We’re approaching the climax of Africa’s World Cup qualifying programme, with Nigeria and Egypt having booked their tickets to Russia this weekend.
Tunisia appear primed to follow them, while Morocco, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Senegal all have their destinies in their own hands as they look to secure one of the continent’s five spots at for next summer’s global showpiece.
It was a dramatic weekend of action, with Gabon, Zambia, Ghana and Uganda all being eliminated from the running, and several of Africa’s star men impressed during the penultimate weekend of fixtures.
Here are our top five.
Mohamed Salah: There’s no where else to begin this list but in Alexandria, where Egypt ended their 27-year wait for a World Cup appearance when they beat Congo-Brazzaville to reach Russia.
The Pharaohs’ Golden Generation – winners of three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations – never translated their continental form to a spot at the high table, but Salah helped banish some unhappy qualifying memories with a fine double.
After Congo cancelled out his opener through Arnold Bouka Moutou, Salah stepped up in the 95th minute to hold his nerve and fire a penalty past Barel Mouko.
His strike sent a nation into ecstasy, bringing an end to nearly three decades of World Cup misery, but it’s impossible to underestimate just how much pressure the Liverpool man was under when he stepped up to take the spot kick.
Perhaps his tears during a post-match interview said more than words ever could.
Mbark Boussoufa: One of the weekend’s most underrated star men, Boussoufa was at his majestic best in the Moroccan midfield, where few in the continent can match the control which he and teammate Karim El Ahmadi can exert over international fixtures.
While the latter is more of a destroyer – a master of the game’s dark arts – Boussoufa is a beautiful footballer, who can dictate the tempo and speed up the play as Herve Renard desires, as well as playing killer balls to the Atlas Lions’ frontmen, as he demonstrated in the 3-0 victory over Gabon on Saturday.
Formerly a No. 10 who was often employed in wide areas, Boussoufa has been reinvented as a deep-lying playmaker, and perhaps only John Obi Mikel and Jean Seri – whose Ivorian side stand between Morocco and the World Cup – can match him in terms of creative influence in the heart of the park right now.
Youssef Msakni: Perhaps Africa’s outstanding player this weekend, Msakni was in irresistible form for Tunisia – contributing an assist and scoring a hat-trick as they came from behind to trounce Guinea 4-1.
The playmaker’s magnificent showing ensures that the Eagles of Carthage remain in pole position in Group A, and will qualify if they avoid defeat against Libya next month.
Qatar-based Msakni has often flattered to deceive at international level, even though he boasts almost unparalleled flair and technique in the African environment.
Once tipped for great things, he has the quality to light up the World Cup next summer, having played an instrumental role in Tunisia getting there.
Alex Iwobi: It was a nervy affair for Nigeria when they hosted Zambia in Uyo on Saturday, knowing that they needed a win to secure their spot in Russia.
The Super Eagles lacked the cohesiveness they showed when they put Cameroon to the sword during the last international window, and lost influential midfielder Ogenyi Onazi to injury early on.
While Gernot Rohr opted not to reintroduce fit-again Iwobi to the starting line up – instead keeping faith with Moses Simon – the Chipolopolo defence contained the Gent wideman comfortably.
Indeed, while Simon prefers sticking to his touchline and going down the outside, the introduction of Iwobi – who picks his moments to cut inside and create in central areas – troubled the Zambian centre-backs and helped Nigeria dominate in the middle.
The Arsenal man’s cameo may have been brief, but he made the vital contribution when he netted the 73rd-minute winner to send Nigeria to their sixth World Cup.
Khalid Boutaib: The former Strasbourg frontman netted a hat-trick as Morocco thumped Gabon 3-0 to eliminate the Panthers and move up to top spot in Group C.
The 30-year-old hasn’t always been considered a starter by Herve Renard – he made just one brief appearance off the bench at the Africa Cup of Nations – but with Morocco having failed to find the net in three of their four qualifiers before Saturday, a hero was needed.
Yeni Malatyaspor hitman Boutaib offers an aerial threat, but he combined effectively and intelligently with the tireless Nordin Amrabat as Gabon were downed, and boasts technical quality as well – following up his opening header with left-footed and right-footed finishes.