African teams return to the gruelling 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers this weekend as they jostle for a place at the continental championships to be held in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in less than two years time.
While the preliminary road is still stretched out ahead in the distance for most teams, the fate of Group K could be all-but defined this weekend as Tunisia head to Togo in the fight to catch the group’s surprise packages, Botswana. Two other North Africans are also looking to bounce back as reigning African champions Egypt need to stabilise a campaign that has taken off on shaky ground, while Morocco, the yesteryear powerhouse in African football, travel to Dar es Salaam for a crucial match against the Taifa Stars of Tanzania. The last few years have been that of perennial struggle for the North African side, who started off qualifying by being held to a shock scoreless draw at home by the Central African Republic.
Desperate times for Tunisia, Togo
As Group K heads to the business end of things, Tunisia are desperately trying to salvage a qualifying campaign that has gone wrong. From the trip to also-struggling Togo, they will be looking not only for three points, but for a morale-boosting victory that will keep alive their hopes of making the trip to the continental showpiece. The Tunisians are currently trailing surprise group leaders Botswana by six points, but they will make up a game in hand this weekend. Anything less than three points by the North Africans will bring Botswana, who have ten points from four matches, close to an encounter with destiny.
Togo are yet to register a win and are currently sitting above bottom side Chad on only two points from three contests. This position is a sad indictment for a Togolese side that not so long ago showed promise by qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, and more dropped points against Tunisia will leave them with a massive qualifying hill to climb. Both sides should be buoyed by the guarantee that the second-place team in Group K will qualify for the finals, while for the other groups, only the winner and two best-ranked runners-up are assured of a spot.
Tricky trips for the Pharaohs, Bafana
Following their humbling hard-fought draw in Cairo against Sierra Leone, Egypt travel to Niger to restore not only pride but also to play catch-up to Group G leaders South Africa. Egypt need to beat Niger convincingly as anything less than three points will curb their chances of defending the Cup of Nations – a trophy they have won an unprecedented seven times overall and the last three consecutively. However, Niger are no easy opponents in Niamey, and they defend with gusto relying on many bodies behind the ball. This tactic might frustrate an Egyptian side that relies on counter-attacks and infiltrating from the flanks.
Similarly, Bafana Bafana are hoping to keep their noses in front but face a tough task in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where confidence levels are high after the Egypt result. Leone Stars coach, Christian Cole has boldly stated that a win against South African will not only put his side in pole position, but will leave them as favourites to qualify. While this won’t be an easy mission for the Sierra Leoneans against a rapidly improving South African side, they will be banking on home support as they try to replicate the form that made allowed them to push Egypt to the brink at the beginning of September.
Lions hunting Leopards
Cameroon are slowly getting their groove back following a less-than-flattering 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign. After a straightforward opening win in Mauritius, they now face a DR Congo side at a crossroads and searching for purpose in Group E. The Leopards suffered an early blow to their qualifying campaign when they went down 4-2 to Senegal on their home turf in Lubumbashi. It was a cruel setback for the Congolese, who have won the AFCON twice in the past, but have failed to qualify for the last two events. They have been preparing in France for this game before making the trip to Cameroon.
For his part, new Spanish coach Javier Clemente has made a number of changes to the Indomitable Lions, leaving out the likes of Carlos Kameni, Achille Emana and Alexandre Song.
Home at last for the Black Stars
Since their euphoric World Cup campaign where they came heartbreakingly close to becoming the first African nation to reach the semi-finals, Ghana have yet to play on home soil. Now a huge crowd should await them when they return to Accra to host Sudan in Group I.
Attacking lynchpin, Asamoah Gyan said: “It’s good to finally be able to play at home after the World Cup. We are looking forward to playing in front of our people as I know they have been waiting for us to play here for a while. Sudan are a closed book to us really, so it’s going to be an interesting game.”
It was revealed Friday that Nigeria would be allowed to contest their Group B qualifier in Guinea after FIFA provisionally lifted the suspension of the Super Eagles. The two sides face off in Conakry with the driving seat of the group, that also includes Madagascar and Ethiopia, at stake.