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FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff preview: Ghana vs. Nigeria

West African rivals Ghana and Nigeria kick off their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff duel with the first leg taking place in Kumasi on Friday followed by the return leg in the Nigerian capital of Abuja four days later. A loaded Nigerian attack clashes with a strong Black Stars defense and midfield in a matchup that has massive bragging rights at hand as well as a precious spot in Qatar later this year. Check out more on the matchup below and how each team should line up:

Ghana

Manager: Otto Addo

Key Players

Alexander Djiku

Not many expected the French-born center back to fit in so well, but the 27-year-old has been splendid since making his debut for the Black Stars in 2020. Djiku’s form for French Ligue 1 club Strasbourg continues to be excellent as well with his side currently in fifth place and on pace for their best finish in France’s top division in over twenty years. Balanced is the best word to describe Djiku’s game in that he possesses both pace and strength as well as knowing when to be aggressive or stay positionally sound.

Thomas Partey

While the results have been disappointing for Ghana in recent times, the team has plenty of strength in the defense and midfield with star Thomas Partey controlling affairs in the center of midfield. The former Atlético Madrid player has been outstanding for a resurgent Arsenal side in the English Premier League and his technical skill comes into full view when representing his country. The 24-year-old shows quite an eye for the goal, scoring the winning goals in crucial games against Zimbabwe that ended up making the difference for Ghana’s advancement to the playoff round.

Abdul Fatawu Issahaku

As a 16-year-old, Fatawu won the Best Player of the Tournament award at the 2021 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations in Mauritania and his rise only continues to gain steam. Soon after his youth national team exploits he earned a callup to the senior national team and following a gradual introduction to the demands of playing for the Black Stars, Fatawu is poised to play an important role against rivals Nigeria. The now 18-year-old possesses a deadly left foot and the boldness to attempt highlight reel plays, making him a threat to make the difference either as a starter or substitute for an underwhelming Ghanaian attack.

Expected formation and team profile

Otto Addo spent several years as an assistant at Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund before taking on the manager role for the country he used to represent, and his head coaching debut should see him utilize a similar 4-5-1/4-3-3 system. Who he chooses to use in the front four is tough to decipher but injuries will force him into playing certain players.

In form attacking midfield playmaker Daniel Kofi-Kyereh apparently left training with a knock that apparently will keep him out for the tie, a crucial blow that may leave Fatawu in a more central role. Joseph Paintsil showed promise during the 2021 AFCON and should start on the left wing. Yaw Yeboah is in very good form for Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer and the other starting wing spot will go to either he or Belgian-based Osman Bukari. Mohammed Kudus is very talented but working his way back from injury and is set to be in a substitute role. Partey is a locked in starter in one of the two holding midfield roles with Edmund Addo and Baba Iddrisu battling it out to partner the Arsenal man.

The striker position up top is a glaring weakness for Ghana and it looks like veteran Jordan Ayew will retain his starting spot despite miserable form for club and country (2 goals in the last two seasons for English Premier League side Crystal Palace). Felix Afena-Gyan has shown potential for Serie A side Roma and the other options, Christopher Antwi-Adjei and Kwasi Okyere Wriedt, are limited to club success in the second and third divisions of German football.

Defense remains a strong area for the Black Stars with Leicester City’s Daniel Amartey set to partner with Djiku in the center of the backline. Veteran right back Denis Odoi switched his international allegiance from Belgium and will bring a strong defensive presence even if his ability to attack is limited. Gideon Mensah looks to be the favorite to start at left back and excels more when getting forward.

Nigeria

Manager: Augustine Eguavoen

Key Players

Victor Osimhen

Nigeria’s star player is back after missing out on the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations due to a fractured orbital bone, which now has Osimhen wearing an iconic protective mask. After a slow return to form with club Napoli in 2022, the 23-year-old goal scoring prodigy appears to be back to his pre-injury self just in time with four goals in his last two Serie A matches. Bringing pace that can cause any defense nightmares, Osimhen’s return to join Kelechi Iheanacho makes the Nigerian attack a group whose talent ranks among the best in all of the footballing world.

Kelechi Iheanacho

Osimhen is the high priced star of the Nigeria attack but Leicester City forward Iheanacho must be mentioned in the same breath as a key for Nigeria to qualify for Qatar 2022. While his strike partner is a pure finisher who looks to get behind the defense, Iheanacho’s ability to play several different roles up top has seen him settle into more of a playmaker to highlight his passing ability. The left-footed 25-year-old needed time to find his level after making a name as a young prodigy with Manchester City but his finishing and technical skill makes him a compete forward who can compliment any player he is partnered with, making he and Osimhen a truly lethal duo.

Joe Aribo

As good as Nigeria’s attack is, they need somebody to provide a link from the midfield and Aribo has emerged as the premier option for the Super Eagles. The Rangers midfielder excels at carrying the ball forward and navigating congested areas as well as providing the passes that put his attacking teammates in dangerous positions. The 25-year-old from South London cut his teeth in England’s lower leagues with Staines Town in the country’s seventh tier, winning the club’s academy Player of the Year before progressing to full time professional football with Charlton Athletic soon after turning 19.

Expected formation and team profile

Outside of a disappointing effort in their 2021 Africa Cup of Nations elimination at the Round of 16 stage against Tunisia, the Super Eagles were flying high and there should be no reason for manager Augustine Eguavoen to change how his team is arranged. The forward spot up top should go to Osimhen with Iheanacho acting more like a #10 playmaker behind the Napoli striker, though veteran marksman Odion Ighalo has returned to the fold to potentially snatch a starting role. Moses Simon and Samuel Chukwueze are swift wingers who will dribble fearlessly at defenders to cause havoc.

Leicester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi’s absence through injury is a massive hole to fill for Eguavoen, and the Super Eagles coach seemed to indicate in pre-match comments that Swedish-based destroyer Bonke Innocent will get the nod over English Premier League players Peter Etebo and Frank Onyeka despite having only two national team appearances to his name. Aribo will partner whoever is selected as the ball-winning option to drift forward and initiate attacks.

The backline should be about set with Zaidu Sanusi and Ola Aina at the left and right back positions. The only question is who will partner William Troost-Ekong with veteran and 2021 AFCON starter Kenneth Omeruo looking more likely than Leon Balogun to get the nod. Regular starting goalkeeper Maduka Okoye will miss the first leg with illness but may be back for the return leg in Abuja, meaning that Cyprus-based keeper Francis Uzoho looks likely to stand in though he has had his questionable moments for Nigeria.

Prediction

The Nigerian side seems to be feeling the heavy weight of expectation for this tie and the rivalry between the two nations will add to the uncertainty. However, injuries have devastated the Ghanaian team with little experience playing together for those drafted in as replacements. An anemic attack means Ghana has to keep the tie low scoring and even with a strong defense it is tough to see the Black Stars keeping Iheanacho, Osimhen and Nigeria’s speedy wingers at bay.

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