For the 20 remaining teams in the CAF qualifying campaign, the journey to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ begins in earnest this week as they play their first games in the group stage. With only the five group winners earning the right to represent the continent, the stakes are high from the off as every team knows that a loss in the first game sees them having to make up ground.
Battle for Group B
A quick start certainly would seem necessary in the brutal Group B, where three veterans of the 2010 and 2014 finals have been grouped together.
The unfortunate fourth team to join Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon is 2012 African champions Zambia. The Chipolopolo, who missed out on a place at the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals, are at home to Nigeria in their opener.
Nigerian captain Mikel John Obi, who has not played any league games for Chelsea this season, said he is looking forward to getting the group phase started. “All the other players and myself are fit and ready and we are determined to start the World Cup race on a winning note,” he said.
Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr has called up a star-studded side consisting mainly of European-based players, spearheaded by in-form Manchester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho and youngster Isaac Success, who is in line for his first senior cap, having scored his first Premier League goal for Watford on the weekend.
In contrast, Rohr's Zambian counterpart Wedson Nyirenda will depend mainly on local-based stars from the Zambia Super League as the southern African country chases a first-ever appearance at the World Cup. The other group game sees Algeria, who have just lost their top ranking position in Africa to Côte d'Ivoire, at home to Cameroon.
Senegal look to continue march
For 2010 hosts South Africa, the World Cup qualifiers offer an ideal opportunity to put a disastrous AFCON qualifying campaign behind them. Bafana Bafana are away to Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou for their first match and anything but a victory will put beleaguered coach Shakes Mashaba under even more pressure.
Even though Bafana's record in the AFCON qualifiers was their worst-ever, Mashaba remained upbeat about his sides' chances of qualifying for Russia. "Our build-up to the opponent’s final third is among the best in the world but we can’t score. But by the way the boys are playing, I don’t doubt we’ll qualify for the World Cup.”
Their biggest opposition in Group D are bound to be in-form Senegal, who begin the stage at home to Cape Verde Islands. Former international Aliou Cisse led the team to the only perfect record in AFCON qualifying and is pushing an attacking style of play that the side is well suited to. Liverpool forward Sadio Mane leads the team upfront and Cisse has also recalled veteran Moussa Sow, who returned to Fenerbahce on loan from the Middle East. The striker last played for his national team in March 2015.
Veteran coaches go head-to-head
In Group E, Egypt are chasing an elusive place at the finals, where they last appeared in 1990. Having knocked out Nigeria in the AFCON qualifiers, optimism is high that Hector Cuper can lead the team to Russia. The former Parma, Inter Milan and Valencia coach takes his side to Congo for their opening match.
The Pharaoh's main rivals for a place in Russia are likely to be Ghana's Black Stars, who are looking for a fourth consecutive appearance at the showpiece event of world football. Avram Grant's team begin their campaign at home to Uganda and anything but a victory for the west Africans would be a huge surprise, given the quality of their European-based players like Baba Rahman, Afriyie Acquah and Christian Atsu. Grant will, however, be without Andre Ayew, who could be out for several months after picking up a thigh injury in West Ham's season opener against Chelsea.
North African rivals Tunisia and Libya are both in Group A, although the mouthwatering clash between the two will be the second game they play. Libya travel to Congo DR for their opening match, while Tunisia, whose last appearance on the world stage dates back to 2006, begin at home to Guinea.
Guinea coach Lape Bangoura is hoping for a good start in Monastir. "The draw for the third qualifying round has not been very favourable to us. Congo DR and Tunisia are the two group favourites. But that does not mean we have no ambition, far from it. Our first game in Tunisia is very important. A draw would be a good result.”
The final group sees Gabon, Morocco, Mali and Côte d'Ivoire compete for a place at the finals. AFCON 2017 hosts Gabon are at home to Morocco in their opening match, while French coaches Alain Giresse and Michel Dussuyer lead Mali and Côte d'Ivoire respectively.