Super Eagles must avoid playing the occasion against Black Stars in Kumasi

On the line is a place at the 2022 World Cup, which takes place in Qatar at the end of the year. Deeply unpopular though the hosts may be on account of a troubling human rights record, there is no shortage of desire when it comes to participation. We only get one of these every four years, after all.

Pitting Nigeria against Ghana just makes the prize all the more attractive, as for both sides the prospect of knocking the other out is an incentive that is not always on offer. The last time these two sides met during World Cup qualifying was 20 years ago, but the circumstances then were very different; this time, it truly is winner-takes-all.

Much is being made of the wider socio-cultural context of this tie, and to be fair it is useful for colour. Rice and music are hardly hills to die on, but for all their mundanity they no doubt add to the significance and profile of this tie. However, the outcome will ultimately have one lasting, concrete significance, and it is on the pitch at the Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi, rather than in any restaurants or concert arenas, that the decision will be reached.

It is the same thing at stake for both sides, but they come into the tie with distinctly different frames of mind.

Ghana are still reeling from their abysmal Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) campaign, the fallout of which sees them come into this tie without their influential captain Andre Ayew and with a new man in the dugout in Otto Addo. It was not so much that the Black Stars underwhelmed in defeats to Morocco and Comoros, but that in doing so there was little to commend it all, and little to look forward to.

It goes some way toward explaining quite why they have elected to play their home leg in Kumasi where they have traditionally enjoyed strong support, as well as the bizarre decision to withhold information on their squad composition until three days to the play-off.

By contrast, Nigeria are buoyed by their showing in Cameroon. It may have ended prematurely, an anti-climax that left a thirsty nation high and dry, but in truth expectation was so low going in that simply putting forward halfway decent football was counted as a win. Now, with the benefit of a bit more time with the group and the presence of his full attacking arsenal, it is expected that coach Augustine Eguavoen will unfurl a fuller representation of his playing philosophy.

In that sense, it really is hope against negativity, expectation against uncertainty.

Not that the Ghanaians would admit it, of course. That is the nature of rivalries, especially one as built around loudly and brashly asserting superiority.

Where it really matters, the Super Eagles clearly hold the cards going into Friday evening. Granted, the absence of Wilfred Ndidi and the form of Thomas Partey means Ghana may well dominate the middle of the pitch. However, Nigeria’s best work under Eguavoen has not owed much to winning the midfield battle; where it counts, in the final third, it is the three-time African champions who boast the quality that a stage like this demands.

Whether that will be the deciding factor, however, remains to be seen. Certainly, it is in Ghana’s best interest to turn this tie into a needly, tense affair. An open, toe-to-toe engagement would invariably favour the stronger side, a fact which has been tacitly acknowledged by the choice of Kumasi. The idea will be to make it about more than just the game, and force their better-equipped visitors to play the occasion.

This, in a nutshell, is the challenge that faces the Super Eagles on Friday: they must, somehow, focus their efforts and attention on the game itself, and avoid getting carried away or bogged down by the history of this tie. Tune out the madness, as it were.

If Nigeria play to their fullest potential, it is a match – and a tie – that is eminently winnable. The Black Stars are weak in precisely the areas where the Super Eagles are strong, while the same cannot necessarily be said the other way around; Taiwo Awoniyi and Paul Onuachu, both of whom Eguavoen has elected to leave out, would walk into the Ghana starting line-up at centre-forward–so impecunious are they in that position.

However, there is so much more to a game like this than simply that, and that is what makes it so intriguing to observe, and so dangerous to predict.

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