JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Asamoah Gyan, John Obi Mikel and Jonathan Pitroipa are among the stars seeking 2014 World Cup places when the African play-offs begin this weekend.
Ivory Coast will expect goals from veteran captain Drogba as they strive to build a commanding lead over Senegal in Abidjan.
Striker and skipper Eto’o has changed his mind about retiring, giving Cameroon a timely boost before tackling Tunisia in Rades.
Many Ghana goals come from captain-cum-attack spearhead Gyan and Egypt will afford him time and space in Kumasi at their peril.
After ending a 185-match English Premier League goal drought, Nigeria midfielder Mikel hopes to make the net bulge against Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.
Voted the best 2013 Africa Cup of Nations footballer, wide attacker Pitroipa expects his service to set up a victory for Burkina Faso over Algeria in Ouagadougou.
The play-offs comprise five home-and-away ties with the overall winners qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
And if Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria succeed, the same five African countries who qualified for the 2010 tournament in South Africa will make it again.
South Africa also competed in the highly acclaimed first World Cup hosted by Africa, but as hosts having been exempted from qualifying.
Top-ranked African national team Ivory Coast have cause for confidence after beating Senegal convincingly at home in a 2013 Cup of Nations qualifier.
They were leading 2-0 in Dakar when supporters lit fires on the terraces and hurled missiles on the pitch, forcing the game to be abandoned.
A one-year ban on internationals at the stadium ensued, meaning the mid-November return fixture has been switched to Moroccan city Casablanca.
Ivorian coach Sabri Lamouchi recalled 32-year-old Liverpool defender Kolo Toure, older brother of Manchester City midfielder and reigning African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure.
Senegal continue to omit Demba Ba because he is not playing regularly for Chelsea, but off-form fellow striker Papiss Cisse of Newcastle returns after a one-match suspension.
It is a pairing neither coach wanted. “Unfavourable,” said Lamouchi. “Not my wish,” lamented fellow Frenchman and 1980s superstar Alain Giresse.
The other Saturday showdown pits rising Burkina Faso against resurgent Algeria with France-based flier Pitroipa desperate to prove second place at the 2013 Africa Cup was no fluke.
Dismissed pre-tournament as cannon fodder, the Burkinabe shocked Ghana en route to a final where they took champions Nigeria to the wire.
“We want to show South Africa was not a fluke,” stressed Pitroipa. “Everything we did there will become irrelevant if we fail to make Brazil.”
Algeria had a horrid Nations Cup, going out in the first round after being touted as possible champions, but bounced back to finish above Mali in a World Cup group.
Portugal-based Islam Slimani is among the leading qualifying competition scorers with five goals and a scoring streak in Germany earned Mohamed Amine Aoudia a call-up.
“It is a 50-50 tie,” said Bosnia-born coach Vahid Halilhodzic. “We avoided Cameroon, Egypt and Senegal, but there is no room for cockiness.”
Tunisia hope history does not repeat itself Sunday as they lost home and away to Cameroon in a 1990 World Cup play-off.
Dutch coach Ruud Krol takes charge for the first time and devising a plan to shackle recent Chelsea signing Eto’o must be a priority.
Krol excluded highly-rated midfielders Youssef Msakni and Oussama Darragi and promoted Maher Hannacni and Fakhreddine Ben Youssef from CA Sfaxien, the club he also coaches.
Cameroon have lost midfielder Stephane Mbia to injury, but the return of Eto’o offers hope of a record seventh World Cup appearance by an African country.
Mikel is part of a full-strength Nigeria side that arrives in Addis Ababa only on the eve of the Sunday showdown to escape the worst effects of the 2,300-metre (7,550 feet) altitude.
Coach Stephen Keshi is wary of outsiders Ethiopia.
“We do not have underdogs in Africa. Ethiopia have the same opportunity to play at the World Cup.”
He also dismissed a 2-0 win over them at the Nations Cup, saying: “You must not talk about the past in African football — January is a long time ago.”
A blow for Ethiopia, who beat South Africa to reach the play-offs, is the absence of injured Getaneh Gibeto, leaving Saladin Ahmed to shoulder the attacking burden.
Ghana host Egypt only next Tuesday and after losing injured centre-backs John Boye and Jonathan Mensah, hope midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng recovers from a knee problem.
Egypt have included 11 stars from African club champions Al-Ahly, including playmaker Mohamed Abou Trika, who craves a first World Cup appearance in the twilight of his career.