Africa's elite aiming to impress
While next year's World Cup hosts, South Africa, must satisfy themselves with a friendly at home to Norway this weekend, the best 20 sides in Africa get on with the real business of seeing who will qualify for next year's Nations Cup and World Cup events.
Only the five group winners are guaranteed a prestigious spot at Africa's first World Cup in 2010, while the top three in each group make it to January's Nations Cup in Angola.
Senegal's dramatic second-round exit means that Cameroon are the only team left in qualifying to have ever reached the World Cup quarter-finals. Four-time African champions, five-time World Cup finalists and 2000 Olympic champions to boot, the Indomitable Lions head up Group A - the only one to contain three former finalists with Morocco and Togo also joined by Gabon.
Togolese hopes have diminished with the absence of Stephen Keshi, the Nigerian coach who performed miracles in steering the Hawks to Germany 2006. And although Emmanuel Adebayor, who scored nine goals in 12 qualifiers last time around, remains to spearhead their attack, new Belgian coach Jean Thissen is unlikely to possess Keshi's magic touch and they may be exposed when they take on Cameroon and the free-scoring Samuel Eto'o this weekend.
In Saturday's other tie, Morocco host Gabon. The Atlas Lions, four-time finalists, are now led by Roger Lemerre, the Frenchman who guided France to European glory (2000), Tunisia to African triumph (2004) and the Carthage Eagles to the 2006 World Cup as well: Moroccan fans will hope this experience proves crucial but they face a Gabonese side also relying on French influence.
Part of France's famed 1984 European champions, Alain Giresse quit last year when home fans targeted him after Gabon's failure to reach the inaugural African Nations Championship (a tournament for local players) but he has since returned following a government charm offensive. Hull City striker Daniel Cousin will be key to the qualifying chances of the 2012 Nations Cup hosts.
Group B is all about Nigeria - and all about atonement. To the total dismay of their high-voltage supporters, Africa's most populous nation failed to reach the 2006 finals, humbled by over-confidence and a hard-working Angolan side lacking the quality of Yakubu, Obafemi Martins, Nwankwo Kanu et al. Although the Super Eagles are the only team in qualifying with a 100% record, the fans are still not happy - critical of local coach Shaibu Amodu's management methods. The Nigerians open in Mozambique on Sunday when anything but victory will prove problematic for Amodu in Nigeria's insatiable media.
In reality, the Mozambicans are battling with Kenya for the Nations Cup spot because Tunisia, who travel to Nairobi on Saturday, are bidding for a fourth straight World Cup. Disappointing in recent finals, captain Karim Hagui will strive to show that a country boasting a fine African club record can translate that onto the international game. With Kenya and Mozambique expected to offer little resistance, the heavyweight clashes between Tunisia and Nigeria will determine Group B's outcome - although away trips for both on November's final day of qualifying will be complicated if the group's third Nations Cup spot is still available.
Just like Nigeria in Group B, Egypt's Pharaohs will hog the limelight in Group C - which also features Zambia, Rwanda and two-time finalists Algeria. Claiming six Nations Cups and an unprecedented 20 continental club titles, Egypt's claim to being Africa's greatest footballing nation should be undeniable - yet it is let down by their paltry two World Cup appearances. This is less than Cameroon, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia, meaning a heavy burden is on the reigning African champions to reach their first finals since 1990. With an ageing but settled side, and a respected coach in wily Hassan Al Shehata, Egypt must make it through their group to dispel their doubters.
Yet they will face stiff competition from fellow North Africans Algeria, who have already knocked out Senegal, and Zambia. The Chipolopolo, who play in Cairo this weekend, are desperate to partake in the football festival on their doorstep next year. Rwanda will surely bring up the rear unless they can produce a qualification miracle to match the one where they contested the 2004 Nations Cup - and victory at home to Algeria on Saturday would provide the perfect start.
The final two groups field just one World Cup finalist apiece with Ghana (Group D) and Ivory Coast (Group E) both having made it to the last finals.
Propelled by Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and captain Stephen Appiah, the Black Stars were the only African side to make the second round at Germany 2006. Yet to presuppose that the four-time African champions will breeze through qualifying is to underestimate the challenge presented by Mali, Benin and Sudan.
In fact, Mali's Eagles present a fearsome obstacle, not simply because they are guided by the pragmatic Keshi but because Real Madrid's Mahamadou Diarra, Sevilla's Frederic Kanoute and Barcelona's Seydou Keita fill their ranks. With African World Cup qualifying often throwing up a surprise first-time finalist, could Group D provide the joker in the pack? Either way, the last-day clash between Ghana and Mali looks to be decisive.
On Sunday, Ghana host a Beninois side expected to struggle while a revitalised Sudan, fuelled by the oil money pumping up their football, should be capable of a few surprises - although Englishman Stephen Constantine may prove an inadequate replacement for former coach Mohamed Abdallah. The 1970 African champions take on Mali in Khartoum on Saturday evening.
Finally to Group E where one of the form teams should top the pile. Nations Cup runners-up in 2006 and semi-finalists last year, the Ivory Coast's glittering array of talent - including the likes of Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure and Abdulkader Keita - is marshalled by Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic. Maiden World Cup performers in Germany, the Ivorians suffered narrow defeats to both Argentina and Holland, glorious failures they would love to put right next year. Unbeaten in qualifying, the Elephants' quality should see off Malawi, who they host this weekend, as well as Burkina Faso and Guinea.
Malawi's Flames, who only made the final round thanks to a dramatic late victory over DR Congo, will focus on Angola 2010 while the Burkinabe and Guineans will both believe they can cause an upset - the Stallions after being unbeaten so far, while Guinea must hope highly-talented winger Pascal Feindouno is at his best.
While the six rounds of matches are played out, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will be an acutely-interested observer. Africa's 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign was marred by violence - deaths in Togo after a stampede, rioting in Mali after a last-minute home defeat, another death in Liberia after a heavy loss to Senegal; while in Kenya a 15-year-old died during a crush to get tickets - so both CAF and FIFA will be keen to avoid such scrutiny as the World Cup finally heads to African soil.
Unfortunately, only an incurable optimist would expect a trouble-free campaign as tensions rise and the prospect of appearing at South Africa 2010 looms tantalisingly close for some fans.