Former CAF Africa Cup of Nations champions South Africa and Sudan could this weekend join three-time winners Nigeria on the outside looking in at the 2017 continental finals in Gabon, which doubles as a qualifier for the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017.
Nigeria were knocked out of the competition when Chad withdrew, leaving the Super Eagles too far behind Egypt in a three-team group, while South Africa have their backs to the wall ahead of their away trip to Gambia in Group M. Bafana Bafana are third with just three points from their four matches and the 1996 champions need a win in Bakau on Saturday to realistically keep any hope alive of catching Cameroon or Mauritania, who meet in a top-of-the-table clash on Friday.
The Indomitable Lions, who are a point ahead of the Mauritanians on eight, lost a friendly 3-2 against France on Monday. Germany-based Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting scored an 88th-minute equaliser before Dimitri Payet produced a stunning late free-kick goal, prompting new Cameroon coach Hugo Broos to say: "For me the score is 2-2 because we were only beaten by a magnificent free-kick. The players can be proud of their performance. I hope we keep this same spirit against Mauritania.”
Sudan meanwhile, are no longer the masters of their own destiny in Group I after losing the tie-breaker to Côte d’Ivoire, and the 1970 champions need to win in Sierra Leone and then hope the Elephants fail to beat the Leone Stars in September.
In Group A, Liberia, Tunisia and Togo are involved in a tight tussle for the one automatic qualifying spot. A resurgent Liberia, who top the group on nine points, are at home to Togo on the weekend. Former international James Debbah, who now coaches the side, is aware that they have a good chance of qualifying for the first time since 2002. “I have a mission to accomplish, and we are on the verge of making history that has not happened in this country for a vast number of years. It is a crucial match against Togo,” he said. The other game sees Tunisia travel to Djibouti.
Big four take aim A quartet of teams can make sure of a place at the finals without needing other results to go their way. Seven-time winners Egypt, who need just a point from their match in Tanzania to qualify, will be without emerging star Ramadan Sobhi, as the 18-year-old sensation is writing school exams. In Group H, Ghana's Black Stars can book their ticket for Gabon with a victory in Mauritius. Avram Grant has called on a whole array of European-based stars, including the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, as well as newly-crowned Premier League champion Jeffrey Schlupp. The west Africans have a four point lead from Mauritius and Rwanda, who are at home to Mozambique. Algeria have an even bigger lead in Group J. The Desert Foxes are five points clear ahead of their game in the Seychelles and would qualify for the finals even with a draw should Ethiopia fail to win in Lesotho.
Former Senegal international Aliou Cisse, who has been tasked to take Les Lions de la Teranga back to the top of African football, is just a point away from qualification. Senegal lead Group K with 12 points from Burundi, who have six. Niger and Namibia both have three points and have no chance of making it to Gabon. Cisse, who coached Senegal to a victory against Rwanda in a warm-up game last weekend, says he is happy with the way the team is developing. “The players are working together, They come to the team to defend their national colours, and I am content with what they are showing. But we must not overestimate the result against Rwanda. That was a friendly and the game in Bujumbura will be much tougher.”
Zimbabwe can close in on a third finals appearance with a victory at home against Malawi. The Warriors are three points ahead of Swaziland and Guinea, and three points in Harare will set them up nicely for a final round trip to the Guineans. The Warriors will go into their game buoyed with confidence after beating Uganda 2-0 in a friendly on Tuesday, with both goals coming off the head of towering Chicken Inn defender Teenage Hadebe.
Burkina Faso and Uganda are both on seven points in Group D and have a one point lead from Botswana. Burkina Faso are away to Comoros, while Uganda have to travel to Botswana. In Group E Guinea-Bissau, who face Zambia at home on the weekend, have a one point lead from the Chipolopolo and Congo, who face Kenya in Nairobi. Group leaders Congo DR are away in Madagascar and the Central African Republic at home to Angola in Group B. Mali defend their lead in Group C in South Sudan, while Benin are hosting Equatorial Guinea.
The only team that has already qualified other than the hosts is Morocco, who are away to Libya in Group F.