With the 29th edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations just four months away, there is one home-and-away round of knockout qualifiers left to determine the 15 teams that will join hosts South Africa in the finals. This is the first stage of the preliminaries to include the 16 sides that competed at the last championship, which was co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and won by Zambia seven months ago.
The quick turnaround for the continent’s form teams comes as the tournament moves from even to odd years to avoid conflict with the FIFA World Cup™, and the shortened format hints at the potential for upsets. Trying to avoid the fate of already eliminated Egypt - the record seven-time finals winners knocked out by Central African Republic in the last round - is highly regarded Côte d’Ivoire, who must get past talented Senegal to keep alive their hopes of avenging the frustrating defeat in the final to Zambia on penalties. It was the second final match penalty shootout loss in the last four events for the 1992 African champions, who have also been in the semi-finals in three of the last four tournaments.
The Elephants will still be led from the front by striker Didier Drogba, but this is almost surely the continental swansong for the 34-year-old. Drogba is a national icon and many would love to see him emulate his UEFA Champions League success with Chelsea last term for new coach Sabri Lamouchi. To do that, the star-studded team - Kolo and Yaya Toure are arguably as important as Drogba - will need to defeat the Lions of Terranga, who disappointed in the last tournament by losing all three of their group matches despite one of the most feared attacks on the continent. The explosive tie begins on Saturday in Abidjan before concluding with the second leg in Dakar next month.
There are a host of continental giants looking for even greater redemption, teams like Nigeria, Algeria and Cameroon, who failed to even make the last finals. Cameroon will continue to be without their own talismanic striker as Samuel Eto’o has refused to join up with the team for their trip to Cape Verde. And despite leaving out stars like Jon Obi Mikel and Peter Odemwingie in the team, Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi is confident his team can beat west African rivals Liberia. "My boys are focused, and they want to be in South Africa ... but football can be unpredictable and that is why we have to redouble our efforts to ensure we qualify," said the former national team star.
Along with the two west African derbies, there are several other contests that will be heavily influenced by geography. In the north, Algeria will battle with Libya, Ethiopia and Sudan will meet in the east, Equatorial Guinea and Congo DR are both in the central region and Angola will wrestle Zimbabwe for bragging rights in the south.
Zambia aiming for two in two
After winning their maiden title, the Chipolopolo face a tough test in Uganda, who have been growing in stature under coach Bobby Williamson. The Cranes have not reached the finals since finishing second in 1978, but they were just a single goal at home from qualifying for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The Zambians started off qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ with a bit of a hangover, losing at Sudan, but Herve Renard’s side lifted themselves to beat Ghana, and they will host Uganda in the same Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola, a city where the Copper Bullets have not lost in over 30 years.
Renard has been stressing the challenging nature of the short campaign, saying: “There is never an easy game, especially when you play your qualification with only one game at home and one game away. But for us the focus is clear: only the qualification is important. We have to be efficient, that's all,” said the Frenchman, who is welcoming back long-term injury absentee Jacob Mulenga, who will provide some needed cover to the frontline. Likewise, Ghana, favoured against Malawi, have striker Asamoah Gyan back in the fold after his short-lived international retirement. The Black Stars have some amends to make of their own after reaching the semi-final stage in the last three finals but failing to win their fifth title, which leaves them at over three decades since their last triumph.
Another returning face is Mahamadou Diarra, who is back with Mali after a lost year in which he played little club football and missed his side's third-place finish in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The Eagles will take on Botswana, who made their finals debut earlier this year and lost to Mali 2-1 in the group stage despite taking the lead. Another debutante from 2012, Niger, will also feature a new but familiar face in coach Gernot Rohr, who led Gabon to an impressive performance at the finals but will now shepherd the up-and-coming Mena against Guinea, who will welcome back their own star international exile: Kevin Constant of AC Milan.
CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2013 qualifying fixtures
Mali - Botswana
Zimbabwe - Angola
Liberia - Nigeria
Zambia - Uganda
Cape Verde - Cameroon
Mozambique - Morocco
Sierra Leone - Tunisia
Guinea - Niger
Sudan - Ethiopia
Libya - Algeria
Côte d’Ivoire - Senegal
Congo DR - Equatorial Guinea
Gabon - Togo
Central African Republic - Burkina Faso