We’re fast approaching the conclusion of the African World Cup qualifying campaign, with the three outstanding groups set to be decided over the coming week.
Across the five groups, there are some engrossing fixtures this weekend as some of the continent’s heavyweights battle for their spots in Russia.
In this feature, we outline the five that we’re most excited about.
11 November, Ivory Coast vs. Morocco: When the groups was drawn, it appeared written in the stars that the outcome of Group C would boil down to the final match-up – between the group’s two favourites in Abidjan.
Herve Renard is rarely a man to shirk the opportunity to be the centre of attention, and it was inevitable that he would be handed the chance to end his previous employers’ World Cup hopes in the final decider.
The maths are simple heading into Saturday’s showdown, where anything other than a home win would send the Atlas Lions through.
Marc Wilmots may be counting on home support to give the Elephants the lift they’re looking for, but they were abject at home against Gabon, and there are few better at eking out a result than Renard, particularly when armed with this gritty Moroccan side.
12 November, Ghana vs. Egypt: Unlike the aforementioned group, this heavyweight clash ultimately hasn’t proved decisive, with the Black Stars fluffing their lines earlier in the campaign to end their hopes of a fourth consecutive World Cup appearance.
The Pharaohs, by contrast, have largely eased through qualification, with their defeat away in Uganda a sole slip-up.
They’ll be keen to end the campaign in style, with a statement win in Kumasi, but with Mohamed Salah absent, this represents an ideal opportunity for Ghana to shake off their malaise and demonstrate that there’s a brighter future ahead under Kwesi Appiah.
10 November, South Africa vs. Senegal: This fixture has already been played during the qualifying campaign – back in November with Bafana Bafana winning 2-1 – but with that result expunged due to corrupt refereeing, the match is being replayed this weekend.
The showdown in Polokwane is set to be the first in a double-headed decider, with Bafana and Senegal set to meet again in Dakar four days later.
South Africa know they can beat the Lions of Teranga – they’ve done it before after all – but they’ll be without injured skipper Itumeleng Khune, and may be affected mentally by having to replay a significant obstacle that had (they thought) already been bypassed.
Bafana need to win both fixtures to overhaul the West Africans and reach Russia, while Aliou Cisse’s side know that just one draw would be enough to almost certainly see off the lingering threat of Burkina Faso and Cape Verde.
10 November, Algeria vs. Nigeria: On paper, this is a clash between two of Africa’s top sides, with the duo boasting many of the continent’s finest talent.
However, in reality, Algeria are in the doldrums following a nightmarish 12 months, a miserable Nations Cup campaign and a World Cup qualifying programme that they’ll be desperate to resign to history.
They’ve taken just one point from their five Group B fixtures to date, and been outclassed twice by Zambia and once by Cameroon.
Technically, they have the players to return to prominence, but whether they have the mental strength to overcome Gernot Rohr’s in-form Nigeria side remains to be seen.
The Super Eagles, for their part, have been urged to end the qualifying campaign in style by NFF President Amaju Pinnick, and Rohr will see this as a valuable test ahead of the challenges to come in Russia.
11 November, Tunisia vs. Libya: In principle, Tunisia have already done the hard work in this qualifying campaign. Specifically, they beat nearest rivals the Democratic Republic of Congo at home, and then came back from 2-0 down to salvage a point against the Leopards in Kinshasa.
History will show that this is where the group was won and lost…unless, of course, the Eagles of Carthage slip up at home against Libya.
The Mediterranean Knights put up a good fight when they were defeated – only by one second-half goal – when up against Tunisia in Algiers in the first match between the two, and they are a capable outfit going forward.
If Libya can pull off a shock win, and if the Congolese can – as expected – beat Guinea at home, then Tunisia would be out and the Leopards would reach their first World Cup since 1974.
Be under no illusion, it’s still all to play for in Group A.