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Nigeria faces a changed Ethiopia

They drink a potent fiery honey-based drink called Tej. We drink kai kai, a just-as-lethal concoction brought to us by the Portuguese once upon a time.

They eat Injera, a flat bread that traces its roots back to India, while we sample from a myriad of sides made from yam, rice and cassava called fufu. Both of us speak English.

That’s where the similarities end.

They sip coffee, we gulp beer or palm wine. They like to run slowly for hours we run very quickly for less than 15 seconds.

These are the constants. What is new is that the Ethiopian team that Nigeria has been paired up with in the World Cup knockout stage is a totally transformed one. In addition to stamina it now has what it didn’t a year ago when it collapsed in South Africa.

Discipline and goalkeepers who don’t deploy rugby tackles have been added to an eleven that actually moves the ball around very well and will instantly punish you if you step out of line.

Secondly, the Walia Antelopes now believe they are a team of destiny and to me that’s extra worrying. Not only has Coach Sewnet Bishaw advanced his team to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 31 years, he has them now playing like a big gun. I quote, “No one dreamed of Ethiopia being at this stage but now we remain with two important matches that will help shape our destiny.”

Twice now they have come back from playing behind, deep in the second half, to claim essential points.

Refusing to wilt, they held on despite a late South African run to get to the knockout round, only to be flagged by Fifa and docked three points for being naughty and fielding an illegible Menyahel Teshome against the Zebras.

So close to the prize and yet being denied would have had me sobbing and on Prozac but not them. They circled the wagons, pinned their ears back and played on.

There is a saying that promises good things happening to those who wait. Well what happened next was more than good, especially for FA president Sahilu Gebremariam, who seemed to be condemned to the national dog house forever.

Teshome’s (yes the same one but now very eligible) cracker of a goal against Central Africa’s Wild Beasts became arguably the country’s most important goal since they beat the United Arab Republic (soon to be Egypt) in 1962 to become African Champions. It sent his country on to the next stage and her notoriously rabid fans into sheer delirium.

Having asked and now received, Ethiopia now faces the African champions who, though sputtering at times, finally have their super striker Emenike back and are in form. Just ask Burkina Faso and they will tell you first hand, after this month’s 4-1 hammering, that Nigeria today is better than the Nigeria that beat them 1-0 in the Nations Cup final.

Yes, Moses may have changed his club jersey from Chelsea Blue to Liverpool Red but it is when he wears Green and White that he is absolutely mesmerising and the East Africans will be forced to again try and stop him from reaping havoc against their back four as he did at the previous Afcon.

They may need the Ethiopian National Defense Forces to help them because I don’t see their defenders stopping him for 90 straight minutes. However, him playing is an uncertainty because of the taxing grind of the BPL. Nigeria collectively must now pray that he remains healthy. Without him Nigeria simply lacks imagination.

What is a certainty is a tenacious game, especially in Addis Ababa, with wing play being decisive for Nigeria and counterattacking and home support for Ethiopia. It is here in the second week of October that one team will secure a ticket to Brazil and not one month later in Nigeria.

Fasten your seatbelts Africa.

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