With just three games remaining in the third round of African qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, several favourites are in danger of missing out on a ticket - even before the final round of qualifying commences. North African giants Tunisia and Egypt, as well as surprise package Congo could become the first countries to book their place in the final round of qualifying should results go their way this weekend. The ten group winners will advance to the third round, where they will be drawn into five ties, with the winners of the two-legged matches qualifying for Brazil.
Gabon – Congo 8 June, Stade de Franceville, Franceville, 15:30 (local time)
When the draw for the second round of African qualifiers was made, Congo were placed in pot four as one of the weakest teams in the draw. This weekend the Red Devils could become the first African country to book their place in the final round of qualifying, leaving them just two games away from a first-ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup. Ahead of a tricky away match in Gabon they lead Group E by six points and would qualify with a win if the match between Niger and Burkina Faso ended in a draw.
Coach Kamel Djabour will, however, have to take on the Panthers without a star player as Christopher Samba withdrew from the squad. Also missing are Ulrich Nzamba and Dyzaiss-Lys Mouithys, who have been replaced by Nkolo Lorry and Dimitri Magniokele Bissiki. For Gabon the match is a last throw of the dice as anything but a victory will see them eliminated.
It is a point the Gabon players are well aware of. "We know what awaits us, we will have to be strong mentally, and attack at 100 mph. We have to win if we hope to qualify," said goalkeeper Didier Ovono.
Egypt can give their long-suffering fans something to smile about as they are one of three teams capable of qualifying for the final round this matchday. The Pharaohs are away to Zimbabwe, whose coach Klaus-Dieter Pagels said that their close 2-1 defeat against Egypt in March gave them confidence. “If we can improve, especially in defence, then we will win this game. We had the chance to win there and here we can win as well."
Egypt's task in Group G has not been made easier by the injury-related withdrawals of Zamalek duo Mohamed Abdel-Shafy and Nour El-Sayed. A win for Egypt and a result for Mozambique in Guinea would guarantee the north Africans a place in the next round. The Pharaohs could be joined by Tunisia, who would go through if they win their Group B clash in Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea fail to beat Cape Verde Islands. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul will be without captain and goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi, who pulled out of the squad after picking up an injury last weekend.
In Group C, Côte d'Ivoire are neck-and-neck with Tanzania, and the Elephants, who have a point more than the Taifa Stars, are away to Gambia, while Tanzania travel to Morocco. Sabri Lamouchi has called up newcomers Serge Aurier and Norwegian-born Mathis Bolly, but left out Didier Drogba.
The former French international in his first management position said that he will not underestimate Gambia. “We would make a big mistake by thinking it is going to be a walk in the park. We need to be much focused because in Gambia, on a tricky pitch, it is going to be tough.”
A similarly close battle is developing in Group D, where Zambia lead Ghana by a point. The Chipolopolo are at home to Lesotho on the weekend, while the Black Stars travel to Sudan. Midfielder Rainford Kalaba will miss the game against Lesotho after aggravating a calf injury. Cameroon's new coach Volker Finke is away in Togo for his first competitive match in charge of the Indomitable Lions, who lead Group I by a point from Libya.
Cameroon star striker Samuel Eto'o will not be available for the game in Lome after injuring himself in the Russian cup final with his club Anzhi Makhachkala. Libya's game at home to Congo DR, will be their first competitive match at home in two years after CAF gave the go-ahead in March to resume international football in the country.
Did you know?
Of the 40 teams involved in the second round of qualifying, only three - Tunisia, Egypt and Congo - have a 100 per cent record after winning their three matches in the group stage so far. All three teams could advance to the final qualifying phase if results in the fourth round of matches go their way.
Player to watch
Algeria are involved in a neck-and-neck race with Mali in Group H and will be looking to Islam Slimani for the goals in Benin that will keep the Fennec Foxes ahead of their rivals, who take on Rwanda. The CR Belouizdad striker, who is being linked with a move to Italy, is one of five players top-scoring in qualifying with three goals.
What they said
"Before we left, I told the players to be mentally strong and expect such disruptions. But we should not take it too hard; we must just continue to be strong and know what task lies ahead,” South Africa coach Gordon Igesund after Bafana Bafana missed a training session after their flight to Yaounde was cancelled, forcing them to spend an extra night in Douala.
Sudan - Ghana
Libya - Congo DR
Botswana - Ethiopia
Central African Republic - South Africa
Sierra Leone - Tunisia
Cape Verde Islands - Equatorial Guinea
Gambia - Côte d'Ivoire
Morocco - Tanzania
Zambia - Lesotho
Gabon - Congo
Uganda - Liberia
Angola - Senegal
Niger - Burkina Faso
Zimbabwe - Egypt
Guinea - Mozambique
Benin - Algeria
Mali - Rwanda
Togo - Cameroon
Already played (5 June):
Kenya 0-1 Nigeria
Malawi 0-0 Namibia