Coach John Keister has named the Leone Stars squad for the Africa Cup of Nations. As expected, the team is a mixture of Europe-based and home-based professionals. Notable new faces include Steven Caulker, Issa Kallon, David Sesay, Daniel Francis and Idris Kanu. Are the Leone Stars good enough to advance from Group E?
On paper, the Desert Foxes of Algeria are favorites to win Group E. They have world class footballers that include Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City FC), Sofiane Feghouli ( Galatasaray FC), Islam Slimani (Lyon FC), Ismael Bannacer (AC Milan) and Ssid Benrahma (West Ham United FC). Significantly, the Desert Foxes have also gone 33 games without a loss. Yet formidability is not unique to the Algerians. Like the Algerians, the Elephants of Cote D’Ivoire, also playing in Group E, are also a two-time AFCON championship winning nation.
Cote D’Ivoire are no strangers to Sierra Leone as the two countries have met several times on the football field. Their last two matches ended in draws. But that was before the Elephants captured Wilfred Zaha (Crystal Palace FC), Sebastien Haller (Ajax FC), Nicholas Pepe (Arsenal FC), and Maxwell Cornet (Burnkey FC). All four are well established Europe-based strikers with impeccable goal-scoring credentials.
Group E’s other opponent, the Nzalang Nacional of Equatorial Guinea, are no less dangerous. Word is that their ranks are filled with Spain-based professionals. What all of this means is that by any measure, the Leone Stars face a formidable task in Cameroon.
Evidently, the tournament in Cameroon will be difficult. But history has taught us that the Leone Stars can be resilient on the football field. The strength of the current team lies in its strike force. Kei Kamara, Sullay Kaikai, Mustapha Bundu, and Alhaji Kamara are all proven goal scorers with the national team and their clubs. However, goalkeeping is a major concern. Mohamed Kamara cannot be our first-choice goalkeeper if we do not want to have a disastrous tournament. Kamara is tentative between the posts, lacks a good vertical leaping ability and is prone to leakiness. Ibrahim Sesay should be our first-choice goalkeeper. He is by no means an Amadu Kargbo, a Frank Williams or even a Brima Atouga Kamara. However, Sesay can be a force between the posts. He demonstrated his formidability in exhibition games against The Gambia and Morocco in September with his acrobatic saves.
We should expect stability in the central defense position with the experienced Steven Caulker. Caulker is tall, strong and skillful. And if full backs, Kelvin Wright and Osman Kakay/Alie Sesay, would raise their games, they would perfectly complement the skilled Caulker in stopping the rampaging Algerians and Ivorians in their tracks.
Also, should Rodney Strasser start at the defensive midfielder position, any pressure on our defense would be greatly ameliorated. Strasser’s introduction in the second half of the game against Nigeria in Benin City in 2020 instantly stopped the bleeding and helped the Leone Stars score three vital goals to avoid a loss.
Additionally, Strasser’s efficacy as a defensive midfielder would complement Issa Kallon in central midfield. Without a doubt, Kallon’s incredible pace would greatly help with ball movement. His pace added to his ruthlessness in front of the goal and his ability to coordinate well with his team’s strike force would definitely be necessary ingredients for a free-flowing offensive game. It goes without saying that a free-flowing offensive game can be a necessary recipe for victory on the football field.
Understandably, good and competitive tournaments depend on how commensurate the participating forces are. The Leone Stars must raise their game and be ready to match the Algerians and Ivorians in all facets of their games. The Leone Stars must also approach the Nzalang Nacional of Equatorial Guinea with resilience and determination. The Equatorial Guineans will be no pushovers. They recently reminded Africa of how prepared they were for AFCON by defeating a formidable Zambian national team in a World Cup qualifier. This is just another firework that helps to underscore the contention that Group E is the group of death. And with only two teams guaranteed a place in the round of sixteen, the competition in Group E would likely escalate into a fight for brutal survival.
To survive and avert the disasters of 1994 and 1996, the Leone Stars must prepare well. The technical staff must eschew favoritism while entrenching merit as the sole basis for team selection. Furthermore, the mood in camp must be positive and optimistic. This would help the team in understanding its environment, spotting all the pitfalls and equipping itself to avoid them. Truth is, while the Algerians and the Ivorians are trumpeted as the class of Group E, strange things can happen in football. If the Leone Stars play with determination, grit, and urgency, they would advance to the round of sixteen.
Ambrose Jusu is based in New York