Some of Africa's heavyweight contenders will go head-to-head this weekend in three of the continent's five 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ preliminary groups.
Tunisia and Nigeria face off in Group B, with the Carthage Eagles defending a 100 per cent record and the Super Eagles on an unbeaten run of their own. Côte d'Ivoire's meeting with Burkina Faso will likely go a long way towards settling the outcome of Group E in their meeting at Ouagadougou. Both have won their opening two matches and Saturday's showdown could potentially prove decisive. Zambia, meanwhile, will seek to maintain their ambitions and establish some distance between themselves and struggling Egypt when they play host to Algeria.
The postponement of two matches means there are eight ties in total to look forward to. Egypt's game in Rwanda is off due to the Pharaohs' participation at the FIFA Confederations Cup, while the death of Gabon's president Omar Bongo has resulted in their tie with Cameroon being rescheduled for 5 September.
The big match
Tunisia-Nigeria, 20 June, Stade Novembre 7, Rades
Already with a two-point advantage over Nigeria, hosts Tunisia know that a win on Saturday will establish a commanding lead in Group B. The Carthage Eagles are not infallible at home, as Burkina Faso exposed earlier in the qualifying campaign. However, that was before the appointment of Humberto Coelho, who has greatly improved the Tunisians since his appointment just under a year ago.
Evidence of their potential came two weeks ago against Mozambique, when Tunisia won 2-0 without some key strikers. Amine Chermiti is likely to return from injury for Saturday's game and be partnered by Turkey-based Ali Zitouni, who earns a long-awaited recall to the team. Nigeria beat Kenya in their last group game, but the three-goal winning margin belied a vulnerability in midfield and at the heart of their defence.
The return to the team of Joseph Yobo and John Obi Mikel adds a steely spine to the Nigerian line-up, who have been training in Malta ahead of the match. "The team is gradually forming itself," coach Shaibu Amodu has said. "Players are beginning to gel and it is becoming highly competitive. The spirit of a good team is to be able to play anybody."
Tunisia have prepared for the match with a trip to Lisbon, but they will get a clear sense of the home fans' anticipation when they return for, arguably, the country's biggest game facing, and beating, Morocco en route to Germany 2006.
The other games
Burkina Faso have been the surprise package of this year's qualifiers and have grown in confidence with each passing performance. They swept past Tunisia to top their first round group and have since won at home to Guinea and then away in Malawi. Such has been their impact that coach Paulo Duarte has even felt comfortable enough to take on another job at French club Le Mans.
This weekend, however, they face the might of Côte d'Ivoire and the Elephants' formidable front line of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Bakary Kone. Zambia and Algeria will contest the leadership in Group C, while Morocco will be aiming for their first win in the final phase at home to Togo. Ghana's lead in Group D is under threat, as injuries have weakened their squad for the trip to the Sudan.
Player to watch
Denis Oliech's upper body strength and speed off the mark provide a dangerous combination. The striker's role for Kenya has been key over recent years, and with a move to Qatar from Auxerre now completed, he is free to focus on the Harambee Stars' key match in Nairobi against Mozambique. On home soil, Oliech could prove devastating.
1 goal in two matches for Morocco in Group A means the Atlas Lions are in a tight spot, and their hopes have been dented further by the absence of star striker Marouane Chamakh. Coach Roger Lemerre knows this meagre goal tally must be increased when Togo visit Rabat this weekend.
What they said
"It will be a difficult game, but we are not scared of them," Zambia coach Herve Renard facing Algeria.
African Zone qualifying, final phase: Matchday 3 fixtures
Saturday 20 June
Burkina Faso-Côte d'Ivoire