Africa’s World Cup qualifying campaign, which also doubles up as the Nations Cup qualifiers, gets serious this weekend.
The business end of Africa’s qualifiers gets underway this weekend with a double objective for the competing countries.
The remaining 20 teams are divided into five groups of four each with only the winner going onto the World Cup finals in South Africa and the top three in each group playing at the African Nations Cup finals in Angola in January.
It is the second time that the World Cup qualifiers have been used by the Confederation of African Football to also determine the 16-team field for the Nations Cup, meaning next year’s two hosts Angola and South Africa both competed in the preliminaries to a chatter of confusion.
But permutations are a lot simpler after both turned in poor showings and were eliminated, finishing second in their respective first round groups.
Almost half of the remaining contenders have been to previous World Cup finals and there are several intriguing match-ups ahead over the next eight months.
Nigeria and Tunisia are set for a bruising battle in Group B while Cameroon and Morocco will be the main protagonists in Group A, with 2006 World Cup finalists Togo as potential spoilers.
Egypt and Ivory Coast have probably easier assignments in their respective groups while Group D could herald the advent of another new continental power as Mali look a good bet.
A side with the likes of Frederic Kanoute, Seydou Keita and Mahamadou Diarra, when he returns from injury, could prove too strong for Ghana.
Egypt have won two back-to-back Nations Cup titles but their last World Cup finals appearance was in Italy in 1990, turning the quest into a 2010 berth into something of a search for the Holy Grail.
Egypt open their Group C schedule at home to Zambia, whose preparations have been overshadowed by a Gaelic fit of pique from French coach Herve Renard, who missed a warm-up game in South Africa because the champions club would not release players to his squad because it clashed with their own commitments in the African Champions League.
Renard refused to travel with the side, turning a valuable preparatory friendly into a farce and raising questions over his own future at a vital juncture for the team.
Egypt will be hoping to pair Amr Zaki with Ahmed ‘Mido’ Hossam for the first time at international level since 2007, although they have been reunited at Wigan Athletic since the January transfer window.
In Group A, Togo complete a ban on home matches when they take on Cameroon in nearby Ghana. The game in Accra comes after sanctions for crowd violence in the Togolese capital Lome at the end of the 2008 Nations Cup qualifiers.
Both Nigeria and Tunisia are away in Group B’s opening games with the Super Eagles in Mozambique and Tunisia away against tricky Kenya, whose coach Francis Kimanzi was fired in January.
There is continued speculation that key players might refuse a call-up for the game in Nairobi unless the 33-year-old is reinstated. Kimanzi was sacked after refusing to pick a team for a friendly in Egypt in January; a match he did not want to play as his key foreign-based players were unavailable.
Mali’s credentials in Group D will be examined when they begin away against Sudan, a side try also met in the first group stage. In June, Sudan won 3-2 with a dramatic late flourish when they last hosted Mali.
Group E favourites Cote d’Ivoire hope to have Didier Drogba back for the first time since last year’s Nations Cup finals when they host Mali in their opening match of the last phase.
Africa’s qualifiers run through until November, a later than usual finish but one expected to keep the continent riveted to the edge of their seats.