Africa's race to Brazil

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Ethiopia's one to watch, Saladin Said, will need to deliver the goodsAPEthiopia's one to watch, Saladin Said, will need to deliver the goods

For the first time since the African Nations' Cup, which ended more than a month ago, teams from the continent will play in a major event. There have been a few friendlies but this is where the real test lies. Can those who exceeded expectations in South Africa translate that into something global? Can the rest catch up? Although this weekend is not an entirely decisive one, it marks the mid-point of the qualifying stage and could be important in judging who's ahead and who's behind in the race to Brazil.

Group A
Leader: Ethiopia

Despite a disappointing ANC in which they did not win any matches, Ethiopia are at the top of the first pool. They did, however, end the tournament with a reputation for playing entertaining football and their Belgian based player Saladin Said emerged as one to watch. They have a relatively simple assignment at home against bottom-placed Botswana to stay on top, although the Zebras are desperate to show glimpses of the form that saw them qualify for the 2012 ANC. They warmed up for the fixture with a 1-0 win over Malawi.

In Cape Town, South Africa are in a must-win situation against the Central African Republic. After reaching the ANC quarter-finals Gordon Igesund has kept his job, but captain Bongani Khumalo has not. He handed over the armband to Itumeleng Khune for this match. Igesund is hoping to avoid CAR's organised middle and encourage the players to look wider and be more attacking. CAR are one of the fastest moving countries on the FIFA rankings. They have risen from 200 in 2010 to 52 at present.

Group B
Leader: Tunisia

Pacesetters Tunisia will also want to forget the ANC, where the exited after Round 1, and perhaps the same feeling applies to their opposition. They come up against Sierra Leone for the third time in three months. Fresh in their memories will be how close the Leone Stars came to knocking them out of the 2013 ANC, where they squeaked through on away goals. They will not allow anything similar to happen this time. It will not be easy: Sierra Leone are a tough side who will be boosted by the inclusion of Norwich City's Kei Kamara to lead their strike force.

A team that will look to bank on their ANC form is Cape Verde. They lie at the bottom of the group but probably have their best chance to change that against Equatorial Guinea. The match in Malabo may be seen a battle of the minnows so it should provide some fireworks on both sides.

Group C
Leader: Ivory Coast

Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty ImagesHas been left out by Ivory Coast following his switch to Galatasaray

Confident Sabri Lamouchi decided to leave Didier Drogba out of the Ivory Coast squad, saying that the change of clubs has unsettled him and challenged him to make a return to in the future. He can afford to snub one of the game's best, because the Elephants are on top of the group and face Gambia, who bring up the rear of the pool. They drew with Morocco recently though, which may give them some heart going into this big match.

The Atlas Lions have that match to blame for their current position - third - and will have to beat Tanzania in Dar-es-Salaam to keep their hopes of reaching Brazil alive. Morocco have been preparing in Dubai while Tanzania beat Cameroon in the lead-up to the match. They only have two foreign-based players in their squad but will bank on team unity and good form at home to challenge a slightly insecure Moroccan outfit.

Group D
Leader: Zambia

As usual, Zambia have enjoyed a South African soiree before heading to Lesotho with an eye on consolidating their place at the top of this pool. Although their ANC did not go as planned, they left it promising to go one better and qualify for the World Cup instead. They have taken a full strength side to Lesotho to "prove we are better" than their ANC showing suggested, according to goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene.

Hot on their heels are Ghana, who host Sudan without midfielder Christian Atsu, who injured his ankle in the Portuguese league last weekend. They welcome back Sulley Muntari, who was recalled after an impressive showing at AC Milan, and have four debutants in their ranks. Sudan are still seething after being docked three points and three goals for fielding an ineligible player against Zambia and with both teams anxious to get their campaigns on track, this should be a tense affair.

Group E
Leader: Congo

Unexpectedly placed at the top of the group, Congo are hopeful of pulling off another surprise under a new coach. Gabon will just want to ensure they stick to the rules. They were also stripped points and goals after including Charly Moussono, from Cameroon, in the team that drew with Niger even though he had not properly qualified to represent them.

If Burkina Faso needed any more motivation to get off the bottom of the group, they need only remember their magical run in the ANC. Player of the tournament Jonathan Pitriopa certainly does and said the team want to show their performance earlier in the year was "not a fluke." They have to beat Niger to stay in the mix for the World Cup but Pitriipa is sure they will. "We are a better team now," he said.

Part two to follow…

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