Battle for Qatar 2022 World Cup ticket: Can Ghana outmuscle Nigeria?

There were blood-curdling screams of trepidation and despair when Ghana was first pitted against the Super Eagles of Nigeria for a place in the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup tournament.

In a high-pitched screech, a Ghanaian fan watching the Douala draw on television last week, said he wished it had been any other country, believing Nigeria would be too much of a Himalayan task to surmount.

“Oh God, not Nigeria! I was looking for Congo DR or even Senegal,” he said.

Indeed, a decent number of Ghanaian fans interviewed opined in same manner.

But there was a joyful scream from a few other football enthusiasts who predicted victory for the Black Stars in the World Cup play-off, insisting “Nigeria are our wives any day, anytime.”

Many who said Nigeria were odds-on-favourites to get the better of the ferocious West African battle, may have been wooed by the team’s eye-catching performance during the group stage of the ongoing African Cup of Nations (AFCON) where they won all three games – and were the only side to finish tops with maximum points.

Demonstrating a phenomenal shape, the Super Eagles got their Group D campaign off to a colourful start as they licked seven-time champions Egypt 1-0, thumped Sudan 3-1 before rounding off with a convincing 2-0 victory over Guinea-Bissau.

Banging in six goals and conceding just once to qualify for the round of 16, naturally, should be enough to scare the living daylights out of many an opposition.

However, when all expected the Super Eagles to knock off their Tunisian counterparts in their next hurdle, they lost focus, crumbled and allowed the North Africans to thud them out with a 1-0 win on Sunday night.

It goes without saying that Tunisia were also responsible for Ghana’s exit at the same stage during the Egypt AFCON, two years ago.

The loss to Tunisia has temporarily shaken Nigerian football as fans fiercely agitated for the exit of Coach Eguavoen who has since called it a day.

Earlier, Nigeria brushed off a troubled build-up to the Cup of Nations, including the sacking of German coach Gernot Rohr, allowing Eguavoen – who was the Technical Director to hold the fort until a permanent replacement.

“What happens next is that I’m the interim coach and Technical Director of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF).

“I will go back to my position and allow the NFF to make a decision on the way forward,” Eguavoen said after the match.

As a matter of fact, the NFF announced Jose Peseiro as the new permanent coach before the AFCON kicked off.

Unlike Nigeria who have a ready coach on the wings to take charge, Ghana are in a state of bedlam as to whether to allow Milovan Rajevac to stay on or exit after the team’s shambolic performance in Cameroon. The Ministry of Youth and Sports, apparently horrified by Milo’s output and caving in to public pressure, badgered on the Ghana Football Association (GFA) to review the work of the Serbian trainer – the man who spearheaded the Black Stars to a historic quarter final berth of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, 2010.

The Cameroon AFCON performance was lame and the call for Milo’s head may not have surprised anybody. Interestingly, the coach insisted he would not resign after the degrading exit.

“My primary ambition from the time I took over as coach last October was to qualify Ghana for the World Cup in Qatar,” he said, amid speculations that he had been shown the door.

Ghana’s shock first-round casualty climaxed with a stunning 3-2 loss to minnows Comoros, having earlier staggered 0-1 to Morocco before a fierce 2-2 draw with Gabon – finishing bottom of Group C. Garnering just a point from a possible nine, is the nation’s darkest record in its AFCON history, dating as far back as 1963 when it first hosted and won the tournament.

Aware of having failed the nation, the GFA and the Black Stars were said to have sworn to make amends by qualifying for the World Cup and hopefully assuage broke hearts.

The Super Eagles are also singing same song after the AFCON let-down, promising the nation to outmuscle Ghana and pick their seventh World Cup ticket – by hook or by crook.

Ghana will enjoy home advantage first as both legs are held between March 23 and 29 – with the aggregate winners securing a place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The MKO Abiola Stadium in Abuja is poised to host the Super Eagles decisive return leg match, CAF having ruled out the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos (which has served as home ground for the Eagles) because it is not up to international standards.

As some confident fans look forward earnestly to Ghana’s fourth Mundial with aggregate victory, others say it would be ‘shamanistic’ and archaic to think that the name Ghana evokes fear as it used to do in the 60s and the mid-20s. Fact!

Nevertheless, the Super Eagles have found the Stars a hard nut to crack since February 6, 2007, when they were mauled 4-1 in an international friendly in West London at Brentford’s Griffin Park ground.

All five goals poured in the second half. Laryea Kingston opened the floodgate in the 51st and sparked further tallies by Sulley Ali Muntari (53′) and Junior Agogo (60′). Taiwo Taye pulled one back for Nigeria in the 65th minute through a penalty kick, before substitute, JoeTex Frimpong rammed the final nail in the 74th minute for Ghana’s biggest win over its neighbour since 1960.

“I’ve never seen an African team do that to Nigeria before,” sniffed shell-shocked Super Eagles manager Austin Eguavoen afterwards. “They stopped us playing from the rear and when we can’t do that we got flustered. I have to congratulate Ghana; they were tactically and technically very, very strong.”

Fourteen years on, Eguavoen has become the Technical Director of the NFF and would be wary of the Stars even though the Ghanaians today may not possess the same quality that ruptured the Eagles in London.

In as many games between them, the Stars have won 21, drew 18 and lost 10, stamping their stranglehold on the Super Eagles. Ghana’s last two victories over their arch rivals were at the 2008 and 2010 Nations Cup tournaments.

In spite of Ghana’s dominance over Nigeria, the Black Stars we see today have not shown enough quality, fighting spirit and self-belief. Tunisia showed that you do not need extraordinary quality to get over the Super Eagles. What is hungrily needed now is amperage of desire on the field and an intrepid character to die for the result.

The Nigerian crowd in the return encounter will be crushingly intimidating (forget about Covid) and we need players with that doughty, remorseless character to withstand the Super Eagles – and match them toe-to-toe, boot-for-boot!

Having assessed our team fairly well in Cameroon, we need no one now to tell us who should make the next cut or exit. We have got to be honest with ourselves, make the right choices and plan effectively well for that nerve-wracking super clash in March. We cannot afford to fail again!

BY JOHN VIGAH

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