Egypt & Nigeria face-off as both nations try to rekindle the highs of yesteryear

Egypt v Nigeria, African Cup of Nations, January 12, 2010

Egypt 11/5; Draw 9/4; Nigeria 6/4

2009 epitomised the best and worst of Egyptian football. A sensational 1-nil win over Italy in the Confederations Cup left the Pharaohs on cloud nine, but that high was extinguished in the World Cup playoff defeat at the hands of bitter rivals Algeria. Having flip-flopped their way through the last 12 months Egypt will be hoping the ACN return the north Africans back to the top of the continent’s football tree as they hunt down a record third consecutive title in Angola.

The fall-out from the failure to reach South Africa was evident by way of the 23-man squad named by Hassan Shehata for the ACN. In particular several high-profile names were excluded from the squad including Mido, Amr Zaki, Mohamed Shawky and Mohamed Aboutrika. This tournament therefore represents a chance for some of the Egyptian fringe players to stake a claim in the senior selection, and with seven players having less than 10 caps each, we expect to meet some fresh faces in the Pharaohs’ team.

Despite the injection of youth in the Pharaohs squad, watch out for Hazem Emam and Mohamed Nagi “Geddo,” there is a feeling that coach Hassan Shehata’s time may have passed and the defeat to Algeria has left some heavy psychological blows.

That has left a sizable amount of responsibility on the Pharaohs midfield enforcer, veteran Ahmed Hassan. The former Anderlecht star, who was voted the best player at the Egypt 2006 finals, is set to make an eighth appearance at the ACN, and his wise head will be relied upon by his teammates.

Coach Hassan Shehata will also rely on the Al Ahly defensive trio of Wael Gomaa, Sayed Moawad, Ahmed Fathy to ensure that they are hard to break down. Between the sticks Egypt will also be confident, as 36-year-old keeper Essam El-Hadary will participate it what may well be his final major tournament of his distinguished career. (Egypt are 9/4 to keep a clean sheet.)

If Egypt are to be successful though, much will depend on their relatively inexperienced but exciting front-two. Borussia Dortmund striker Mohamed Zidan, a pacey forward with a keen eye for goal, will likely form an attacking tandem with the Al-Ahly striker Emad Meteb, who is said to be a target for Portsmouth. (Egypt are 13/5 to score in both halves.)

Also looking for a return to happier times are the Super Eagles.

Nigeria’s fall from grace started with failing to make it to the World Cup in 2006 after being stunned by Angola, who sneaked through to Germany courtesy of a better head-to-head record. Stung by their failure to reach those finals, Nigeria opted for a foreign coach for the first time in seven years in the shape of Berti Vogts, a decision that in retrospect appeared to be a step backwards. Vogts was later dismissed after a miserable showing at the 2008 ACN in Ghana, which in turn allowed the controversial figure of Shaibu Amodu to coach Nigeria for the third time in his career.

Since Amodu’s return, Nigeria have been a team on the up. Along with the Ivory Coast, Nigeria were the only side to go unbeaten during the qualification campaign, notching six straight wins in the first qualifying section, the only side to achieve this, and then posting three wins and three draws in the harder second phase, as they qualified for South Africa.

The Super Eagles have a team packed with quality. In goal, Hapoel Tel Aviv keeper Vincent Enyeama is arguably the best custodian in Africa, while their defence seemed equally self-assured with the likes of Joseph Yobo (Everton), Taye Taiwo (Marseille) and the excellent Chidi Odiah (CSKA Moscow) in their squad. (Nigeria are 13/8 to keep a clean sheet.)

The names continue to roll off the tongue in the Nigerian midfield. John Obi Mikel, Dickson Etuhu and Seyi Olofinjana are all well known to fans of the Premier League, while the superb attacking talent of Kalu Uche who plays in Spain with Almeria could be one of the star players at this year’s competition.

Up-front, the Super Eagles also have multiple options with hugely experienced strikers. The evergreen Kanu remains the talisman of the side, although his lack of match fitness could hinder his involvement in Angola. Nigeria have plenty of alternative options though, with Chinedu Obasi (Hoffenheim), Yakubu (Everton), Peter Odemwingie (Lokomotiv Moscow), Victor Obinna (Malaga), and Obafemi Martins (Wolfsburg) all available for selection. (Nigeria are 4/1 to win in both halves.)

The opening match of the group will be one of the highlights of the early stages of the 2010 African Cup of Nations, and it will be fascinating to see whether Nigeria have indeed bridged the gap to the very best in the continent, a label they aspire to hold.

101predicts: Egypt 1 – Nigeria 2 (10/1)

Egypt 11/5; Draw 9/4; Nigeria 6/4

Full match odds here.