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- Aug 1, 2010
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A system that will see play-offs decide all of Africa's places for Brazil 2014 has made the established elite feel a little nervous
The nearer it gets to its denouement, the more you look at the format Africa has chosen for World Cup qualifying and wonder. It is brilliantly absurd, a guaranteed way of generating drama, with the very real possibility that many of the continent's grandees will miss out.
Pre-qualifying whittled it down to 10 groups of four, with the group winners to play off in five two-legged ties for the five qualifying slots. In that the system makes no concessions to vested interests of established powers it is to be applauded, although its wisdom may be questioned if none of the continent's big guns make it through: one bad day in October could be enough to see any side out.
Most of the giants are relatively well placed to make it through at least to the play-offs. Nigeria, the African champions, are going through their familiar qualifying struggle, and salvaged a draw at home against Kenya in March only with a goal four minutes into injury time. They lead their group at the halfway stage but are level on points with Malawi with awkward away games against Kenya and Namibia to come on the next two Wednesdays.
A 2-2 friendly draw against Mexico in Houston last week was less than encouraging, with Mexico finding an equaliser despite being down to 10 men. Their coach, Stephen Keshi, though, remains as bullish as ever, and is adamant that these two World Cup qualifiers take precedence over the Confederations Cup in Brazil.
"I would choose qualifying for the World Cup every time," he said. "Yes, the Confederations Cup is also good but nothing beats or compares to the World Cup: that's the real deal. That is where I aim to be and where I want my players to be playing. Make no mistake we will give the tournament our best shot but it is really to come back next year as one of Africa's representatives at the World Cup that we are working towards."
Ivory Coast also face a pair of away games, against Gambia and Tanzania, knowing two wins would guarantee their place in the play-offs. Didier Drogba has again been omitted from the squad, with the coach Sabri Lamouchi saying only that the Galatasaray forward "had a difficult moment" and will return in August.
Ghana go to Sudan on Friday facing a battle with the 2012 African champions Zambia for top spot. Zambia lost in Sudan in their first qualifier only to be awarded the game as a 3-0 walkover after Sudan were found to have fielded an ineligible player, leaving them a point clear of Ghana.
Zambia play Lesotho on Saturday and then host Sudan the following weekend while Ghana go to Lesotho, with everything pointing towards an epic showdown in Ghana in September.
Zambia beat Ghana 1-0 in Ndola last June but their form has wavered since and, after a group-stage exit at this year's Cup of Nations, there is even a measure of dissatisfaction with the coach Hervé Renard.
A 2-1 defeat in a friendly to the domestic league leaders Nkana last week has done little for confidence, with Renard describing the situation as "difficult".
Ghana were poor themselves at the Cup of Nations, despite reaching the semi-final, although a 4-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Sudan in March at least seemed to vindicate the decision to stick with the coach, James Kwesi Appiah.
He admits that having a number of players at top clubs becomes a disadvantage at this time of year. "With the major leagues in Europe where the majority of my players play having come to an end, I expected some tired legs and burn outs," he said. "We have to ensure that we work with them and get them ready. But nobody can question the efforts of my players. I am really happy with their efforts. We will be working hard until the end. To play at the World Cup should provide enough motivation for us to approach these games in the right frame of mind."
Cameroon's new coach, Volker Finke, faces an awkward first game in charge away to Togo, who have drawn their only home match in qualifying so far. The 55-year-old German, who had 16 years in charge of Freiburg, replaces Jean-Paul Akono, who would have stood down in the summer anyway – ousted by the usual combination of politics and eurocentricity – but was forced to stand aside early after suffering a minor heart attack.
Akono ended up being in charge for just two competitive games, both won 2-1, but at least steadied a desperately listing ship after the disastrous reign of Denis Lavagne. Perhaps most importantly, he persuaded the big-name refuseniks to return, so Finke at least has Samuel Eto'o, Alex Song and Benoît Assou-Ekotto available.
Finke is an intriguing choice: he fits the Cameroonian penchant for German coaches – most notably Peter Schnittger, Winfried Schaefer and Otto Pfister – but he is unlikely to return to the negative muscularity favoured by at least the latter two.
At Freiburg, Finke became noted as a pioneer of pressing in Germany – which was oddly late to adopt the practice – and achieved notable success with a small budget as a result. Whether he will have the time to instil a similar style of play at Cameroon is doubtful, appealing though the idea of them becoming the Chile of Africa may be, but he will at least be tactically imaginative.
Togo are bottom of the qualifying group and their chances of qualification remote, but despite their coach Didier Six's erratic behaviour, they showed flashes of quality and resilience in reaching the quarter-final of the last Cup of Nations.
Certainly the front three of Fernando Ayite, Serge Gakpo and Emmanuel Adebayor have the potency to cause any side problems. If they could beat Cameroon this Sunday and Libya the following Friday, it's not inconceivable they could force their way back into contention.
Libya, who trail Cameroon by a point having beaten them last June (in a home game moved to Tunisia for security reasons), are home to DR Congo, a point further back, on Friday.
Egypt, reinvigorated under Bob Bradley, will secure top spot in the group if they beat Zimbabwe on Sunday and Guinea fail to beat Mozambique, while Congo, who have also won their first three games, will book their place in the play-offs if they beat Gabon and Niger draw with a Burkina Faso side whose hopes of qualifying were hit by an ineligible player scandal.
Tunisia, the only other side with a 100% winning record, will go through if they beat Sierra Leone in Freetown and Equatorial Guinea do not beat Cape Verde. Algeria travel to Benin in the tightest group, the two sides separated by just two points with Mali, who face Rwanda, level with the Algerians at the top of the group.
Demba Ba has been omitted from the Senegal side for the trip to Angola. The Chelsea forward missed a penalty against Angola when the sides drew in March (a home game for Senegal but played in Conakry because of the crowd trouble that marked their defeat to Ivory Coast in the Cup of Nations qualifiers) and insists he had expected to be involved.
Senegal's coach, Alain Giresse, was weirdly cryptic in failing to explain his decision. "I picked the players I feel can do the job ahead but that does not mean other players are not good," he said "I hope one day I'd be able to say the truth to the people of Senegal, because they need to know what is happening."
South Africa, having been unsettled by the vociferous expat backing for Ethiopia in their opening qualifier in Rustenburg, and then throwing away a winning position in Botswana, find themselves in serious danger of missing out despite a draw that looked about as gentle as was possible.
If they slip up away to an improving Central African Republic and Ethiopia win in Botswana, they would be left needing to win away in Addis Ababa a week come Sunday to have a chance of the play-offs.
Sunday's 2-0 friendly win in Lesotho was deliberately selected to give South Africa experience of playing on a poor surface and with a passionate crowd (presumably looking ahead to the Ethiopia game, given they will face CAR in Yaounde because of ongoing political instability), but Gordon Igesund's meticulousness can do nothing about the injury curse that continues to haunt South Africa.
The left-backs Tsepo Masilela and Thabo Matlaba, the right-backs Siboniso Gaxa and Siyanda Xulu and the first-choice centre-back pairing of Siyabonga Sangweni and Morgan Gould are all out, leaving an inexperienced back four for the vital game against CAR.
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