JOHANNESBURG - With only the top team in each of the ten groups advancing to the final round of qualifiers in the African race for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, early slips can come back to haunt a side, and a number of the continent’s favourites will face their first away tests on Friday and Saturday against ambitious outsiders with upsets almost sure to happen.
The big game
Zambia vs Ghana
These two heavyweights have never met in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, but it was just four months ago that the Zambians defeated the Black Stars en route to their first African title.
The Chipolopolo are determined to build on that achievement by making their debut at the FIFA World Cup finals, but Group D dark horses Sudan punctured their balloon with two second half goals in Khartoum.
Despite rumblings, Herve Renard insists there is no crisis with the Frenchman saying this week: “The squad is working hard like they did during the African finals. When you see the players train, there is nothing that has changed.”
Ghana easily beat Lesotho 7-0 to start, and the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cup veterans would love to heap troubles on their hosts by souring the first-ever event at the 40,000-seat stadium.
The Sudanese have continued to build a foundation for success, and they could gather some vital away points in Lesotho’s national stadium on Sunday.
Also making the trip to southern Africa with a chance to consolidate a first round result is Nigeria, who are trying for their 50th FIFA World Cup qualifying win at Malawi.
A pair of southern African derbies take place this weekend as South Africa make the short trip to Botswana and Mozambique host Zimbabwe in Maputo, with both carrying defeats.
Bafana Bafana are nearly 50 places above The Zebras in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and they are desperate to assert some control on Group A after a home draw with Ethiopia which cost coach Pitso Mosimane his job.
Former captain Steve Komphela is now boss, while his opposite number, Stanley Tshosane, is trying to convince the 2012 AFCON finalists that they can win their first FIFA World Cup qualifier at home since October 2004 despite an opening loss to surprise Group A leaders Central African Republic.
Even tougher away tests await Egypt, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. The Pharaohs, seven-time African champions but with just one appearance in the last 11 FIFA World Cups, travel to daunting Conakry to meet Guinea, with the top spot in Group G at stake.
The Elephants and The Lions top Groups C and I respectively after winning last weekend, and could put an early stranglehold on their sections with further points.
The Ivorians haven’t lost in 14 qualifiers back to September 2005, while their host Moroccans have not successfully navigated the preliminaries since 1998.
Cameroon face Libya in Tunisia behind closed doors for security reasons in Group I, which will see a pair of former FIFA World Cup participants try to right their shaky ships in Kinshasa when Congo DR host Togo.
Portuguese coach Paulo Duarte will lead Gabon out in Libreville against his former team Burkina Faso in Group E with the favourites tag at stake.
Senegal can consolidate that role in Group J at Uganda after the Cranes late equaliser at Angola last weekend left the Senegalese in the lead. The Lions of Teranga came from a goal behind at home to beat Liberia 3-1, an achievement mirrored by Tunisia, who were trailing at half-time to Equatorial Guinea.
Goalscorers Issam Jemaa and Chedi Hammami are looking to continue their form at Cape Verde Islands with starlet Youssef Msakni again a question with injury.
Also in Group B on Saturday, the Equatoguineans host Sierra Leone, who celebrated an opening home win over The Sharks but must beware of their having lost 15 of 18 away qualifiers in their history. Group H’s leaders both go on the road as Algeria play Mali in Burkina Faso and Benin take on Rwanda in Kigali.
Benin were the biggest climbers in the last FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking after beating African semi-finalists Mali, who are ranked directly behind Sunday’s visitors in what should be a nail-biting contest.
Did you know?
In the last seven qualifying campaigns Malawi have played a team that eventually advanced to the FIFA World Cup. That could potentially be good news for Nigeria.
Player to watch
Yaya Toure is in a fitness race for Côte d’Ivoire, and the reigning Africa Football of the Year could make all the difference in what is looming as a tight encounter in Marrakech.
What they said
“We’re a bit down. It’s normal when you lose a coach, but we have to lift ourselves up mentally and physically because we know the result in the last game wasn’t good enough,” South Africa captain Steven Pienaar.