Egypt hanging on in AFCON qualifiers
Africa's most successful football nation, Egypt, will be involved in an almighty battle for a place in the continental championship this weekend. The seven-time African Nations Cup (AFCON) champions have not won a match in the qualifying campaign so far and face the possibility of not featuring in the tournament for the first time since 1978.
Victory over South Africa will not be enough to keep them in contention; they will also rely on Sierra Leone, who lie third in the group, to beat Niger. It's the most crucial match the Pharaohs have played in months, since their failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and one thing they have on their side is home advantage. Perhaps it's not as much as they would like, with the match being moved from the 80, 000-seater National stadium to the smaller Military Academy Stadium which has a capacity of 22,000.
Whatever the number of fans in attendance, Egypt know they have to impress, despite being without some of their star players. Mohamed Aboutrika has been ruled out with a calf injury and Amr Zaki was not included in the squad despite making a comeback for Zamalek in May. Mohamed Zidan will lead the strike force and hopes to give Egyptians something to be cheerful about. "We need to get out of that dark tunnel we're in at the moment in order to repeat the achievement of being champions of Africa," he said.
South Africa, who are steadily continuing to rise up the ranks under Pitso Mosimane, will just about be through to the 2012 tournament if they win the match, but news of a fresh injury to captain Steven Pienaar may dent their preparations. The Tottenham midfielder had to leave training on Thursday, because of a knee injury sustained during a tackle. Pienaar was due to lead the team for a second time in a competitive match, but may end up passing the captain's armband to Siphiwe Tshabalala.
Tshabalala and the rest of the Bafana squad have been training in Rustenburg for the past two weeks and the winger said he expects the dividends to be high. "I am very optimistic that whatever we have been doing in training is going to pay off in the game," he said.
The clash in Cairo is the headline fixture of this round of AFCON qualifiers, but there are some other important matches that could prove decisive.
Cameroon are in a precarious position in Group E and may miss out of the continental showpiece should they lose to Senegal in Yaounde. The Indomitable Lions were due to have Alex Song back in their squad but the midfielder sustained an injury while playing for Arsenal against Aston Villa and has been ruled out of action.
Senegal beat Cameroon 1-0 in Dakar in March thanks to an injury-time goal and midfielder Andrew Ndame Ndame believes his team will put on a better show this time. "It was Cameroon that dominated possession from the start up until the 90th minute but Senegal scored in extra time," Ndame Ndame said. "So, I think Cameroon can handle Senegal."
In Group D, the North African clash between Morocco and Algeria could prove the difference between the group's four sides, who are all locked on four points. Morocco have only beaten Tanzania, while Algeria's only victory came against the Atlas Lions in Annaba. Belgian coach Eric Gerets is as much under pressure to deliver as his Algerian counterpart Abdelhak Ben Chikha; both are only handling their second game in charge of their respective sides and both have, so far, shown signs of improvement which can only mean an intense contest is expected in Marrakech.
Ghana are level with Sudan at the top of Group I on seven points and take on Congo in Kumasi. The match marks the return of Michael Essien, who last played for the Black Stars in January 2010. "When I took this job I made his (Essien's) return a priority," Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic said. "He is a great player and a great man and we are happy to have him back." It will also be the first time that AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng will play in front of his home crowd after making his debut in July last year, before the World Cup. In the group's other match, Sudan play Swaziland.
Nigeria have the opportunity to move to the top of their group when they play Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. The Super Eagles are coming off a 4-1 win against Argentina on Wednesday, albeit a weakened Albiceleste side. Nigeria have dropped West Brom striker Peter Odemwingie but Real Zaragoza's Ikechukwe Uche, who scored two goals against Argentina, should ease their striking concerns.
It's also an important match for Ethiopia. Former Namibia coach Tom Saintfeit takes charge of the Walya Antelopes for the first time for their crunch match against Nigeria. Saintfeit, who was also linked to the Zimbabwe job, has signed a three month contract with Ethiopia. Should the visitors lose to Nigeria and Guinea beat Madagascar, which is a top versus bottom clash, Ethiopia will be out of contention for AFCON 2012.
Group H sees Ivory Coast host Benin, who they have a five point lead over. There are defensive worries in the Ivorian camp as Arthur Boka and Siaka Tiene have been ruled out through injury. The other match in the group is between neighbours Rwanda and Burundi and is only the second time the two countries have played each other in senior international football.
The remaining groups feature must-win matches for smaller teams. Zimbabwe, who had an injury scare to striker Knowledge Musona, must beat a Mali side - without Barcelona's Seydou Keita - to avoid elimination. In Group C, Comores, who have yet to win a game, will look to earn their first points against Libya. Three-team Group F has Namibia at the bottom. They play Burkina Faso in Windhoek. Group K sees Chad take on Tunisia in the only group where a team has already qualified for the 2012 event. That team is Botswana.
African Nations Cup qualifying fixtures (round 4 of 6):
Group A: Liberia v Cape Verde, Zimbabwe v Mali
Group B: Ethiopia v Nigeria, Guinea v Madagascar
Group C: Zambia v Mozambique, Comoros v Libya
Group D: Morocco v Algeria, Central African Republic v Tanzania
Group E: Mauritius v Congo, Cameroon v Senegal
Group F: Namibia v Burkina Faso
Group G: Egypt v South Africa, Sierra Leone v Niger
Group H: Benin v Ivory Coast, Burundi v Rwanda
Group I: Ghana v Congo, Swaziland v Sudan
Group J: Uganda v Guinea-Bissau, Angola v Kenya
Group K: Tunisia v Chad, Botswana v Malawi