Football fans everywhere scribbled furiously into their diaries for 14 November after the draw was made for the third and final round of 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers in the African Zone. More than simply promising the last day of matches, the fixture list brought with it the prospect of a mouth-watering finale in Group C.
Here we now are, with the countdown commencing to what is sure to be a scintillating encounter between Egypt and Algeria in Cairo on Saturday.
"It's got the makings of a great game, the kind of match that every footballer dreams of taking part in one day," said Algeria captain Yazid Mansouri. "We need to treat this game as an opportunity." A relaxed approach, perhaps, but his side hold all the cards at the top of the standings thanks to a three-point lead over their hosts. In fact, only a defeat by three goals or more would deny Les Fennecs (Desert Foxes) a ticket to South Africa next summer.
"We've got a real advantage," the Lorient midfielder told FIFA.com. "We've been strong all through qualifying and need to prove it one last time. It's up to them to make the running, not us. That said, we won't go to Cairo to defend. We'll do everything we can to take our chances. I know we can score over there."
We won't go to Cairo to defend. We'll do everything we can to take our chances. I know we can score over there.
Naturally, the Pharaohs have other ideas. To merely keep their hopes of progress alive, they needed to prevail in Rwanda and Zambia in their two previous outings, and 1-0 victories in both those games highlighted the enormous potential possessed by this current generation of players, who claimed the last two CAF African Cup of Nations titles.
Leading from the front, Egypt captain Ahmed Hassan spoke for all his team-mates when he insisted they can still go through. "Those away wins will only mean something if we complete the job at home on Saturday," he said. "I know Algeria are in a better position, but I also feel that our team is superior."
Now they need to show it, and the Al Ahly player revealed his deep admiration for the opposition. "They're an excellent team that's really progressed in the last two years," he told FIFA.com. We'll need to show plenty of humility and forget our title as African champions. We'll be going into the match with the knowledge that we have to wipe out a two-goal deficit against our strongest opponents in the group."
Given the often heated rivalry between the two teams over the years, those fair-minded sentiments make welcome hearing. The Cairo International Stadium will nonetheless be bursting at the seams at the weekend, filled with Egypt fans desperate to urge their heroes on to victory.
Our generation has dominated African football for the last few years,
but only qualifying for the World Cup would put the proper seal on that.
"The support of our fans will be crucial," added Hassan. "I call on all our supporters to come and back us for the full 90 minutes, whatever the score happens to be. I expect numerous twists and turns and I can't wait to find myself at the heart of the stadium when it'll be absolutely full. I just hope we get to finish the night amid wonderful scenes of joy."
Whoever comes out on top, the outcome is certain to be historic, with Egypt having only qualified twice before, the last time in 1990, and Algeria having waited since 1986 to make their third appearance at the global showcase.
"It's a unique moment, without doubt the most important of our careers," explained the Pharaohs captain. "Our generation has dominated African football for the last few years, but only qualifying for the World Cup would put the proper seal on that. We believe in God and in our own quality and we know we deserve this qualification."
Mansouri shares much the same attitude. "We've slowly been realising that we can leave our mark on the history of our country," he said. "This time, it's going to be the match of our lives. We already have a great week together ahead of us. We'll be talking a lot. For my part, I'll tell all my team-mates how proud I am to be their captain. And that, today, all that remains is for us to go and get the result we need."