Côte d'Ivoire were paired with Senegal in the highlight of the final qualifying round draw for the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa made here Thursday.
The Ivorians finished runners-up to Zambia after a penalty shoot-out in the 2012 final in Libreville last February after captain and star forward Didier Drogba blazed a regular-time spot-kick over.
Senegal went to that tournament as third favourites behind Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana only to lose all three group games against Zambia, co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Libya.
Former champions Côte d'Ivoire will host the first leg in Abidjan over the weekend of 7 and 9 September, with the teams meeting again during the weekend of 7 and 9 October in Dakar.
Zambia launch their title defence with a home tie against Uganda, while Ghana will fancy their chances against Malawi as will Nigeria against Liberia.
Central African Republic, shock qualifiers for the round of 30 draw at the expense of Egypt, were paired with Burkina Faso and have a good chance of winning and making a first appearance at the tournament.
Ethiopia, another country to upset the odds by ousting Benin, face Sudan in an intriguing East African derby and another regional showdown pits Libya against Algeria.
A notable omission from the 30 countries involved in the draw were record seven-time champions Egypt, who surprisingly fell to Central African Republic during the first qualifying round last month.
The Pharaohs, winners of an unrivalled three consecutive titles between 2006 and 2010, will miss consecutive Cup of Nations tournaments for only the second time since the African football showcase was launched 55 years ago.
It also means 30-plus stars like goalkeeper Essam Al Hadary, centre-back Wael Gomaa and midfielder Mohamed Abou Treika may never again grace a tournament they have many fond memories of.
Held in even-number years since the 1968 finals in Ethiopia, the Cup of Nations switches to uneven-number years from 2013 to avoid every second tournament being held early in the same year as the FIFA World Cup™.
Having to complete the qualifying process within a year meant scrapping the traditional mini-leagues in favour of a three-round home-and-away knockout system with the 16 qualifiers for 2012 receiving byes into the final round.