D-Day looms for African hopefuls
At least half the field for next year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals in Ghana could be known by the end of the weekend, with the contenders set to face the penultimate round of qualifiers. For several of the front-runners, their immediate task should prove relatively perfunctory, but other countries will need to rely on both their result and those elsewhere going in their favour if they are to book their places.
Angola, Cameroon and Morocco, who all competed at the last finals in Egypt, need only draw to secure their passage to the finals. Algeria, meanwhile, who missed out on the 2006 tournament, will join them with a home win over Guinea in Group 8, while Côte d'Ivoire could qualify without kicking a ball - provided Gabon fail to win in Madagascar on Sunday.
As for defending champions Egypt, a win over Burundi will be enough to see them on in the 16-team list for the 2008 finals. The two nations are meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, Burundi's neighbours, because the ongoing installation of an artificial turf pitch in the capital Bujumbura is temporarily preventing Burundi from claiming home advantage. The pitch is being funded by FIFA as part of the 'Win in Africa with Africa' initiative.
In Group 4, Tunisia and Sudan continue their battle for the leadershipm, but both sides can make all but mathematically sure if they win against Indian Ocean island opposition at the weekend. Tunisia host Mauritius while fast-improving Sudan visit the Seychelles on Saturday.
Nigeria and Uganda are in a similar situation in Group 3 but both face tough away games on Sunday. The Super Eagles play in Niamey against Niger, while Uganda are in the cold climes of Lesotho and have been preparing at altitude in Johannesburg for their visit to the mountain kingdom. Senegal, South Africa and Togo can also book their places with wins on Sunday but this would depend on their nearest challengers losing.
Mozambique threaten Senegal
Four-time winners Cameroon will qualify for a 15 th appearance at the finals in what should, on paper at least, be a routine assignment against Rwanda. In the process, the Indomitable Lions will be looking to maintain their 100 per cent record, which has seen them haul in 12 points already. Although former African Footballer of the Year Samuel Eto'o will not play as he is needed by Barcelona for the grand finale of the Spanish league season, Cameroon should be able to outgun a youthful Rwanda side.
The Ivorians are the only other team in the qualifiers with a 100 per cent record but are in a group of just three countries. As a result, their posse of European-based stars, such as Didier Drogba and Kolo Toure, will sit on their holiday deck chairs while they wait for new on Gabon's progress. However, even if the Gabonese do win, they will still need to beat Drogba and Co by at least five goals when the two countries meet in the final round of qualifiers in Libreville in September.
Elsewhere, the Elephants' fellow FIFA World Cup™ finalists Angola have endured few problems in their group but still take on Swaziland in Luanda with a full strength squad, including the SL Benfica striker Mantorras, who was on the bench for the last game away in Eritrea. Morocco, meanwhile, are sweating on the fitness of their key striker Marouane Chamakh, who has returned this week to his French club Girondins Bordeaux for treatment ahead of Saturday's Group 12 game in Blantyre. Opponents Malawi have yet won a match under new coach Steve Constantine, having been beaten 3-2 in a friendly international last weekend by Senegal.
Group 7 sees Mozambique seek to continue their revival with a home match against Senegal. Should the Mambas, coached by the Dutchman Mart Nooij, claim all three points, they will go top of the standings and move to within touching distance of their first appearance in the finals since 1998. It would also put Senegal's participation in jeopardy just six years after they were runners-up at the 2002 Nations Cup finals in Mali.