friendly against Jordan in January. That certainly are not results that would make any powerful football nation in Africa to shiver in fear. Then, analyzing Egypt's wins so far only two -- a beat down of Zambia in a friendly and a 5-1 away pasting of Chad -- should worry any top team in Africa. In essence, Egypt has not done anything that was unanticipated or monstrous. In fact, one can argue that beyond the Zambian beat down, Egypt has not played against a national team worthy of note in Africa under Cuper's helm.

But the same thing could be said about Nigeria in recent time. Worse still, while Nigeria is still rebuilding its team, Cuper has largely settled on a team built with home-based talent that has had far more hours training together. Cuper has largely depended on four to five foreign-based players -- Mohammed Salah (AS Roma), Mohammed El-Neny (Arsenal), Ahmed "Koka" Hassan (SC Braga), Amr Warda (Panetolikos), and left back from Ahli Jeddah (Mohammed Abdel-Shafy). However, for the Nigerian games, Cuper has dropped Mohammed Abdel-Shafy and invited Mahmoud "Trezeguet" Hassan from Anderlecht. In Cuper's work, he has discovered a young gem that has been described as future of Egyptian football in 21 year-old Mostafa Fathi (AC Zamalek) who's left-footed dribbling skills have been amazing. However, Fathi is also out of the two Nigerian games because of injuries.

For Nigeria, it remains unclear whether or not it has solved several holes in its team. Nigeria now has a reliable striker at its disposal in Jude Ighalo (Watford) and its team's conversion of set-piece opportunities is also notable. The challenge will be in controlling the midfield where Egypt is likely to be massed, at least in the first leg in Nigeria. Nigeria's penchant for playing a 4-3-3 may well be nulled via a 4-5-1 that Egypt may use particularly in the Kaduna game. Further, the speed advantage that Nigeria has wide with Simon and Musa will be tactically nullified by Cuper's team.

Thus, Nigeria must seek other ways to get around the Egyptians, particularly at home where Nigeria must win to keep hope alive for qualification. It is easy to look at recent results achieved by both teams and conclude that Egypt has an edge. However, Nigeria is a team capable of standing up to any of the top African teams and there is nothing in Egypt's recent results to indicate that it can be considered, without doubt, a top African team. It is far more likely that Nigeria will dictate the pace of the Kaduna game and use the weather and  home support to its advantage. Getting an early lead should do wonders for Nigeria and a good start in Kaduna will put the team in the right psychological frame to take four points from the two fixtures.

Game day weather: 33 degrees C (91 degrees F/hot) but chance of precipitation is 43% just before game time. See weather forecast for Kaduna.

Match Officials: Referee Janny Sikazwe (Zambia) with linesmen from Zambia and Mozambique.