The fight for first place looks most likely to be contested by the Algerian Fennecs and Senegal's Lions of Teranga, with both sides having previously made it all the way through to football's showpiece event. The favoured pair also boast superior squads, on paper at least, which include a host of European-based stars honed by the cut and thrust of the continent's top championships.
The experience garnered at previous FIFA World Cups™ (Algeria in 1982 and 1986 and Senegal in 2002) should give these two nations a significant advantage. But Gambia, whose golden generation led by forward Ousman Jallow dazzled all and sundry at the FIFA U-17 World Championship 2005 and its U-20 equivalent two years later, look well equipped to play the roll of party poopers. Earlier in 2007, moreover, the Scorpions sunk their pincers into Algeria during the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2008 qualifiers, inflicting a stinging 2-1 defeat on their North African cousins. The less impressive Liberians, however, have endured lean times since the days of the great George Weah.
Algeria and Senegal: It is this pair who appear to possess the reserves of firepower and experience needed to vie for top spot in the group. Their past participation in at least one FIFA World Cup final phase should prove invaluable, and their duel for supremacy could go right to the wire.
Gambia: In recent years, the West African nation have been enjoying particular success at youth level - the country's exploits at Peru 2005 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007 advancing their footballing cause no end. And with the blossoming of such talented youths dovetailing nicely with the senior side's imminent qualifying campaign, the immediate future looks bright for the Scorpions.
The players to watch: Nadir Belhadj, Karim Ziani (Algeria), El Hadji Diouf, Mamadou Niang, Pape Diakate (Senegal), Jatto Ceesay, Ousman Jallow(Gambia).
The crunch match
Senegal-Gambia: This will be no ordinary match, but a bona fide derby between two African nations that are geographically adjacent. And the Gambian upstarts will be out to turn the local pecking order on its head.
A look back
Senegal3-0 Algeria, 21 April 2001, Dakar. Senegal doled out a trouncing to their most dangerous rivals and put one foot at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ in the process. This resounding win for El Hadji Diouf and Co. confirmed the emergence of the Lions, who cemented their first-ever qualification for the global football feast before exceeding all expectations in Asia.
7: the number of meetings between Senegal and Liberia. And for the Lions of Teranga, it has been a lucky seven so far against the Lone Stars , who have recorded five defeats and two draws.
Did you know?
When it comes to qualifying campaigns for international tournaments, Algeria and Senegal are old foes. The two African football heavyweights have met no less than thirteen times, and while the Senegalese have prospered in recent years, the Algerians hold the overall bragging rights with seven wins and three draws.
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