Record seven-time champions Egypt face a fight for Africa Cup of Nations survival this weekend while Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal could qualify for the 2012 tournament.
Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien, injured during the last Cup of Nations, is set to make his first appearance for Ghana in 18 months when Congo tackle the Group I leaders in Accra.
But 15 goals for West Bromwich Albion last season cannot secure Peter Odemwingie a place in the Nigeria squad for a Group B duel in Ethiopia with coach Samson Siasia axing him for leaving a previous camp without permission.
Bottom-of-the-table Egypt host Group G pacesetters Bafana Bafana in Cairo desperate to avenge a 1-0 loss in Johannesburg three months ago and avoid the humiliation of becoming the first title holders not to reach the finals.
Côte d’Ivoire will join co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and Botswana as qualifiers for the biennial African football showcase if they collect maximum points from a Group H fixture in Benin and Rwanda do not win away to Burundi.
Senegal, who missed the last two tournaments after finishing fourth in 2006, will top the final Group E table if they triumph in Cameroon and Mauritius prevent Democratic Republic of Congo winning on the Indian Ocean island.
A Maghreb showdown between Morocco and Algeria in Marrakech is another highlight of a 21-fixture schedule divided between Saturday and Sunday as the six-round qualifying competition reaches the fourth series.
Totally different game
Egypt have just one point from a possible nine after coming from behind to draw 1-1 with Sierra Leone in Cairo and losing in Niger and Bafana and assistant coach Shawky Gharib acknowledges it is win-or-bust now.
“It is a decisive match for the players and the technical staff. We have won the last three tournaments and have to win on Sunday. The game will be totally different from Johannesburg.”
The Pharaohs did not want to play in Johannesburg last March because the largely local-based squad had been starved of competitive practice after domestic football was suspended due to the anti-Hosni Mubarak uprising.
But South Africa insisted the fixture be played and, after being lucky several times not to fall behind, snatched a stoppage-time victory through a clinical Katlego Mphela finish.
“Egypt are going to throw everything at us. They will not play with three centre-backs this time, opting instead for more midfielders and strikers,” admitted Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane.
Injuries deplete both teams with Egypt lacking midfielders Mohamed Shawky and Mohamed Aboutreika and striker Amr Zaki while Bafana must do without centre-back Bongani Khumalo and midfielder Thanduyise Khuboni.
Senegal snatched victory over four-time champions Cameroon in similar fashion to South Africa with West Ham striker Demba Ba scoring the lone goal deep in stoppage time.
“I just love this team. The guys are good and are beginning to behave like brothers. We are going to do everything possible to stay top and qualify as early as possible,” promised Ba who misses the Yaounde game through injury.
Back in the game
Coach Amara Traore has called up fullbacks Lamine Gassama and Cheikh Mbengue and midfielder Kara Mbodj for the first time and can choose his strike force from a formidable trio of Papiss Cisse, Mamadou Niang and Moussa Sow.
Cameroon chose Alex Song for the first time since a disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign only for the Arsenal midfielder to be ruled out by injury and the burden of expectation falls, as always, on star striker Samuel Eto’o.
Côte d’Ivoire will look to Chelsea pair Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou for goals in Cotonou while Benin rely heavily on midfielder Stephane Sessegnon and striker Razack Omotoyossi.
Morocco welcome back Youssouf Hadji although injury rules Mounir al-Hamdoui as they try to turn the tables on neighbours Algeria in Marrakech having lost 1-0 when they clashed in Group D last March.
Experienced Algeria centre-backs Antar Yahia and Madjid Bougherra can expect to be busy protecting goalkeeper Mbolhi Rais while leading domestic scorer Hilal Soudani has been included among the strikers. — AFP