JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – The struggle for 2012 Africa Cup of Nations places reaches a climax this weekend with 21 countries chasing 10 tickets to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea next January and February.
Apart from the co-hosts, who participate automatically, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal and newcomers Botswana have qualified for the biennial African football showcase that will be staged in an even-number year for the final time.
Countries who definitely will not be in Central Africa early next year include Egypt, winners of the last three tournaments but languishing at the bottom of Group G without a win in five matches, and four-time champions Cameroon.
There could be more big-name casualties to come with 2010 World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana needing a draw in Sudan to be sure of making it while Nigeria must defeat Guinea 1-0 or by at least two goals to replace them at the top of the table.
South Africa are another country walking a tightrope as even a home victory over Sierra Leone will not suffice if surprise leaders Niger collect maximum points in Egypt, who are fielding a young, internationally-raw team with an eye on the 2012 Olympic Games.
Wins for Mali away to Liberia and Uganda at home to Kenya will assure them of places, Morocco are virtually certain to qualify if they win at home to Tanzania and Malawi advance if they return from Chad victorious.
Success for Uganda would trigger an outpouring of joy in a nation that last competed at the African tournament 33 years ago while other hopefuls include the Cape Verde Islands, Central African Republic and Niger, countries who have never reached the finals.
Adding to the drama is that the best two runners-up from the 10 groups with four or less teams also book places and results versus the bottom side do not count which hit Cameroon hard as six points and eight goals amassed against Mauritius became irrelevant.
Ghana have dropped club-less goalkeeper Richard Kingson and in-form midfielder Andre Ayew ahead of a Group I clash in Omdurman certain to test the stamina of the visitors with the mid-afternoon kick-off meaning a probable near-40 degrees celsius temperature.
The fury of Nigeria centre-back and captain Joseph Yobo last month after battling to play on a Madagascar ‘cabbage patch’ has prompted officials to resurface the Abuja pitch for the top-of-the-table Group B showdown with Guinea.
There is no place in the ‘Super Eagles’ squad for long-time first-choice goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, dropped by no-nonsense coach Samson Siasia after criticising travel arrangements for the journey to Antananarivo.
South Africa face Sierra Leone, a side they have neither beaten nor scored against in three previous meetings, without captain and midfielder Steven Pienaar, left-back Tsepo Masilela and striker Davide Somma, all injured.
A lack of goals remains a concern for Bafana Bafana (The Boys), who failed to qualify for the 2010 Cup of Nations in Angola, with five matches producing only four and coach Pitso Mosimane admits there is an over reliance on striker Katlego Mphela.
Libya will reflect political changes in the North African country by wearing new kit and singing a new national anthem in front of a new flag when they confront Group C leaders Zambia in Chingola needing a win to swop places.
The 16 qualifiers will be split into four groups at an October 29 draw in Equatorial Guinea and the Cup of Nations kicks off in Bata on January 21 and finishes in Libreville on February 12 with a final many pundits expect Ghana and Ivory Coast to contest.
Leading scorers of Africa Cup of Nations
Leading scorers in 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying competition ahead of final fixtures this weekend:
6 – Issam Jemaa (TUN)
5 – Mamaodou Niang (SEN), Jerome Ramatlhakwane (BOT)
4 – Didier Drogba (CIV), Moussa Sow (SEN), Alain Traore (BUR)