By Ed Dove
African international qualifiers return this weekend with a full schedule across the continent. Contests on Friday and Saturday should see a whole swathe of sides book their places at the Cup of Nations before the final round of qualifiers in midweek.
The complexion of African football has changed since the teams last engaged in the middle of October.
South Africa have encountered tragedy in the shape of the murder of their goalkeeper and skipper Senzo Meyiwa.
The Ebola epidemic continues to ravage West Africaâ€”with almost 5000 deaths having been confirmedâ€”and the disease has severely affected the continentâ€™s sporting plans.
Morocco refused to host the tournament in January, on the advice of their ministry of health, and CAF have ignored pleas to postpone. New hosts have been sought with the confederation confident that the tournament will take place on the established dates.
After all of this, it will be a pleasure to concentrate, once again, on on-field events.
Here are the key issues to watch out for during the weekendâ€™s Afcon qualifiers.
Elephants Never Forget
Remarkably, the Ivory Coast have conceded more goals than any other nation in Africaâ€™s Cup of Nations qualification programme.
In the Elephantsâ€™ first four matches, they have let in a whopping 10 goals.
Herve Renard knew he had work to do when he took the job with the West Africans, but after conceding four goals in two matches (away to Cameroon and at home against the Democratic Republic of Congo), the AFCON-winning manager is under no illusions as to the extent of the task at hand.
He has attempted to shuffle the teamâ€™s options in defence, but a succession of centre-backs (Ousmane Viera, Franck Kessie and Lamine Kone) have wholly failed to convince.
Thus, the manager turned to two veterans who he had previously axed from the international setup. Didier Zokora has refused the recallâ€”clearly enjoying watching from afarâ€”but Kolo Toure has taken up the mantle.
Can the veteran Liverpool defender bring much-needed stability to the sideâ€™s porous back line?
South Africa: Responding to Tragedy
On Sunday November 26, Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa was shot dead in Vosloorus, south of Johannesburg.
In contrast to the Ivory Coast, South Africa have the best defensive record in Cup of Nations qualifying. This was down, in no small part, to Meyiwa, who had kept four clean sheets to put Shakes Mashabaâ€™s side atop Group A.
On the field, inexperienced Darren Keet (or possibly Nhlanhla Khuzwayo) will need to step into the team and strike up a relationship with a new-look back line.
Off the field, however, how will the group of young men cope with the sudden and devastating loss of their newly appointed captain and a leader amongst them?
Mashaba has admitted, as reported by Mark Gleeson with the BBC, that the team will â€œmiss Senzo a lot.â€ Can his charges get the three points they require to get across the finish line?
Â Nigeria: The Unity of Champions
As the recent Morocco vs. CAF debacle has indicated, various aspects of African football are in a mess right now. Nigeria, the continentâ€™s reigning champions, are arguably among the most troubled footballing nations at the moment.
Manager Stephen Keshi has twice left his position since the World Cup. Initially, he left voluntarily, only to be brought back on a temporary contract. That deal came to an end following the last round of qualifiers and he was replaced by interim coach Shaibu Amodu.
However, ahead of the final pair of Group A matches, Keshi has returned to post.
Itâ€™s hard to know exactly what the relationship between the players and the beleaguered boss looks like right now. Similarly, itâ€™s hard to ascertain exactly what level of power the coach will have over his team selection.
Long-time sparring partner Ikechukwu Uche has been recalled to the squad, although some would say his return has come 12 months too late.
Can Keshi build on Nigeriaâ€™s recent victory over Sudan and ensure that the Super Eagles return to the Cup of Nations to defend their crown?
This one could go either way.
Ghana: The Calm Before the Storm
Ghana currently sit atop Group E with eight points. Togo, in second, have six, while Uganda and Guinea sit outside the qualification places on four points apiece.
On paper, the Black Stars should secure progression to the tournament, however they cannot be blase ahead of a trip to Kampala and the visit of the Sparrow Hawks.
Avram Grant has been named as the Black Starsâ€™ new coach, but it is likely that interim-boss Maxwell Konadu will manage the team for at least the first match.
The new Black Stars coaching team will be in the unusual position of having to secure Cup of Nations qualification without the sideâ€™s two star men.
The last time neither Kwadwo Asamoah nor Asamoah Gyan were present for the Black Stars was a friendly against Japan in September 2013. Ghana lost.
Apart from that, you have to go back to the beginning of 2012 to find a fixture when neither was present. Each would represent a big loss for the Black Stars, but their dual absence will necessitate a change of strategy from the stand-in boss.
Lorient forward Jordan Ayew will also be absent, for the Uganda game at least, due to suspension.
The West African giants are vulnerable, thereâ€™s no doubt about that, but can one (or two) of their Group E rivals profit?
Clash in Cairo
While Group A and Group D represent tough, tight opening pools, itâ€™s probably Group G that has deserved the tag of â€œGroup of Deathâ€ during this qualifying series.
Heading into the final two rounds of matches, North African heavyweights Tunisia look well-placed for a spot at the Cup of Nations in early 2015. The Eagles of Carthage saw off Botswana and Egypt, before scoring the only goal of 180 minutes of play in the 94thÂ minute against Senegal.
That Ferjani Sassi effort ensured that the two didnâ€™t play out two 0-0 draws, and gave Georges Leekensâ€™ boys the upper hand in the pool.
Senegal, sitting six points ahead of Egypt after the opening two rounds, looked good for qualification, but have subsequently let the initiative slip.
The Lions of Terangaâ€™s weekend meeting with the Pharaohs is Saturdayâ€™s biggest match. If Senegal can win, they will ensure AFCON progression. Lose, however, and Egypt are given an unlikely route back to the top table.