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Preview: Black Stars, Nigeria renew rivalry in World Cup qualifier today

By Vincent Ashitey
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Fireworks are expected when Ghana host their arch-rivals Nigeria in one of the most anticipated matches of the first leg of the 2022 World Cup playoffs in Kumasi, today Friday, March 25.

As the two-legged mammoth clash will decide which side picks up a spot at the global tournament, the tension associated with matches between the West African heavyweights has gone a notch higher as it is not only pride and bragging rights at stake.

Smarting from their recent unimpressive outing at the 2021 TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations in, the two countries are keen on winning back the support of their fans by qualifying for Qatar to banish the disappointment of last month’s tournament in Cameroon.

READ ALSO: Preview: Egypt, Senegal meet in repeat of AFCON 2021 final

The Black Stars had the country’s worst ever outing at the AFCON as they were only able to secure just one point at the group stage with their plight exacerbated by the humiliating 3-2 defeat to lowly Comoros.

The Super Eagles had a better showing in the competition as they topped their group before they were surprisingly defeated 1-0 in the Round of 16 by Tunisia, which halted their six-game unbeaten streak.

Since the tournament, Ghana overhauled their technical staff by sacking Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac, who was blamed for the team’s unimpressive showing in Cameroon.

Former international player Otto Addo, one of the second team coaches at German side Borussia Dortmund, was appointed to take charge and he will be aided by former Newcastle manager Chris Hughton who will work as the technical advisor for the two matches.

Nigeria have taken a similar route by boosting their backroom staff with former international winger Emmanuel Amunike to help coach Augustine Eguavoen prepare for the tough encounter.

The Black Stars have also boosted their squad as several players who missed the tournament in Cameroon for various reasons are present for the game against Nigeria.

Ajax Amsterdam playmaker Mohammed Kudus and Germany-based Kwesi Wriedt return for the Black Stars while AS Roma youngster Felix Afena-Gyan, Fulham defender Denis Odoi and Hearts of Oak ace Dennis Korsah have been handed their debut call-ups.

But the Black Stars will miss captain Andre Ayew who is suspended while Rennes talented winger Kamaldeen Sulemana is absent from the squad because of injury.

In the absence of the substantive captain the Black Stars will turn to Arsenal superstar Thomas Partey for inspiration as they seek an emphatic home victory over their arch-rivals and coach Addo believes the Black Stars can defeat the Super Eagles.

“We all expect Ghana to qualify for the FIFA World Cup (Qatar 2022) but that won’t be easy as we need to do our best to make it to this tournament,” the former Ghana international winger Addo said.

“Matches between Ghana and Nigeria are always difficult but we believe in our players, we believe in our strategies, and we believe in the unflinching support of all Ghanaians as we go into these two matches."

Nigeria, on the other hand, have been boosted by the return of dreaded strikers Victor Osimhen of Napoli and Saudi Arabia-based Odion Ighalo as both of them missed the AFCON.

Former England youth striker Ademola Lookman switched allegiance in time for the game to boost the attacking line up that also includes Kelechi Iheanacho.

READ ALSO: 10 players to watch in Africa’s World Cup qualifying playoffs

Midfielder Wildfred Ndidi and goalkeeper Maduka Okoye have been ruled out of the match because of various health reasons but Nigeria coach Eguavoen admits it would be a difficult match but insists Nigeria has got the player to help them defeat their opponents.

"It’s a very crucial match, a lot is at stake,” the former Super Eagles defender who is now the coach of the side Eguavoen said ahead of the first-leg game in Kumasi

“The most important thing is to qualify for the World Cup. We have a strong squad and a large pool of players to choose from.

“The boys are sharp and ready to go. We have to win well against Ghana to get over the line. We will do the talking on the pitch.”

Even though Ghana has the head-to-head advantage having won 25 of their 56 previous clashes with 19 ending in draws, the Super Eagles are counting on their current form to give them the leverage over the Black Stars.

Sadiq Umar of Nigeria celebrates goal with teammates during the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations Afcon Finals match between Guinea-Bissau and Nigeria
Nigeria have won three of their past five matches and drawn one with the other ending in a defeat while their opponent on Friday lost three games, drew one and won one.

The match will most likely be won by the most determined team on Friday night as matches between the two West African giants know no form guide.

The return match will be played in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on Tuesday with the winner over the two legs picking one of Africa’s five tickets to the World Cup.