2015 Nations Cup: Group stage of qualifying begins
The group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers begins on Friday as 28 countries chase 15 places at January’s finals, hoping to join hosts Morocco.
Much of the build-up has been dominated by uncertainty over the venues of several ties due to the deadly Ebola virus.
The Confederation of African Football ordered Guinea and Sierra Leone to move their home ties to neutral venues because of the outbreak of the disease in the two countries.
Guinea have moved their Group E tie against Togo to the Moroccan city of Casablanca.
The ‘hosts’ have been hit by several injuries to France-based players including Florentin Pogba, who is the older brother of France international Paul Pogba.
He picked up a calf injury in Saint Etienne’s 5-0 thrashing at the hands of French champions Paris Saint Germain on Sunday.
Also missing are Lorient midfielder Abdoulaye Sadio Diallo and Lyon forward Mohamed Lamine Yattara.
Togo have been boosted by the return to international duty of striker Emmanuel Adebayor after an 18-month absence.
The Tottenham Hotspur striker, 30, refused call-ups for World Cup qualifiers last year following a spat with then coach Didier Six after the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
However he suffered bruising to his cheek during Togo’s final training session in Lome on Wednesday, raising concerns he maybe forced to miss the game in Casablanca.
In June, the Frenchman was replaced by his former assistant Tchakala Tchanile.
The other two teams in the group Ghana and Uganda meet in Kumasi on Saturday.
Also on Friday is a first ever meeting between Sudan and visiting South Africa in Group A.
Bafana Bafana’s new coach Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba will have to do without goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, who has a foot injury.
Also missing the trip to Khartoum is Lokeren midfielder Ayanda Patosi, who did not turn up for training after failing to connect from Belgium.
“I am glad with this group of players I am travelling with. We are going there to fight, make no mistake,” said coach Mashaba.
The South Africans are taking no chances over transport delays by chartering a plane to take them to Sudan and return home soon after Friday’s match.
Sudan lost 3-1 to Zambia in a friendly on Sunday in the first ever match at the new 50,000 seat National Heroes Stadium in Lusaka.
African champions Nigeria host Congo Brazzaville on Saturday in the other Group A encounter.
The Super Eagles play under the threat of a global ban from football if Chris Giwa does not give up his claim to be Nigeria Football Federation president.
The final match on Friday is 2002 World Cup quarter-finalists Senegal playing host to seven-time African champions Egypt in Group G.
Neither side qualified for the 2013 finals in South Africa and Egypt also missed the previous tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
Coach Shawky Gharib, assistant to Hassan Shehata as the Pharaohs win three Nations Cup titles between 2006-2010, has put the emphasis on youth.
However he has still found room for veteran 41-year-old goalkeeper Essam Al Hadary.
It is a first full international at home for Senegal since 2012 when violence brought a premature end to their 2014 World Cup play-off tie against Ivory Coast.
A one-year ban on the Leopold Sedar Senghor stadium followed and since the ban ended only the locally-based Africa Nations Championship side have played in Dakar.
Tunisia host Botswana on Saturday in the other Group G tie.
The top two sides from each of the seven groups and the best third-placed side will advance to join hosts Morocco in January’s finals.