Following a hiatus of almost six months, Africa's fight for places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ will resume this weekend. The final phase of regional qualifying will begin with 20 teams competing for five positions at the global finals.
All but one of the continent's representatives at Germany 2006 are still in contention, with Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Tunisia all playing in separate sections. Angola are the only side who did not progress past the first group phase, which ended last October.
However, returning to the FIFA World Cup at the first time of asking will not be easy for the successful quartet, who must contend with a series of former qualifiers, including Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria. The Egyptians, the reigning African champions, are confident they can make the cut, while the Indomitable Lions will be out to extend their own record of qualifications by an African team to six.
The big match
Togo-Cameroon, Saturday 28 March, 16.00 GMT, Ohene Djan Stadium, Accra (Ghana)
The much anticipated shoot-out between two of Africa's most prolific strikers now looks unlikely to take place. Samuel Eto'o is expected to line up for Cameroon, but Emmanuel Adebayor's participation is in doubt as he recovers from a hamstring injury. The Arsenal player was recently named African Footballer of the Year for 2008, while three-time recipient Eto'o is an early candidate for the 2009 award having scored an avalanche of goals for Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga.
Saturday's game will unfold in Accra, across the border from Togo, who are forced to play their home matches on neutral ground due to a ban. The Sparrow Hawks were surprise qualifiers for Germany 2006, but lost momentum by failing to reach the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008. Cameroon, meanwhile, won five out of their six matches in the first phase of the South Africa 2010 preliminaries, emphasising their status among the favourites to qualify.
The other games
It has been almost two decades since Egypt last appeared at the FIFA World Cup, but back-to-back Africa Cup of Nations titles and a favourable draw in Group C has lifted their hopes of ending this long absence. The Pharaohs begin at home to Zambia on Sunday, with a full-strength
squad for the first time in several years: one which includes influential playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika, and forwards Mido and Amr Zaki.
Mali are considered among the outsiders to progress, and will have their credentials severely examined in Sudan on Saturday. Stephen Keshi's team are without Mohamed Sissoko and captain Mahamadou Diarra, both injured. Also in the same group are Ghana, whose fortunes have gone in an opposite direction, with the dynamic Michael Essien recently returning to fitness after a long spell on the sidelines.
Nigeria will be wary of their little-known hosts Mozambique when they meet in Group B on Sunday, while the other heavyweight contender in the pool, Tunisia, are away to Kenya.
Didier Drogba will play his first game of the South Africa 2010 qualifiers when Côte d'Ivoire entertain Malawi in Abidjan in Group E. A knee injury kept the Chelsea forward out of the first phase, although goals from the likes of Salomon Kalou and Boubacar Sanogo made up for his absence.
Player to watch
There was a scare in Kenya when Dennis Oliech suffered an training injury at French club Auxerre earlier in the month, but he has recovered in time to join up with his compatriots in preparation for the match against Tunisia. The tricky striker has become the talisman for his country, and could be the spark for an upset result against Tunisia on Saturday.
Burkina Faso and Malawi are both outsiders in the competition, but proved their ability with 14 goals apiece in six matches in the first group phase. Burkinabe striker Moumouni Dagano is the leading scorer in the African preliminaries, having been on target seven times; once more than Eto'o and Benin's Razak Omotoyossi.
What they said
"The whole world reckons Côte d'Ivoire are the key team in our group, but for me the most difficult side will be Guinea. They are an aggressive team with a lot of good players from clubs in Europe," Burkina Faso coach Paulo Duarte.
African Zone qualifying, final phase, Matchday 1 fixtures
Saturday 28 March
Have your say
Which five African teams do you think will join the host nation at South Africa 2010?