Cameroon roar into contention
Cameroon's dreams of reaching Africa's first World Cup finals are back on track after beating Gabon 2-1 in a delayed fixture in Yaounde on Wednesday night.
The victory caps a marvellous week for the Indomitable Lions who have gone from bottom of Group A to top in the space of five days. Goals from Jean Makoun and Samuel Eto'o sealed the win, with the latter having also scored in a 2-0 victory away to the same opponents at the weekend.
"Cameroon proved tonight that we know how to play football and that we can do lots of good things when we are focused in the same direction," Eto'o, Cameroon's new captain, said after Wednesday's match. "With the help of my team-mates, all the Cameroonian people and the type of support we enjoyed tonight, I believe we can beat any team in the world."
The turnaround is a personal triumph for coach Paul Le Guen, who has inspired Cameroon's first Group A goals and victories since taking charge of a troubled team in July.
It also means that at least two of Africa's historically-strongest sides should be at the continent's first finals: for while Cameroon have won four Nations Cups, one Olympics and reached a record five World Cups, Ghana's prestigious past has been brightened by recent history.
The Black Stars were the early giants of African football, winning an unrivalled four titles in the first 25 years of the Nations Cup, yet their maiden World Cup appearance only arrived at the last finals in Germany.
Nonetheless, they secured their passage to a second finals with the minimum of fuss, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien netting in Sunday's 2-0 win over Sudan - a result which set off wild scenes amongst the 42,000 packed into Accra's Ohene Djan Stadium.
"We have a good group of talented players," said Serb coach Milovan Rajevac. "And it's a priceless honour for them to represent their country and qualify for a big competition like the World Cup. They are aware of what they can achieve and have the quality to go on and on."
With two rounds of matches left to play, the Group B winners are the only team from Africa's five qualifying groups to have booked their World Cup ticket so far but they will surely be joined by the leaders of Group E next month.
For Ivory Coast to fail to make South Africa 2010, they must do something they have yet to do in the group - lose, and not just once but twice (while also seeing a goal difference of plus 15 overturned in the process). The Elephants thumped Burkina Faso 5-0 in Abidjan on Saturday, with Didier Drogba grabbing a brace, to take their tally to 12 points from four games. Six points clear, the Ivorians need just a point from games away to Malawi and home to Guinea to qualify.
That just leaves Nigeria and Egypt as continental prize-fighters struggling to have the right to show their mettle on African soil.
And the Nigerian Super Eagles look set to repeat their calamitous failure of 2006, with the fans' fires already burning as South Africa currently lies out of sight for one of Africa's most passionately-supported sides.
With just a minute to play at home to Group B leaders Tunisia on Sunday, it was job done for embattled Nigeria coach Shaibu Amodu as his charges led a must-win match 2-1. But as a stadium fizzed with anticipation, the defence went to sleep, allowing Oussama Darragi to curl home from a difficult angle - and soon bottles and other debris were raining angrily down from the stands.
"In Nigeria we like to play to the gallery, but we have to be professional," said Nigeria defender Joseph Yobo, as he lamented the goals his side conceded. "The coaches did all they could. As players we had to be professional, but we did not do that and we have to take responsibility."
The draw meant Tunisia stayed two points clear of the Nigerians atop Group B, with the Carthage Eagles needing only victories at home to Kenya and away to Mozambique to progress. Nigeria must thus pray for a miracle, hoping the North Africans slip up as they look to establish an African record of five straight World Cup appearances.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian capital Cairo could well host an unforgettable night in November when the Pharaohs host Group C leaders Algeria in the last round of qualifiers. For despite Egypt's 1-0 win in Rwanda on Saturday, the reigning African champions still trail the Algerians by three points.
The Pharaohs must win in Zambia next month to keep up the pressure on Algeria, who need only beat Rwanda to maintain their lead (which comes with a healthy goal difference). Should both North African sides win next month, their bitter rivalry will resume in Cairo with the highest of stakes as neither side have reached the World Cup since 1990.
Elsewhere, the race is on for the Nations Cup.
With just four points separating leaders Cameroon from bottom side Morocco, and Togo and Gabon sandwiched in between, there is everything to play for in Group A where the Nations Cup slots are unlikely to be decided until November's final round of qualifying.
Meanwhile, as Nigeria and Tunisia slug it out for the World Cup in Group B, Mozambique can reach a first Nations Cup since 1998 if they can maintain their one-point lead over Kenya. Group C looks a more settled affair with Algeria already through to Angola 2010, Egypt and Zambia undoubtedly set to join them with struggling Rwanda (one point from a possible 12) missing out.
Another side propping up their group, Sudan, trail the rest of Group D by three points, and they must surely forget Angola 2010, with Ghana, Benin and Mali all looking comfortable.
Finally to Group E, where the Elephants of Ivory Coast are thoroughly rampant. Boasting a maximum 12 points from their four games, they are six clear of the second-placed Burkina Faso. At the bottom, Malawi's Flames chase a maiden Nations Cup as they look to beat Guinea into third spot - both sides currently boasting three points after Malawi's massive 2-1 win at home to the Guineans on Saturday.
The penultimate round of matches takes place next month, when the twists and turns will surely continue in the build-up to November's grand finale. Only then will we know which three teams will be joining Ghana, hosts South Africa and surely Ivory Coast at the continent's first World Cup.