A pair of make-or-break ties that feature four former CAF Africa Cup of Nations champions highlight the next two AFCON qualifying matchdays, which occur over the next week. The eventual continental winners, to be crowned in Gabon at the start of next year, secure a spot in the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017, so the pressure is on ahead of the final group matches in June and September.
FIFA.com highlights five things to keep an eye on this week in Africa.
Can Siasia and Nigeria make up ground?
In Group G, Nigeria host Egypt on Friday before travelling to Cairo for the return leg four days later. The Super Eagles are trailing their rivals by two points and need to win at least one of the matches to stay in contention to top their group. As only the 13 group winners are guaranteed automatic qualification – the two best-placed runners’ up also qualify – there is a lot of pressure on the Super Eagles to get a result. Interim coach Samson Siasia will be without defender Kenneth Omeruo and might also miss German-based defender Leon Balogun, whose club has said he has been kept behind in Germany as he is nursing an injury.
However, the coach has plenty of international experience to call on, with on-fire English Premier League stars Odion Ighalo and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi joining the likes of Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel and West Ham United striker Victor Moses. For his part, new Egypt coach Hector Cuper sounds full of confidence, saying recently: “I usually don’t promise any certain outcomes, but I’m confident that we are capable of overcoming Nigeria.”
Will South Africa avoid elimination?
Bafana Bafana’s situation ahead of their double-feature against Cameroon is considerably worse than that of Nigeria. The 1996 champions are bottom of Group M with just one point, five off the pace, and away to the table-topping Lions on Saturday. New Indomitable Lions coach Hugo Broos, who was not in charge of the side when they picked up their six points, has re-called Alexandre Song, who has not been involved in the national side since the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. Broos has controversially dropped Schalke midfielder Joel Matip, but included his brother Marvin, who captains fellow German Bundesliga side Ingolstadt.
“I had the feeling that [Joel] was not motivated and did not want to come,” the coach told German media. “I want the players to have a great desire to be part of the team, and if this is not the case, they are better off staying at home.”
The Belgian coach will definitely be without Porto’s Vincent Aboubakar for the first game as the striker has to sit out after picking up a suspension. Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba has picked a mainly inexperienced side, with some players earning a first call-up. Nevertheless, he realises they could be knocked out this week. “This is a must win. If you look at the log, it tells us that we need to win home and away.”
Big boys try to nose ahead
Morocco, with new coach Herve Renard, and Cape Verde Islands head Group F with six points and face each other, with the Blue Sharks slightly better placed having a better goal difference. Defending champions Côte d’Ivoire surprisingly find themselves playing second fiddle in Group I behind Sudan.
Coach Michel Dussuyer has left nothing to chance and convinced star player Yaya Toure to return to the team. The former African Footballer of the Year heads a star-studded line-up that includes experienced players like Salomon Kalou, Serey Die, Wilfried Bony and Max Gradel. Congo and Zambia also meet twice with control of Group E on the line, while Algeria are favoured to add more space at the top of Group J against Ethiopia.
Outsiders look for openings
In Group A, Liberia could take control of proceedings with two wins this week against Djibouti. Having defeated favourites Tunisia in September of last year, the Lone Stars are trying to catch Togo to reach their third AFCON. South Sudan, who achieved their first-ever AFCON victory when they stunned Equatorial Guinea, are hoping to continue their journey towards an unexpected place at the finals with good results against Benin in Group C.
One underdog can stand
An interesting match-up in Group L, sees Zimbabwe and Swaziland go head-to-head twice this week with the top of the table at stake. Zimbabwe have only twice appeared at the finals, while Swaziland have yet to make the showpiece event of African football. A draw and a win would see either side well-placed for an unexpected appearance at the finals. Both teams have four points and lead Malawi and Guinea by three.