Upsets add to African intrigue
© AFP

Any notion that the final phase of African Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ would be a perfunctionary exercise was quickly dispelled at the weekend, confirming the prospect of another absorbing campaign over the next six months. From the kick-off of the first of the ten weekend games to the conclusion of the last, the form book was thrown out of the window and surprise results quickly brought about the conclusion that this will be a final run-in of much intrigue.

Almost all of the 20 sides proved their competitiveness in the opening games of the final group phase of Africa's preliminaries. Togo began the weekend with a shock victory over Cameroon, on neutral ground in Accra, with Emanuel Adebayor announcing his return from a hamstring injury with the game's only goal.

The last game on Sunday night saw the traditional order again shaken up again as African champions Egypt were held at home by Zambia. The Pharaohs, among the favourites to qualify for South Africa 2010, let a first-half lead slip and eventually had to share the points in a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Zambia.

But the biggest upset of the weekend was reserved for Casablanca on Saturday night, when Gabon beat Morocco 2-1. It is a result that has suddenly catapulted the Azingo Nationale into the continent's conscience, and set them up as potential spoilers in their group.

Initially it was expected Group A would prove a straight fight between Cameroon and Morocco, but both sides were on the losing end at the weekend. Gabon scored twice before half-time against Morocco, and then held out in a tight second half to ensure a surprise three-point haul.

Nigeria's Super Eagles also suffered a setback in what is promising to be a bustling battle with Tunisia in Group B. While the Tunisians won away in Kenya, Nigeria dropped points in a 0-0 draw away to Mozambique, who proved the more enterprising side on the afternoon and should have had more than a solitary point to show for their efforts.

Mali served notice of their potential in Group D with what could turn out to be an extremely valuable away point in Sudan. The two countries had been paired in the same group in the first round of the group qualifiers, and shared the honours with a home win apiece. But a second trip to Khartoum six months on proved more fruitful for Les Aigles, who took the lead through Frederic Kanoute and eventually held out for a 1-1 draw.

Mali's main rivals in the group are expected to be Ghana, but the Black Stars were far from convincing in beating Benin 1-0 at home in Kumasi on Sunday.

The matches at the weekend will have offered up plenty of food for thought and there are now several months for reflection before the next round of qualifiers in June.