Qualification for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Morocco reaches the halfway mark this weekend and with it comes the added pressure of winning to remain in contention for a place in the finals.
As many as 10 nations, including seven-time champions Egypt, are in danger of being knocked out of the qualifiers after just three of the six qualifying matches.
It will be a do or die weekend for many teams as nothing but the three points awarded for a victory will do for the the likes of the Pharoahs, Lesotho, Botswana, Togo, Sierra Leone, Angola, Ethiopia and Sudan if they habour any hopes of remaining in the qualifying process as challengers and not as teams making up the numbers in the group.
SUDAN VS NIGERIA
Defending Africa champions, the Super Eagles of Nigeria find themselves in a precarious position where they have to win all of their remaining four games if they are to qualify for Afcon 2015 in Morocco. They visit Sudan at the Khartoum Stadium this weekend in a bid to rekindle the hopes of their optimistic fans.
Sudan lie bottom in the group and are yet to score a goal this campaign. They lost their first two games; 3-0 to South Africa at home and 2-0 away to Congo. Nigeria are third with 1 point after losing their opening match 3-2 to Congo at home and later securing a barren draw away to South Africa.
Nigeria have only lost once to Sudan, back then in 1969.They have emerged victorious in six games and have drawn four times. The last time Sudan hosted Nigeria in 2001 they were whacked 4-0 and the story was more or less the same in their last encounter as the Super Eagles emerged 2-0 winners in January 2008 in an Afcon Group C match.
Stephen Keshi is taking no chances and has recalled Victor Moses and Vincent Enyeama for this must-win encounter. Clearly, the pressure is on Nigeria as anything less than three points from this tie will scuttle their chances of qualifying for the finals.
Sudan coach Mohammed Mazda has, however, expressed optimism going into this fixture and believes the underdog tag will work to their favour. He insists history cannot win a football match and hopes for a positive result that will catapult them from the lower reaches of the standings.
CONGO v SOUTH AFRICA
Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba will be away in his third match in charge during this qualifying campaign when they visit the Claude Le Roy-led Congo at the Stade Municipal de Pointe-Noire.
The Red Devils lead Group A with six points from two wins including the 3-2 victory over Nigeria at Calabar. This was followed by a comfortable 2-0 home win against Sudan. On the other hand, South Africa lie second in the standings having won their first game 3-0 away to Sudan and holding Nigeria to a 0-0 draw in Pretoria.
This tie brings together a Congo side which boast the best attack in the group, having scored five goals, against a South Africa side that have the best defence since they have not conceded so far.
Out of the seven times they have played, Congo have only managed to win once while South Africa have won thrice with the other three being draws. The last time these two sides met was in June 2007 in a World Cup qualifier. The game ended in a 1-1 stalemate.
However, the last time Congo hosted Bafana Bafana back in April 1997 they beat them 2-0 which gives them confidence going into this tie.
Claude Le Roy is no newcomer to qualifiers and understands the importance of winning all home matches. He will hope Thievy Bifouma and Prince Oniangue will finally burst the bubble of the Bafana Bafana defence and help his side bag the maximum points from this tricky tie.
ETHIOPIA v MALI
Mariano Barreto will hope that a return to Addis Ababa Stadium where they are to host Mali this weekend will coincide with a return to winning ways for his troubled Walia Ibex.
For a side that reached the ultimate qualifying stage of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, the results registered so far are totally unacceptable. The two sides have never met before which makes this encounter difficult to predict.
It has not been the kind of start Ethiopians expected given that they have lost all the games they have played so far. As a result, they lie bottom of Group B having conceded five goals and scored three. The Eagles of Mali under the guidance of Henryk Kasperczak are second with three points after losing 1-0 to Algeria away and securing a 2-0 win against Malawi at home.
Ethiopiaâ€™s defence has been porous and they will have to watch out for Wolverhampton winger Bakary Sako and Bordeaux striker Cheick Diabate who on a good day can wreak havoc.
The midfield battle will see youngster Natnael Zeleke, Shemeles Bekele and Adane Girma square it out with AS Romaâ€™s Seydou Keita.
While Saladin Said has been ruled out because of injury, the striking department will depend on Umed Ukuri and Getaneh Kebede who will have to be at their best to get past a mean Mali defence that has only conceded once so far.
MALAWI v ALGERIA
The Desert Foxes have a chance to extend their lead at the top of Group B when they visit third-placed Malawi at the Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre this weekend. Flames coach Young Chimodzi knows that this game provides the perfect opportunity to narrow the gap between them and the group leaders.
Having met six times before, with Malawi winning twice, Algeria emerging victorious in three games and the other ending in a draw, this is bound to be an exciting tie. The home side will draw confidence from the last outing where they beat Algeria 3-0 in an Afcon group D match in January 2010.
Christian Gourcuffâ€™s side lead the group with six points having won their first two matches; 2-1 away to Ethiopia and a 1-0 home win against Mali. Malawi, on the other hand, have three points in as many games played, having won their second match against Ethiopia in Blantyre and having lost their opening match 2-0 to Mali in Bamako.
A win for Malawi will increase their tally to six points but they will have to be wary of the lethal Algeria attack led by the the Europe-based trio of Sofiane Feghouli, Ishak Belfodil and Yacine Brahimi.
LESOTHO v ANGOLA
All roads will lead to the Setsoto Stadium in Maseru this Friday as Lesotho welcome the Palancas Negras of Angola. Optimism is at an all-time high for the visitors who enjoy a good record over their neighbours.
The Crocodiles lie third in Group C having lost their opening match 2-0 away to Burkina Faso and sharing the spoils 1-1 in the second game against Gabon at home. Romeu Filemonâ€™s side are last after losing 1-0 to Gabon in Libreville and later dropping points in the 3-0 home loss to Burkina Faso.
History clearly favours Angola given that the two sides have met eight times with Angola have won six times while Lesotho have won twice with the other ending in a draw. The last encounter between them ended in a 1-1 draw in an international friendly in July last year.
Angola will have to address the deficiencies in their attack since they are yet to score a goal thus far. Lesotho coach Seephephe Matete will look to improve his home record and bag maximum points which will improve his tally of points to four.
GABON v BURKINA FASO
Jorge Costa is optimistic the Panthers will get a good result that will propel them to the summit of Group C when they welcome the Stallions at the Libreville Stadium this weekend. Paul Put, on the other hand, is hoping to maintain his 100 per cent start by picking maximum points from this encounter.
The Stallions top Group C with six points having won all their matches so far; 2-0 at home against Lesotho and 3-0 in Luanda against Angola. Gabon have garnered four points and are ranked second. They won 1-0 at home against Angola and managed a 1-1 draw in Maseru against Lesotho.
Out of the 14 times these two sides have met, both sides have won five apiece and shared the spoils on four occasions. The last encounter between them, played in September last year in a World Cup qualifier, ended 1-0 in favour of Burkinabe. However, the Panthers will be motivated by the fact the last time they hosted the Stallions in June 2012 they beat them 1-0.
An interesting pair of statistics is that Paul Putâ€™s side are yet to concede a goal and have recorded their biggest win in an away fixture against Angola. Skipper Pierre Aubameyang will be tasked with the goal-getting duty for the home side and will have to be at his best to penetrate the opposing defence led by Bakary Kone of Olympique Lyon.
CONGO DR v COTE Dâ€™IVOIRE
Group D favourites Ivory Coast will visit the Kinshasa stadium in a bid to stamp their authority and reclaim their lost glory. However, in Congo DR they will encounter stiff opposition in a tie where pride as well as three points will be at stake. This game certainly has all the potential to be terrific or even titanic.
The two sides are level on three points but Florent Ibengeâ€™s side enjoy a greater goal difference having conceded two goals and scored an equal number. On the other hand, the visitors have scored three and conceded a massive five goals; the highest in the group. Therefore, Congo DR are second while Ivory Coast are third.
Out of the four times these sides have met, the Leopards have won twice while the Elephants have won once and the other ended in a stalemate. The last encounter between the two was a 3-1 win for Congo DR back in January 2002.
Herve Renard will hope his charges have recovered from the shocking 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Cameroon and will bank on the experience of Yaya Toure, Salomon Kalou and Sol Bamba to bag maximum points from this game.
The home team will hope Youssuf Mulumbu will carry his form at club level to the national team while the likes of Tressor Mputu and Yannick Bolasie will be tasked with scoring goals up front.
SIERRA LEONE v CAMEROON
The effects of the deadly Ebola virus continue to be felt around football circles in Africa as Sierra Leone yet again play another home game away from home. They host Group D leaders, the Indomitable Lions, at the Omnisports Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in YaoundÃ©.
Atto Mensahâ€™s side have had a sorry start to their campaign having lost their first two matches; 2-0 to Congo DR and 2-1 to Ivory Coast. They are last in the standings. Cameroon, on the other hand, are first with six points after beating Congo DR 2-1 in Lubumbashi and later seeing off Ivory Coast 4-1 at home.
These two sides have only met twice before with Cameroon winning one game 1-0 while the other ended 1-1. Coach Volker Fike has urged his side to ignore history and not to underrate their opponents.
He is alive to the reality that a win will relieve pressure off his side and take them within sight of the Afcon 2015 finals.
Cameroon's attacking duo of Vincent Aboubaker and Clinton Ndie, who have three goals each, will look to add to their goal tally against a porous Leone Stars back line that have conceded four goals so far.
NIGER v ZAMBIA
2012 African champions, Zambia will visit the Menas at the Stade General S.K. in a bid to rekindle their hopes of qualifying for the Afcon 2015. A difference of one goal is what separates these two sides that are level on points.
Niger have one point and a goal difference of -2.They are bottom in the Group having lost their opening match 3-1 to Cape Verde and drawing with Mozambique 1-1.Chipolopolo also have a single point but with a superior goal difference of -1.A 0-0 draw against Mozambique in Lusaka was closely followed by a 2-1 away loss to Cape Verde.
These two sides have never met before which makes this tie a tricky affair. It is also highly likely that this will be a game of few chances and whichever team converts theirs will most probably emerge winners.
Zambia coach Janza Honour has blamed his strikers, who have only netted once, for their poor start to the qualifying campaign. His opposite number Rohr Gernot insists that morale in the camp is high and is optimistic that come Saturday his side will pick up maximum points from this match.
UGANDA v TOGO
Cranes coach Milutin `Micho` Sredojevic has termed their match against Togo at the Nelson Mandela Stadium as a must win. Well aware that his final home match will be against Group D favourites Ghana, Micho has urged his charges not to underrate their opponents despite being last in the group standings.
The Sparrow Hawks have lost all their matches; 2-1 away to Guinea and 3-2 to Ghana at home. On the other hand, Uganda lead the group with four points having won 2-0 in Kampala against Guinea and sharing the spoils with Ghana in a 1-1 draw.
Togo have never lost a match against Uganda. Out of the four times these two sides have met, the visitors have won twice while the other two have ended in a stalemate. The last encounter between them was a 3-0 win for Togo 13 years ago. This statistic will breathe some confidence in the Togolese contingent going into this game.
Tottenham Hotspur striker Emmanuel Adebayor will be tasked with the goal-getting duties for the visitors although the major worry for his coach Tchakala Tchanile will be his porous defence that has conceded a massive five goals thus far. Of greater concern is the fact that Uganda have never lost a match at home in the past decade.
Morale is high in the Cranes camp and the focus is on ending the 37-year wait for an appearance in an Afcon final. The attack has been beefed up by the inclusion of on-form Kenya Premier League (KPL) top scorer Dan Sserunkuma and AS Vita marksman Yunus Ssentamu. Experienced Pretoria University forward Geoffrey Massa will hope to increase his goal tally this weekend and remain on top of the scorers chart.
GUINEA v GHANA
Guinea will once again host a match at their adopted home ground in Casablanca, Morocco due to the menace posed by the noxious Ebola virus back at home. They will look to return to winning ways when they welcome Ghana at the Mohammed V Complex this weekend.
The Black Stars are second though level on four points with leaders Uganda but have an inferior goal difference. They have scored four goals and conceded three as a result of their 1-1 draw against Uganda at home and 3-2 win against Togo in Lome. On the other hand, Syli Nationale have three points and occupy third position on the log. They beat Togo 2-1 in Casablanca before losing 2-0 to Uganda in Kampala.
The two sides have met a record 19 times with Ghana winning 10 matches, Guinea winning three and shared the spoils in the other six.The last time they met was in February 2012 in a Group B match at the Afcon finals and the match ended in a 1-1 draw. An interesting statistic is that the last time Guinea tasted victory over Ghana was 37 years ago. The Ayew brothers will be relied upon for goals alongside veteran Gyan Asamoah.
His opposite number Michel Dussuyer insists that his side are under no pressure at all but insists that getting a decent result against the star-studded opposition will boost the morale of his team going forward. He will be boosted by the return of Sylla Idrissa from suspension.
MOZAMBIQUE v CAPE VERDE
Blue Sharks coach Rui Aguas is bullish ahead of their clash with second-placed Mozambique at the Esatadio de Machava in Maputo this weekend. He will be looking to extend his lead at the summit of Group F having won his first two matches.
The Mambas have two points after drawing their opening two games against Zambia(0-0) and Niger(1-1).On the other hand, Cape Verde have six points after beating Niger 3-1 in Niamey and later seeing off Zambia 2-1 at home.
This fixture brings together two teams that have never met before. While Cape Verde boast the best attack in the group having scored five goals so far, they come up against a side with some of the best defence having conceded only once.
A win for the Blue Sharks will ensure they are only one point shy of qualifying for the finals, while a win for Joao Chisaanoâ€™s side will send them to second position with five points and narrow the gap between them and the leaders.
BOTSWANA v EGYPT
A bottom of the table clash pitting Botswana against seven-time African champion, Egypt will be staged at the National Stadium in Gaborone this Friday. This tie presents a perfect opportunity for both sides that have lost their first two matches to bring their qualifying campaigns back on track.
The Pharaohs lie bottom of group G with no points, having lost 2-0 to Senegal in Dakar and later succumbing to a 1-0 defeat at home to neighbors Tunisia. Botswana have an equal number of points after losing 2-1 in Tunis against Tunisia before falling 2-1 to group leaders Senegal at home.
Zebras coach Peter Butler is well aware that anything less than a win will spell doom for his side and he hopes that the home crowd will inspire his boys to victory. His opposite number Shawky Gharib is cognisant of the fact that a win will not only reduce the gap between them and the leaders but also put their campaign back on track.
Egypt, who are yet to score a goal this campaign, will hope that their strikers can open their accounts against a leaking Botswana defence that has conceded four goals so far. For the hosts, who are yet to score at home, they will have to avoid conceding an early goal as they go in pursuit of their first victory at home.
SENEGAL v TUNISIA
The Lions of Teranga will look to roar and stamp their authority in Group G when they welcome the Carthage Eagles at their den, the Leopold Sedar Senghor Stadium in Dakar this Friday. This is a top-of-the-table clash that is expected to produce fireworks.
The two sides are level on six points with Senegal having a superior goal difference. Senegal have recorded two identical 2-0 wins over Egypt (home) and Botswana (away) while Tunisia beat the Zebras 2-1 in Tunis and later secured a narrow 1-0 win in Cairo against Egypt.
History clearly favours the visitors and this gives them confidence going into this tie. Out of the 17 times they have met, Tunisia have won eight games, Senegal winning thrice while they shared the spoils in the other six matches. The last encounter between the two, a group match in Afcon 2008, ended in a 2-2 draw.
Senegal coach Alain Giresse hopes his defence, led by burly Cheikhou Kouyate, will hold their own against the likes of Wahbi Kazri, Issam Jemaa and Youssef Msakni. Up front, the in-form attacking duo of Demba Ba and Mame Diouf will be relied upon for the goals as skipper Mohamed Diame pulls the strings in midfield.
On the other hand, goalkeeper and skipper Aymen Mathlouthi will have to be at his best if George Leekensâ€™ side is to get a decent result from this tie. The Toulouse duo of Aymen Abdenour and Cheick Mâ€™bengue will have to forget their friendship at club level at least for the duration of the game.