With four of the six matchdays that make up the second qualifying round for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ taking place at the end of this season, it always looked likely that the temperature would be ratcheted up right across the African continent. And so it proved, as the total of 95 matches served up an intoxicating cocktail of shocks, disappointments, revelations and delight.
FIFA.com reviews all the key action from the first four matchdays in Groups 1 to 6.
*Biggest surprise * Africa's strongest nations came up against some determined resistance from the so-called lesser lights wherever they travelled on the continent.
After a shorter period of preparation than had been planned, Guinea, quarter-finalists at the last CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana, made a poor start to their campaign with a scoreless home draw against Zimbabwe. Even worse was follow as they then slumped to a 2-0 defeat in Kenya. Fortunately for them, the side led by the Frenchman Robert Nouzaret recovered in time to take six points from their remaining two games to take top spot in Group 2.
The sudden turnaround in their fortunes will no doubt have brought a few envious glances from South Africa. Having managed just one win (4-1 at home to Equatorial Guinea), Bafana Bafana are finding Group 4 tough going. With a paltry four points under their belts thus far, they may need to win both their remaining games (against Nigeria and away to Equatorial Guinea) to revive their CAN 2010 dream.
The month of June also saw several unfancied sides emerge as candidates to go through to the next phase of qualifying. In Group 3, for example, Uganda have already accumulated seven points, thanks mainly to their dominance over Angola (3-1 and 0-0). And in Group 6, Gambia's position just three points behind the Senegalese frontrunners is a testament to how competitive this section is proving to be.
But while most of the big names have laid firm foundations for their progression to the third and final round, some of them endured an uncomfortable third matchday on 14 June. In Group 5, Ghana were defeated 2-0 in Gabon, while in Group 1, Cameroon could only draw 0-0 in Tanzania.
*The key match * Angola 3-0 Benin
Goals: Flavio 62, Ricardo Job 81 and Mendonca 86
The fact that Benin are currently riding high in Group 3 is down to their almost flawless record thus far. The Squirrels' sole off-day came on Sunday 1 June, the opening day of this second qualifying round, when they slipped to a 3-0 defeat in Angola. "We've still got a long way to go before we can match sides like Angola," midfielder Stephane Sessegnon told FIFA.com in late May, before seeing his assessment borne out on the field of play. After the hour mark, the Angolans' greater experience proved decisive, although the excellent results garnered subsequently by Benin showed that the score was scarcely a fair reflection of their current strength. Despite two changes of coach in a few months - the German Reinhard Fabisch was replaced by the Belgian Patrick Aussems, who was himself then replaced by the Frenchman Michel Dussuyer - this team has demonstrated its great potential and Cotonou is already looking forward to an electric atmosphere on September 7 when Angola are in town for the return match.
*The star players * After these first four matchdays, it would be churlish not to pay tribute to the extraordinary solidity of the Nigerian defence. The first side to qualify for the third round, the Super Eagles can be rightly proud of having the meanest rearguard on the African continent.
The only team to keep four clean sheets to date, Nigeria can look forward to the future with confidence, especially as the defensive players used so far by Shaibu Amodu (Vincent Enyeama in goal, Joseph Yobo, Taye Taiwo, Obinna Nwaneri, Mohammed Yusuf and Yussuf Ayila) have an average age of just over 24.
At the other end of the pitch, the Cameroonian Samuel Eto'o, Guinea's Ismael Bangoura (four goals), the Cape Verdean Dady, Benin's Razak Omotoyossi, the Ghanaian Junior Agogo and the Kenyan Dennis Oliech (three) have all cemented their reputations as accomplished finishers.
- The atmosphere at the Abuja national stadium, where 50,000 delirious Super Eagles supporters roared their team on to a winning start against South Africa.
The words of South Africa coach Joel Santana after his side's victory over Equatorial Guinea: "This result is good for the players, the team, the country, the media and for Santana (laughs). Now the journalists might get off my back for a few days."
Liberia's impressive comeback against Senegal on matchday 3 (2-2), when they were trailing 2-0 with only a quarter of an hour left.
Ismael Bangoura's hat-trick against Namibia at the Stade du 28 septembre in Conakry.