A total of 54 countries were in the picture when the road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ opened in Africa in October 2015. By the time the second round of CAF qualifying got underway a month later, that number had been cut to 40, of whom half made it through to the third and final round, which kicked off in 2016. Now the question on everyone's lips is whether the upshot will be the same coterie of the continent's finest gracing the global extravaganza for the third consecutive edition, or whether any of the other nations will manage to advance.
South Africa are the only African team besides Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon to have featured at either of the last two World Cups, and even then it was only because they automatically qualified as hosts in 2010. However, of this prestigious quintet, the Algerians and Ghanaians already look to have their work cut out to repeat the feat of qualifying for a third time on the bounce. Both have taken just a solitary point from their respective first two group-stage games and, with only the group winners earning a spot at Russia 2018, their hopes are very much hanging by a thread.
Avram Grant's Black Stars end a disappointing 2016 languishing second-bottom of Group E, ahead only of Congo, who remain pointless. Missing the injured Andre Ayew, Ghana began their group campaign by being held to a 0-0 stalemate by Uganda, prior to falling to defeat at the hands of Egypt. The latter result made it two wins out of two for the Pharaohs, who therefore appear well placed to secure qualification for the first time since 1990. They top the standings ahead of the surprise package, a Uganda side who have amassed four points and boast, in four-goal Farouk Miya, one of the joint-leading scorers in the African preliminary competition.
Algeria find themselves in an arguably even more difficult situation than the Ghanaians. Les Fennecs are currently propping up Group B and know that they have to turn the tide sooner rather than later if they are to stand any chance of emulating their exploits at Brazil 2014, where they impressed en route to the Round of 16 before being beaten by eventual champions Germany. Yet clawing themselves back into the running will be a tall order given the pedigree of their opponents. Nigeria lead the group with a perfect record so far, while fellow giants Cameroon are four points adrift in second. Meanwhile, one place ahead of the Algerians, albeit level on points with them, are none other than 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations winners Zambia.
Over in Group A, it risks becoming a two-horse race. Congo DR and Tunisia have hit the ground running by both overcoming Guinea and Libya, who have each yet to put a point on the board. The free-scoring Leopards – having found the net six times in two matches, they are the most prolific side in the third round of qualifying – are sitting pretty at the top by virtue of their superior goal difference. The second-placed Tunisians, for their part, are yet to concede: Gabon, Morocco and Uganda are the only other countries that can make such a claim.
Group C is more evenly poised after two matchdays, with reigning African champions Côte d'Ivoire setting the pace with four points. Coping well in the absence of former midfield talisman Yaya Toure, who has retired from international football, and influential attacker Gervinho, who has been sidelined with injury, Les Elephants have defeated Mali and drawn with Morocco. The Moroccans and Gabon are both within striking distance of Michel Dussuyer's men: the pair have identical records and are tied on two points apiece. Behind them, Alain Giresse's Mali picked up their first point through their draw against the Panthers and will be confident that they can still challenge, especially with starlet Adama Traore – the recipient of the adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 – on song again.
Group D is more open still. While Cape Verde Islands are way off the pace having yet to get off the mark, a single point separates the top three. Burkina Faso top the pile on four points thanks to having let in one goal fewer than South Africa. Senegal are just a point further back and, with Balde Diao Keita continuing to enhance his burgeoning reputation, they remain clear contenders.
Blockbuster bouts on the horizon
African qualifying will resume on 28 August 2017, with the third set of group-stage games. Highlights include the top-of-the-table clash between Tunisia and Congo DR in Group A and Cameroon's trip to Nigeria in Group B. That same day, Uganda entertain Egypt, whom they will be looking to leapfrog at the summit of Group E.
Over in Group C, leaders Côte d'Ivoire will be bidding to cement their position by putting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's Gabon to the sword. As for Group D, pacesetters Burkina Faso travel to Senegal intent on opening up some daylight between themselves and the Lions of Teranga.
The reverse fixtures will take place a few days later, meaning that we should have a much better idea of how the battle is shaping up by the end of the summer. However, we will have to wait until autumn for the final reckoning. The sixth and last matchday is due to be staged on 6 November and will be headlined by mouth-watering affairs like the North African derby between Tunisia and Libya, Algeria-Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire-Morocco.
Another potential curtain-closing thriller is the grudge match between Ghana and Egypt, who will be meeting almost exactly four years after the Black Stars crushed the Pharaohs 7-3 on aggregate in a two-legged play-off for a place at Brazil 2014. That was just one part of a pulsating African finale that time round and the current campaign looks on course to serve up an equally enthralling conclusion.