The final round of preliminaries for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations takes place this weekend, with 10 of 14 qualifying spots still up for grabs and almost two dozen sides still harbouring hopes of a trip to January’s finals.

Egypt, winners of the last three editions, and four-time continental kings Cameroon have already missed out, and this heavyweight pair could be joined on the sidelines by a host of other big names. In contrast, Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Burkina Faso have already guaranteed their participation in the finals along with co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
One more hurdle
The Pharaohs, who will maintain their record of 19 matches unbeaten in the finals at least until the next instalment in 2013, have failed to win any of their five qualifying matches, but they could nonetheless play a major part in the outcome of Group G. In his first match in charge, coach Bob Bradley will lead a mostly youthful side against Niger in Cairo with the previously unheralded visitors knowing that a win will be enough to give them the group crown. Led by the impressive Moussa Maazou, the Nigeriens set the surprise tone of the group with a 1-0 victory over Egypt last October. Hailed as the “biggest day in the history of football in Niger” at the time, a win this weekend could usurp that title and qualify the Mena for their first major tournament.

If Niger slip, South Africa and Sierra Leone are both a point behind, meaning the winner of their match in Nelspruit would be in the driving seat. And both could qualify with a win regardless of the result in Egypt as one of the best second-place teams. Bafana Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane has told his team that all they can do is make sure of claiming three points from the much-improved Leone Stars. “It’s a very tough situation because qualifying is no longer in our hands,” said Mosimane recently. “This is a win-at-all-costs encounter. We have to put our bodies on the line, and I believe the team will deliver. We believe, trust and know we can beat Sierra Leone at home, and we are committed to doing that.”

This is a win-at-all-costs encounter. We have to put our bodies on the line, and I believe the team will deliver.

South Africa coach Pitso Mosimane on the match against Sierra Leone

Another interloper, albeit with much stronger historical pedigree, is Guinea, who can pip Nigeria to the top spot in Group B even with a defeat if they score a goal in Abuja. With four wins and a draw from five matches, the Guineans have hardly faltered since beating the Super Eagles in Conakry almost exactly a year ago, and they should qualify even if they finish second in the group. The last time Nigeria failed to qualify for the event was in 1986, and the two-time champions have finished third in four of the last five Cup of Nations. The National Elephants have a fantastic record at home against the Super Eagles, but they have never won in Nigeria in six attempts.

It’s a similar two-horse race in Group I, where Sudan and Ghana both have 13 points. The Black Stars just need a draw in Khartoum, while the hosts will shock the continent and claim top spot with a win. The two drew last time they met and have each won every other match in the section, meaning the second-placed team will again have a good chance of reaching the finals. Ghana made it to the final match two years ago in Angola, but they have not won the event in almost three decades. Sudan have had little impact on the tournament since its early days when they were one of the pioneers of African football.

Zambia and Libya will also be going head-to-head to win Group C, where the former have a one-point advantage and will host the ultimate qualifier. Libya, who have not lost a single match despite the recent upheaval in the country, know that every point is vital in the race for one of the best second-place spots.

Mali will win Group A with an away victory in Liberia, but they can be caught by a winner between Zimbabwe, who will be without key striker Edward Sadomba, and surprise packages Cape Verde Islands. Group D is even more wide open, with Morocco in pole position ahead of their home match against Tanzania. The Atlas Lions have eight points and are level with Central African Republic, who will be trying to keep alive their unlikely run at Algeria. It is the only group where all four teams retain a genuine hope of reaching the finals.

In Group J, Uganda know that a home win over Kenya will be enough to send them to their first continental finals since 1978. Just a point behind, Angola are determined to make the Cranes pay for any slip with a win at Guinea Bissau, which would also be key to claiming one of the second-place berths. Botswana have already finished top of Group K in impressive fashion, but with an automatic berth in the finals for the second-place team from this group alone, Malawi know a win in Chad will keep continental giants Tunisia from their first finals in the last ten. Level on points, the Tunisians need to make up ground hosting Togo as the Flames hold the all-important advantage in the head-to-head tie-breaker.