Round 1The big match
Guinea-Bissau-Togo: Togo’s presence in the opening round of qualifiers is a measure of how much the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ finalists have struggled since, and being picked against the top-ranked side from the bottom pot has done them no favours. These two west African teams met in qualifying for the 2002 finals, with the Togolese running out 3-0 aggregate winners over two legs, albeit Guinea-Bissau, a tough nut at home, earned a scoreless draw in Bissau in that instance.
Round 2The standout section
South Africa are the giants in the bottom part of the continent, but ambitious Botswana are sure to be no pushovers in Group A, which also includes up-and-coming Central African Republic and either Somalia or Ethiopia. Having become the first nation to play their way to qualification for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations from a tough group, Botswana have defeated Tunisia (twice), Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Togo and others since the start of 2010, while losing just one match – a friendly with Sweden. Bafana Bafana have more experience and have had the better of Botswana historically, so they will still be favourites for what are sure to be two emotionally-charged matches against their neighbours. Central African Republic have held their own in a rugged 2012 AFCON qualifying group with Morocco, Algeria and Tanzania, and they might be expected to throw a surprise or two.
Although they sometimes struggle when labelled favourites, four-time FIFA World Cup finalists Nigeria will be feeling good about their presence in Group F alongside Malawi and two sides that must come through the opening round. Likewise, Africa’s most frequent visitor to the finals, Cameroon, must be smiling at facing two teams from the lower pots as well as Libya in Group I. However, if the form book holds, those teams might be Togo and Congo DR – two of the most dangerous sides from the opening round. Algeria will be hoping to redeem what was a mediocre performance at South Africa 2010 by sweeping through what could be a straightforward Group H against sagging Mali and Benin as well as Eritrea or Rwanda.
For a tiny nation, Cape Verde Islands have been punching above their weight for the last few years, and they have a good chance of reaching the 2012 continental championship. They will be anxious to surprise once again versus Tunisia and Sierra Leone in Group B. Senegal are the favourites in Group J, but the inconsistent 2002 World Cup veterans will be tested by 2006 finalists Angola and in-form Uganda, both of whom are excellent at home. Similarly, Guinea have been riding a wave after beating Nigeria last October, and they are aiming for another big scalp in the form of continental giants, but World Cup qualifying strugglers, Egypt in Group G.
The crunch matches
Ghana-Zambia: Continental stand-outs at South Africa 2010, Ghana will face an all-out battle in Group D against Zambia, who are one of the continent’s most impressive ‘nearly sides’. With an improved Sudan in the mix looking for points, any slips could be expensive for the Black Stars.
Côte d’Ivoire-Morocco: Although Morocco have fallen from their heyday of the 1980s and 90s, they could stretch the Ivorians to the limit in Group C. That said, 2014 could offer a final hurrah for the golden generation of Elephants, who are looking for their third consecutive FIFA World Cup appearance, and they will be determined to stomp the Atlas Lions into submission.*
Burkina Faso-Gabon: *Burkina Faso were in the seeded pot, but they may not be considered favourites against Gabon, who had a solid 2010 qualifying campaign in which they beat Ghana and kept Cameroon in their sites. The pair have drawn their last three matches, and with dark horses Niger and possibly Congo also in Group E, this is certainly one of the most intriguing sections.
The stat98 – The number of preliminary matches that Morocco have played in World Cup qualifiers, the most in Africa. The North Africans will join a select group to cross the century mark on the road to Brazil 2014 and possibly win their 50th match. The next highest tally is the 88 matches played by Nigeria and Tunisia.
The next step
The aggregate winners of the 12 home-and-away first-round ties advance to fill the open spots in the ten second-round groups, which will have four teams each. The top finishers in the round-robin sections advance to round three, where they will be drawn into five two-leg pairings, and the winners of those ties will represent CAF at Brazil 2014.
Have your sayWhich big name has the toughest road to the finals, and which of the outsiders might prove the surprise package that goes all the way?