Botswana lead charge of African new faces
Seeded only fourth behind Tunisia, Togo and Malawi in Group K, the Zebras from the diamond-rich southern country of two million people have won four matches and drawn another to enjoy a six-point mini-league advantage. As history beckons in the searing heat of N'Djamena, the international unknowns find themselves sharing the spotlight with three blockbuster clashes in the third round of qualifiers for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
South Africa host holders Egypt on Saturday in a Group G clash the visitors dare not lose and resurgent Senegal can go five points clear in Group E by defeating troubled Samuel Eto'o-led Cameroon. A day later out-of-tune Algeria find themselves in a win-or-bust situation when they play at home against neighbours Morocco in a Maghreb derby the faint hearted would do well to avoid.
There are 11 games on Saturday and 10 on Sunday as teams like Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire seek to consolidate perfect records while others like Kenya must take maximum points to have any hope of featuring at the 16-nation tournament.
Zebras earning their stripes
As the struggle for FIFA World Cup™ glory in South Africa intensified early last July, Botswana caused one of the greatest Cup of Nations qualifying shocks by winning in Tunisia. They achieved another 1-0 victory one week later, this time at home to Chad, and a draw in Malawi and home wins over Togo and Tunisia have catapulted coach Stanley Tshosane and his squad to national stardom.
Botswana have been serial strugglers in the biennial competition, never coming even close to qualifying, and anyone suggesting they would do so this time risked scorn. Striker Jerome Ramatlhakwane has scored four goals - all match winners - and is the second highest scorer in the competition behind Senegalese Mamadou Niang yet cannot command a starting place at South African club Vasco da Gama. He is among several footballers that barely anyone outside Botswana has heard of and even locals were slow to acknowledge them, believing the bubble would soon burst.
Chad enjoy home advantage, less pressure, and boast an impressive striker in Ezechiel N'douassel from Tunisian team Club Africain but losing to Tunisia and drawing with Togo at home does not inspire much confidence.
Despite winning the last three Cup of Nations finals, Egypt are battling to make the 2012 tournament having collected only one point from two outings after being held at home by Sierra Leone and losing in Niger. "We have always worn the colours of the nation with honour and shown great strength in our performances and that is what we will continue to do," said three-title coach Hassan Shehata.
A groin injury to Tottenham midfielder and new captain Steven Pienaar is concerning South Africa ahead of the first major test since they became the only FIFA World Cup hosts to be eliminated after the initial round last June.
Rancour for Indomitable Lions
Cameroon great Roger Milla has slammed coach Javier Clemente over his squad selection for the Dakar duel with table toppers Senegal, labelling the Spaniard an "enemy" of the Indomitable Lions. "Those who drew up the list do not like Cameroon. You cannot ignore some players and claim to have the best squad," he said referring to the omission of midfielders Alex Song of Arsenal and Achille Emana of Real Betis. The duo have not played for the national team since a disastrous 2010 FIFA World Cup with factions headed by Inter Milan 'goal machine' Eto'o and Enama reportedly contributing to three group losses on the trot.
Senegal coach Amara Traore must be the envy of almost every Cup of Nations coach as he can choose his strike force from Niang of Fenerbahce, Papiss Cisse of Fribourg, Demba Ba of West Ham and Moussa Sow of Lille.
Algeria retreated meekly from the World Cup despite holding England, a home draw with Tanzania led to coach Rabah Saadane quitting and successor Abdelhak Benchikha could not prevent a drubbing in the Central African Republic. The Desert Foxes prop up the table with a solitary point while Morocco impressed when grinding out a 1-0 win away to Tanzania before the arrival of new Belgian coach Eric Gerets from the Middle East.