Flying start for Egypt, Tunisia in World Cup race
Egypt and Tunisia celebrated Monday after taking significant strides this month toward qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The Pharaohs and the Carthage Eagles were the only countries among the 40 involved in the mini-league second elimination phase to win both matches over the past two weekends.
After a routine 2-0 home win against Mozambique, Egypt triumphed 3-2 in Guinea after the most exciting game of the 40 played in the quest for five qualifying places. While a 3-1 win at home to Equatorial Guinea was anticipated, Tunisia did well to triumph 2-1 away to a Cape Verde Islands side ranked among the top 20 national teams on the continent.
With a third of the mini-league schedule completed, Egypt and Tunisia must believe they are well on the way to winning their groups and advancing to the knockout five-tie final stage. No domestic football in Egypt since post-match Port Said riots on February 1 claimed 74 lives left the Pharaohs short of competitive practice, but gave American coach Bob Bradley much more time with his squad than usual. Egypt have lifted the Africa Cup of Nations a record seven times, but reached the World Cup only twice, and for ageing stars like goalkeeper Essam Al Hadary and midfielder Mohamed Abou Treika, these qualifiers represent a final chance.
Former African champions Tunisia have experienced steady progress under coach Samir Trabelsi with France-based Issam Jemaa among the most dangerous penalty-area predators on the continent. The Cape Verde Blue Sharks also lost in Sierra Leone and hold the unwanted record of being the only side to lose both matches, giving them little chance of overtaking the Tunisians.
Although 2010 World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana fired seven goals past lowly Lesotho during the opening series of fixtures, 83 goals from 40 matches means an average of just more than two per game. Ghana drew a blank in a 1-0 away loss to African champions Zambia, but remain the leading scorers with seven followed by Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia with five each. Burkina Faso, seeded to win Group E, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Niger and Zimbabwe have failed to score, which partly explains why they all occupy lowly positions in the tables.
Individuals to catch the eye include Egyptian icon Abou Treika, who bagged a brace in Guinea, and little known Ethiopia striker Saladin Said, whose three goals have propelled the Black Lions to the top of Group A. Top seeds have had mixed fortunes with Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia leading groups, Algeria and Ghana lying second and Burkina Faso, Cameroon and South Africa third. Cameroon will relish the nine-month break before the next qualifiers with the suspension of star striker Samuel Eto'o ending in September while South Africa must hope a new coach can lift Bafana Bafana out of the doldrums. Surprise early pacesetters include Benin, who climbed a staggering 52 places in the June FIFA world rankings, and an Ethiopian team ranked only 130 in the world.
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