It should be a dramatic weekend of action in African football as qualifying for the finals of next year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon finishes with six places still up for grabs and the top two teams in three groups going head-to-head. The winner of the AFCON finals early next year will qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017.
Côte d'Ivoire, the reigning champions, are not yet guaranteed of a place from three-team Group I, but all they need is a point against Sierra Leone at home in Bouake. Les Elephants are on five points from three contests, having drawn away to the Leone Stars and at Sudan, both of whom are on four.
Sierra Leone's Ghanaian coach Sellas Tetteh has been preparing his side in his native country in order to avoid pressure at home. “This is a very important match for the country and for the team of young players who have never played in the AFCON finals. We are going to do our best and come out of the match with our heads raised up,” said the FIFA U-20 World Cup-winning coach.
Tunisia also have home advantage in a surprisingly tight Group A, where Liberia have their noses in front to qualify as group winners, although both teams are also still alive in the race for one of the top two second-placed teams. To add to the tension in the group, Togo could come from behind to snatch second place if they beat Djibouti at home, which would move them to 11 points, while the Tunisians and Liberians are currently on 10.
In Group B, Congo DR are at home and two points in front going in to their final game against the Central African Republic. Mali are sitting even prettier in Group C knowing that they will qualify as one of the best second-placed teams even with a loss to Benin over the weekend.
The only other group where two teams still have a chance of finishing first is Group D, where Burkina Faso and Uganda go into their final games equal on points and both at home. The Stallions have the tie-breaker however, so would just need to beat Botswana at home, while the Cranes are up against Comoros. Uganda have a history of near-misses in qualifying, but striker Geoffrey Massa believes the team can leap-frog the Burkinabe. “We have learnt a lot from previous campaigns, and we’ll be giving everything.”
Hunting for second
In four of the other groups, the second-placed teams are jockeying for points in order to be one of the top two across the groups. Cape Verde Islands, who have played at the last two finals, are at home to Libya in Group F, and a victory would take the Tubaroes Azuis to 12 points and in good standing to qualify as one of the best runners-up.
Swaziland and Mauritania, who are second in groups L and M respectively, need nothing short of a footballing miracle to climb high enough in the second-placed rankings to qualify. The Swazis, who have no chance of catching Zimbabwe at the top of the table, are away to Malawi, while Mauritania take on South Africa. In Group J, Ethiopia have a similarly difficult task ahead of them. They will expect to beat the Seychelles in Awasa, but even a victory seems unlikely to be enough as it would take them to 11 points.
The remaining four groups have all been decided although Nigeria finish their campaign at home to Tanzania, with new coach Gernot Rohr calling up an experienced squad even though the Super Eagles have no chance of qualifying.
The biggest surprise in qualifying occurred in Group E, where Guinea-Bissau stunned favourites Congo and Zambia to qualify for their first-ever AFCON finals – and that with a game to spare. They end their campaign away to Congo.