BY APESIN ADEMOLA
Nigeria’s Super Eagles are among 14 teams whose matches will count for nothing – except classification and boosting their rankings – as the two-year-long qualification for this year’s Africa Cup of Nations is concluded this weekend.
Three-time champions Nigeria, record winners and hosts Egypt, and Africa’s current No 1 by ranking Senegal are among the nations whose flags will fly across five Egyptian cities and six stadia as the continental tournament assumes a 24-nation format for the first time since its inception 62 years ago.
Egypt 2019 will run from June 21 to July 19, making it the first time Africa will host its most glamorous football competition in the summer.
Significantly, Madagascar, the home nation of CAF President Ahmad who will be making their debut in Egypt, are so far the only team to have started from the preliminary qualification phase and travelled all the way to land in the finals.
Comoros Islands are however on the verge of repeating the feat of Madagascar, their neighbouring country. Les Coelacantes will have to move the mountain by beating reigning champions Cameroon in Yaounde on Saturday with any margin to join Morocco as the qualifiers from Group B. In that match, the Indomitable Lions, five-time winners, require one single point to qualify. Apart from Egypt with seven titles, Cameroon are the next most successful nation in the competition.
The other former champions who have started making travel arrangements for Egypt 2019 include Ghana, once a powerhouse of African football with four titles under their belt, Côte d’Ivoire (winners in 1992 and 2015), Tunisia (2004), Algeria (1990) and Morocco (1976).
Apart from Senegal, who will be making their 15th appearance in the finals but have never lifted the trophy, the teams will be chasing their first title in Egypt include Guinea (12 appearances, inclduing Egypt 2019), Mali (11), Uganda (7) and (Kenya (6), while Mauritania are in the same class with Madagascar – first-timers.
Between Friday and Sunday, focus will be on 13 centres with deciding fixtures in eight groups.
Nigeria’s other interest will be in Group L where ex-international Emmanuel Amunike will attempt to qualify Tanzania for their first appearance in the competition since Nigeria hosted it in 1980. In Dar-esSalam, the Taifa Stars, presently third on the log, will seek to beat group winners Uganda and expect Cape Verde Islands to avoid defeat to Lesotho in Praia, the Cape Verdean capital.
Going into the last fixtures of the qualifiers, it’s still any team’s game in Group G, which parade Zimbabwe, Liberia, DR Congo and Congo Republic, all separated by three points. Ahead of them all, the Warriors of Zimbabwe have the added advantage of playing at home against bottom-placed Congo Republic, while second placed Liberia are away in DR Congo, who are only one point behind.
CAF had refused to honour Liberia’s request to have their match shifted from Kinshasa on the claim that the host country faces fresh Ebola outbreak. The football authority ruled that the epidemic is far away from the Congolese capital city.
Group K is also tight. Only 2012 champions Zambia are out already, but their match at home against Namibia will be significant in deciding the two qualifiers from the group. Namibia’s Brave Warriors are tied on points with leaders Guinea-Bissau, who however have head-to-head edge. Guinea-Bissau will be home to Mozambique, who themselves fall short of the top two by one point.
Nigeria’s result in Asaba will be of significance to South Africa only in deciding the winners of Group E. Should Bafana Bafana share points with Libya in Sfax, Tunisia on Sunday, and Seychelles perform the most unlikely by beating the Super Eagles in Asaba, it will be South Africa that will top Group E on head-to-head rule. Libya’s victory will not only see them through by eliminating South Africa, it will also earn Nigeria group leadership irrespective of the outcome in Asaba.
In Group I, two sides remain in contention with Botswana already out and Mauritania through to the finals. Angola, in second place, will play Botswana on Friday at the same time Burkina Faso will be hosting Mauritania.in Ouagadougou. The Burkinabe are two points behind Angola’s Palancas Negras.
Algeria are through in Group D, but will have a hand in deciding which of Benin Republic, Togo or Gambia qualify along with them for Egypt 2019.
The Desert Warriors host Gambia on Friday, while Benin Republic engage Togo in Cotonou on Sunday. Benin Republic’s Squirrels have a two-point advantage over both Togo and Gambia. Strangely, CAF fixed both matches for different days when the result of one can affect the standings in the group.
Group C has already produced Mali as finalists, while the only match that matters here is Burundi versus Gabon on Saturday. The host nation will start the crucial match with a two-point cushion over their guests. The first leg ended 1-1.
Matchday 6 fixtures (all time West Africa’s)
Group E: Nigeria v Seychelles (first leg Nigeria 3-0) (4pm)
Group B: Malawi v Morocco (first leg Morocco 3-0) (2pm)
Group A: Sudan v Equatorial Guinea (first leg Equatorial Guinea 1-0) (3pm)
Group I: Botswana v Angola (first leg Angola 1-0), Burkina Faso v Mauritania (first leg Mauritania 2-0) (both 6pm)
Group J: Tunisia v Eswatini (first leg Tunisia 2-0) (7:15pm)
Group D: Algeria v Gambia (first leg 1-1) (8:45pm)
Group C: Burundi v Gabon (first leg 1-1) (2pm), Mali v South Sudan (first leg Mali 3-0) (8pm)
Group B: Cameroon v Comoros Islands (first leg 1-1) (4pm)
Group J: Niger Republic v Egypt (first leg Egypt 6-0) (4:30pm)
Group K: Zambia v Namibia (first leg 1-1), Guinea-Bissau v Mozambique (first leg 2-2) (both 5:30pm)
Group H: Côte d’Ivoire v Rwanda (first leg Côte d’Ivoire 2-1) (6pm)
Group F: Ghana v Kenya (first leg Kenya 1-0) (7pm)
Group A: Senegal v Madagascar (first leg 2-2) (8pm)
Group E: Libya v South Africa (first leg 0-0) (6pm)
Group G: Zimbabwe v Congo Republic (first leg 1-1), DR Congo v Liberia (first leg 1-1) (both 2pm)
Group H: Central Africa Republic v Guinea (first leg Guinea 1-0) (3pm)
Group D: Benin Republic v Togo (first leg 0-0) (4pm)
Group L: Tanzania v Uganda (first leg 0-0), Cape Verde Islands v Lesotho (first leg 1-1) (both 4pm)