Ghana's Black Stars will go head-to-head with two of Africa's emerging powers after being drawn with Benin and Mali in their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying group. They will also need to deal with unpredictable Sudan in what is a tough draw for the Germany 2006 appearants. In Germany, Ghana were the only African side to make it past the first round, but this time they will know they need some special performances if they are to book their place at the finals in South Africa. Up against them is a Mali side with enormous potential, plus a Benin team that has made rapid strides of late. Sudan, too, have re-emerged as a force, qualifying for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations at the start of the year after several decades' absence. Now they also find themselves among Africa's last 20 candidates for the 2010 finals
Ghana: There is an expectation that Ghana will again go to the finals, but there are several departments the team needs to work on in order to fulfil those lofty ambitions. The Black Stars still struggle without a proven scorer and are heavily dependent on the form and fitness of key players like Michael Essien and captain John Mensah. This pair, along with Stade Rennes striker Asamoah Gyan, have battled with injury over the last months, severely weakening Ghana's potential. There are also concerns about the goalkeeping position, and about whether inspirational captain Stephen Appiah will ever be able to fully bounce back after a year-long knee injury.
Mali: The Malians could be the surprise package of the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Africa, drawing inspiration from a trio of superstars at their disposal. The Spanish-based Mahamadou Diarra, Seydou Keita and Frederic Kanoute are an inspiration to a team now led by former Nigeria captain Stephen Keshi, who led his country to their first-ever finals appearance in the USA in 1994.
Benin: A generation of young players who competed at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005 is now the backbone of a successful national side. The goals of Razak Omotoyossi and the midfield genius of Stephane Sessegnon lie at the heart of the small country's hopes and ambitions. Benin can also look across the border at their Togolese neighbours for inspiration; tiny Togo confounded all the experts by reaching the 2006 FIFA finals in Germany.
Sudan: It has been a heady last 12 months for Sudan, whose top club Al Hilal reached the semi-finals of the CAF Champions League this time last year, after which the national side made it to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals and now to the final phase of the qualifiers for South Africa 2010. The strides have been nothing short of massive.
The players to watch
John Mensah (GHA), Michael Essien (GHA), Sulley Muntari (GHA), Stephen Appiah (GHA), Mahamadou Diarra (MLI), Frederic Kanoute (MLI), Seydou Keita (MLI), Stephane Sessegnon (BEN), Razak Omotoyossi (BEN), Haitham Mostafa (SUD)
The crunch match
Ghana - Mali: A bevy of stars from the top leagues in Europe will face off in what should be a riveting encounter. The last competitive encounters between the two countries came in 1975, when Mali won out in Bamako but lost on the road in Accra. If the Malians are going to usurp Ghana in the group standings, they will need to take at least a point away off the Black Stars.
A look back
Sudan - Ghana, 1-0, 16 February 1970: An early goal from Osman Ezzeldin was enough to win Sudan the CAF Africa Cup of Nations title in front of their home fans in Khartoum, the last time the Arabic-speaking country were the kings of the continent. It has been a slow rise back to prominence for them since but the Sudanese are desperate to come close to again replicating their finest hour.
Did you know?
Benin have never before reached the business end of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers and will be in uncharted territory.
4 - the number of CAF Africa Cup of Nations tournaments that Ghana won before they ever qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals. The Black Stars were perennial continental champions but spent decades battling before they finally made it to the big show.