Thursday, September 3, 2009

Qualifier Preview: Tunisia at Nigeria

I love African World Cup qualifying. I love it to death. The only thing that would intrigue me more than an African qualifier is the African Cup of Nations, but since that isn't be competed for right at this monent ...

To someone from North America, African qualifying it is the essence of exotic. Gabon, Ivory Coast (or Cote d'Ivoire), Morocco, Zambia ... it's like a recitation of the profoundly mysterious and vaguely intimidating.

Thus, we head into Part 4 of our blog posts about key World Cup qualifying matches being played this weekend. This one is about Tunisia vs. host Nigeria at Abuja, on Sunday, and someone could be in very good shape when it is over ... and someone else could be thinking in terms of 2014, instead of South Africa 2010.

Check out the standings in Group B.

It's quite straightforward. Whoever wins the game is in control, and only the winner of the group gets to go to South Africa 2010. Loser goes home.

From a global perspective, there is a sense of Nigeria as a World Cup underachiever and Tunisia as an overachiever. The results might not bear out the perception, but there you are.

Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa (with 150 million people, compared to Tunisia's 10.5 million), has been to three World Cup finals (1994, 1998, 2002), and looked genuinely dangerous each time, especially so in 1998, when a big and athletic team led by coaching gypsy Bora Milutinivoc registered victories over Spain and Bulgaria and moved into the second round ... where Denmark routed the Nigerians 4-1.

Nigeria appeared to be a soccer power on the rise, especially considering it won the African Cup of Nations in 1994. But then came the 2002 World Cup and an uninspired first-round exit, followed by no appearance at all in 2006, and now you are forgiven if you wonder if Nigeria has stalled out and has settled into a pattern of underachieving.

This is the match where Nigeria can do something about that reputation.

Nwanko Kanu, a veteran striker who plays for Portsmouth of the English Premier League, is Nigeria's best-known player. But the Super Eagles also count on brothers Ikechukwu and Kalu Uche, both forwards, who play for Spanish clubs Real Zaragoza and Almeira, respectively.

Ikechukwu Uche has scored four goals during qualifying. Nigeria is waiting, however, for the first goals in this qualifying campaign from Kanu and Kalu Uche, in the match at Abuja, the Nigerian capital, on Saturday. It is a bit ironic that Nigeria's best-known players are strikers, because the Super Eagles have managed only three goals in three final-group matches, including a draw at Mozambique -- the result that left them sitting second, to Tunisia.

Nigeria and Tunisia fought to a scoreless draw in their first match, at Tunisia, and the winner of this one figures to be in good shape.

Tunisia is one of the scrappy Maghreb teams that have been fairly prevalent in the World Cup final draw, of late. The Tunisians, who are known for their comprehensive and intelligent approach to developing young talent, are looking for their fourth consecutive trip to the finals, and if they can escape Abuja with even a point, they are likely to make it to South Africa. Also, it was Tunisia that recorded the first victory for an African team in World Cup play, defeating Mexico 3-1 in 1978.

Issam Jomaa, a striker who plays with Lens of France's Ligue 1, is a key figure in the attack. On the defensive side, Tunisia likely will count on Hannover 96 teammates Karim Haggui and Soufiane Chahed

Whoever can manage a goal in this one probably will win. And if there is a winner, look for that team to be in South Africa.

A tie is all for the good, for Tunisia. It ends Group B qualifying with a home match against Kenya and a road match with underpowered Mozambique, and the Carthage Eagles will be favored in both matches.

Nigeria, meanwhile, clearly needs a victory, and coach Roger Lemerre's team -- backed by a friendly home crowd in Abuja -- may be able to make it happen.

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