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A Look Ahead to the Final Round of World Cup Qualifying
With just three matches to go in the group phase of the African zone’s qualifiers for World Cup 2014, Egypt finds itself in the somewhat unfamiliar position of not just being “alive” in the quest to reach the finals, but actually in pole position. For the first time in years, supporters of the Pharaohs have had the luxury of keeping their calculators in their pockets.
No, Egypt hasn’t quite clinched a spot in the final round of qualifying – a home-and-away tussle with one last opponent for a trip to Brazil – but they could do so as early as June 9 when they take on Zimbabwe in Harare. Either way, they currently control their own destiny, but an away win next month (extremely difficult to achieve in Africa, granted) coupled with a Guinea loss or tie at home against Mozambique and the Pharaohs’ last two group matches become irrelevant. Or do they? That all depends on what the competition’s organizing committee decides to do with the final round of qualifying.
The format for the final phase is known. The ten winners from the group stage will be paired up to face one another home-and-away, with the five aggregate winners qualifying for Brazil 2014. What is unknown however is just how these 10 group winners will be paired. So far, FIFA has only told us that the procedure for this final round of qualifying “will be confirmed by the end of Round Two (group stage).” Considering the final group matches are in September, this means we technically might not know until then, though history tells us an announcement will probably come before that.
All sorts of conjecture has floated around cafes, websites, message boards and everywhere else African football is discussed as to what the exact procedure will be. One possibility is that the 10 teams will be drawn at random, with no attention paid to where they stand in FIFA’s monthly world rankings. Though the illogical is sometimes the norm in African football, this idea seems unlikely as it would risk pitting Africa’s highest ranked teams against one another. The region’s lowest ranked group winners could also end up being paired, guaranteeing that at least one of Africa’s highest ranked sides would fail to reach Brazil and that one or more of its lowest ranked teams would qualify; a less than ideal scenario.
The more likely modus operandi would see the 10 group winners placed into two pots of five, one with the highest ranked teams and the other with the lowest ranked teams. Each of the five matchups would include a team from each pot. This would guarantee that the five highest ranked group winners have a chance to comprise Africa’s five slots at the World Cup. In this scenario, FIFA would likely use its September rankings to determine the pots.
If this second proposed procedure is indeed chosen, it would render Egypt’s remaining group phase matches vitally important regardless of whether they’ve already clinched the group summit. This is because the results of those matches will play a significant role in where Egypt is ranked come September. If Egypt can end up among the five highest ranked group winners, their final round pairing would theoretically be easier, as it would be against one of the five lowest ranked group winners.
And now to the fun part. We obviously have no idea who will win the 10 groups or where those group winners will be ranked come September, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ponder the possibilities. It sure as heck beats what Egypt supporters are used to doing at this point… solving trigonomic equations to determine if the team is still even alive.
Going by the just-released May edition of the FIFA World Rankings, here’s what the pots would look like as things stand at the half-way mark in group play:
Pot 2 – Cameroon, Egypt, Senegal, Congo, Ethiopia
As of this moment, Egypt is well-entrenched in Pot 2. Even if Mali overtakes Algeria and Ghana overtakes Zambia in their respective groups, Egypt would remain in the lesser of the two pots. Perhaps Egypt’s shortest path to Pot 1 would be to jump 22 places in the FIFA World Ranking to leapfrog Zambia, who would have to hold on and win their group over Ghana. Egypt would also have to finish with a higher ranking than the Group I winner (most likely either Cameroon or Libya, both of whom are currently ranked just ahead of Egypt). This is virtually impossible, as Zambia holding on to win its group would mean that they’re getting results, and thus not plummeting down the rankings. And if Ghana wins the group, they’re too far ahead in the rankings for Egypt to catch up by September.
The other possibility – however unlikely it may seem – would be for Egypt (68th) to pass Cameroon (62nd) in the rankings (assuming they hold on to win Group I) and for Malawi (currently trailing Nigeria on goal difference) to win Group F. If Egypt wins its group, this scenario would place them 5th among group winners, putting them in Pot 1.
Given these realities, it’s safe to assume that should Egypt win its group, it’s all but certain that they’ll end up in Pot 2. If the current group leaders hold on to first place, this would mean Egypt has a 40% chance of renewing pleasantries with one of its North African rivals – Algeria or Tunisia – as both are in Pot 1. And if they don’t draw one of their northern neighbors, top-ranked Ivory Coast, African champions Nigeria, and Zambia – who gave Egypt fits in a 2010 World Cup qualifier in Cairo – would be waiting in the wings. If it’s none of those five teams, it would likely be either Mali or Ghana. None of the possibilities are too appealing.
So, anyone holding out hope that Egypt might face an “easier” (i.e. lower ranked) proposition like Ethiopia – currently leading Group A – can stop dreaming right about… now. Given Egypt’s history of selective complacency, perhaps it’ll be beneficial facing a bigger name anyway. The Pharaohs have a knack for surprising with poor performances against presumably weaker teams, and surprisingly stellar performances against stronger sides.
No matter how you slice the makarona bel bashamel, qualifying for the World Cup will take Egypt’s top effort, regardless of the opponent. There are very few minnows left in African football, and for whoever the 10 group winners end up being, there will have been a reason for it… they’re good teams.
Should Egypt win Group G, which of their seven most likely opponents (Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Algeria, Tunisia, Zambia, Ghana, Mali) would you rather face in the final round of qualifying and why? Let us know in the comments section below.
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