Euro-based stars impose their class – 2018 World Cup race enters home stretch

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE-TWO of Africa’s rising football stars who are holding the English Premiership spellbound – Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho – were on target as European-based players made a huge impression in the first games of the final phase of the qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup across the continent.

The two 20-year-old Nigerian forwards, rated by some commentators as the future of African football, scored as the Super Eagles became the first team to beat Zambia in either a World Cup or Nations Cup qualifier in their Ndola fortress since 1969.

Although Chipolopolo were beaten by the Warriors 1-0 in Ndola three years ago, it was a qualifier for the CHAN finals.

Before a capacity and colourful crowd at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium, Arsenal’s Iwobi – who turned down advances from England to play for his fatherland – scored his first goal in a competitive match for the Super Eagles, showing great technique as he volleyed from inside the box in the first half last Saturday.

“Happy to get my first international competitive start and international competitive goal for my country as well as win #SuperEagles,” Iwobi said on Twitter after the game, attaching his picture celebrating in the dressing room with teammates Iheanacho and Ogenyi Onazi who plays for Turkish side Trabzonspor.

Scores of Arsenal fans also took to Twitter to congratulate Iwobi – whose remarkable rise to the Gunners’ first team has been an incredible tale.

Manchester City forward Iheanacho, who only turned 20 on October 3, showed great composure to round off the Zambian ‘keeper and then drill the ball home from a tight angle to double the Nigerians’ lead and send the stadium into silence.

The Super Eagles’ team was led by Chelsea midfielder Mikel Obi and their triumph in Ndola was made all the more remarkable after a difficult build-up in which officials claimed they didn’t have money to fly the team to Zambia.

The Zambians are fighting to qualify for their first World Cup finals and have been under considerable pressure after suffering the embarrassment of failing to qualify for the 2017 Nations Cup finals.

But losing at home, in a tough group that also features Algeria and Cameroon, is unlikely to help their cause and Zambian football legend, Kalusha Bwalya, took to Twitter to pour out his frustrations.

“Not the result Chipolopolo was looking for, but I will take a good second half fight-back, to build on,” he tweeted.

With a number of European-based players returning home for the World Cup adventure, it was always likely that they would make the biggest impression in the first weekend of the final phase of the qualifiers for a place in Russia.

And gangly Congolese forward, Dieumerci Mbokani, who plays for Hull City in the English Premiership, scored twice to propel the Democratic Republic of Congo to an impressive 4-0 destruction of Libya at the Stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa.

Having changed his mind to quit international football in March this year, Mbokani was the hero for a strong Congolese side which many believe could make a big impression in the qualifiers for the World Cup and end more than 40 years of waiting for a dance at the global football showcase.

Mbokami’s first goal came after he received a pass from Everton forward Yannick Bolaise while the other two goals came from home-based players, Jonathan Bolingi of TP Mazembe and Firmin Mubele of AS Vita.

So dominant were the Congolese that Libyan goalkeeper, Khaled Elwerfelli, was the star player for the visitors despite conceding four goals.

South Africa, another nation looking for redemption after a doomed 2017 Nations Cup campaign, put up a brave show in Burkina Faso, with goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune even saving a penalty as they settled for a 1-1 draw.

Bafana Bafana thought they had sealed the points after Dean Furman powered them into the lead in the final 10 minutes of the match and when Alaine Traore missed the Burkinabe second penalty, many of their fans back home might have thought this was their lucky day.

But, somehow, in the final minutes of the encounter, Burkina Faso found the equaliser as they scrambled the ball home.

“Thanks for all your messages,” tweeted Furman. “Great to get on the score sheet but gutted we couldn’t hang on for the win. Five more cup finals still to play.”

South African Sports Minister, Fikile Mbalula, said he was proud of the shift that his men put into their battle in Burkina Faso.

“Proud of @BafanaBafana – we will continue to support our boys. Regroup and come stronger for a win,” he tweeted.

Liverpool forward Saido Mane was a constant menace as Senegal began their World Cup final phase campaign with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Cape Verde on Saturday.

Keita Balde and Moussa Sow were on target for the Teranga Lions in Dakar.

Newcastle midfielder Mohamed Diame saw his shot crash against the crossbar in the 52nd minute for Senegal.

AS Roma forward, Mohamed Sallah, who used to play for Chelsea, netted one of the goals as Egypt started their final campaign with a 2-1 victory in Congo Brazzaville while Algeria, who fielded English Footballer of the Season Riyad Mahrez, were surprisingly held to a 1-1 draw at home by Cameroon.

The Indomitable Lions, who set alight Italia ’90 World Cup, found the equaliser from their skipper Benjamin Mounkandjo who plays for French Ligue 1 side FC Lorient.