Journey to the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification comes off this Friday as the five teams who will represent Africa in Qatar will be known after two legs.
The five highest-ranked teams will play against the five least ranked teams (first leg will be played at home of the lower-ranked teams).
Democratic Republic of Congo v Morocco
The Congolese were the only one of the 10 countries through to the final stage of the African qualifiers who did not participate at the Cup of Nations finals earlier this year, denying them the opportunity of preparing in a competitive environment. Instead the squad went on a training camp in Bahrain, while Morocco advanced through the group phase of the tournament in Cameroon with ease, then beat Malawi in the last-16 before losing to Egypt in the quarterfinals.
The loss to Egypt was the first away defeat for Morocco since being beaten 1-0 by Portugal in Moscow in the 2018 World Cup finals.
Morocco had gone 20 games without a defeat before the 2-1 defeat by Egypt, after extra time in Yaounde on January 30, which was the last game they played.
Last year, Morocco were the only country to win all six of their World Cup African zone group qualifiers, although had the good fortune of playing all their games at home. Their three opponents Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Sudan were all stopped from hosting matches because of the poor condition of their stadia and moved their ‘home’ games to Morocco instead.
DR Congo only secured their progress to this week’s World Cup play-offs on the last day of the group qualifiers in November when they beat Benin 2-0 at home and edged them by a single point to top place in the group.
The Leopards, who qualified for the 1974 World Cup when they were still Zaire, won three of their six games in Group J.
They have since played one match against Bahrain on February 1 which they lost 1-0 and over the last 12 months competed in 11 internationals, with four victories and four defeats.
DR Congo and Morocco last met in friendly in Rabat in October 2020 which ended in a 1-1 draw. Their last competitive clash was at the 2017 Cup of Nations in Gabon where the Congolese won 1-0 in the group stage but both countries went through to the last eight.
Cameroon v Algeria
Cameroon will play a first game under Rigobert Song, their former captain, who was named earlier this month as the replacement for their Portuguese coach Toni Conceicao.
Algeria return to action after the disastrous defence of the Africa Cup of Nations title in Cameroon where they lost to lowly equatorial Guinea and bombed out of the competition with a single point.
But coach Djamel Belmadi has made minimal changes to his squad for the two-legged World Cup play off
Cameroon finished third at the Cup of Nations finals they hosted at the start of the year, not losing a game but being eliminated on post-match penalties in the semifinal. It means they are on an 11-match unbeaten run since their last defeat, to the Ivory Coast in Abidjan in September at the start of the group phase of the World Cup qualifiers.
They recovered to win four successive qualifiers after that and pip the Ivorians to top place in their group.
The Indomitable Lions lost last a home international in 1998 when Ghana beat them in Cup of Nations qualification. The game was also played in Douala.
Algeria were one game away from equaling Italy’s world record of 34 unbeaten internationals when they flopped against Equatorial Guinea. They also then lost to the Ivory Coast which means they have lost their last two games.
But in World Cup qualification, Algeria are on a seven match unbeaten run.
Algeria have beaten Cameroon only once before in a low-key tournament in Gabon in 1995 when they won 4-0 against a home-based Lions side.
Cameroon have beaten the Algerians at the 1986, 1998 and 2000 Cup of Nations finals and drew with them at the 1984 and 2004 finals.
They have played them in two World Cup qualifiers only previously, in the qualifiers for the last finals in Russia.
The two teams drew 1-1 in Algiers before Cameroon won 2-0 at home but they both finished behind Nigeria and Zambia in the group.
Mali v Tunisia
Mali are the only one of the 10 countries left in African qualification for the World Cup who have never before been to the finals. Mali did not enter until 2000 and had won only 16 of 44 qualifying matches before the start of the 2022 preliminaries.
Tunisia have been to five past finals, including the last finals in Russia and in 1978 became the first African country to win a match at the World Cup when they beat Mexico 3-1 in Rosario, Argentina.
Mali suffered humiliating elimination at the hands of Equatorial Guinea in the last-16 at the Cup of Nations finals in January, albeit not losing the game but rather succumbing on post-match penalties after a goalless draw in Limbe.
Mali have not lost in their last 10 outings, stretching back to last June when Tunisia beat them 1-0 in a friendly played in Tunis.
That includes beating the Tunisians 1-0 at the Cup of Nations tournament on January 12 when both teams kicked off their Group F campaign.
The two countries have now met 12 times with six wins for Tunisia, five for Mali and a solitary draw at the 2019 Cup of Nations finals in Egypt, when they were also in the same opening round group.
Their first meeting was 50 years ago in 1972 but this is the first time they clash in World Cup qualification.
In January, Tunisia won twice but lost three games and yet reached the last eight of the Cup of Nations with unexpected good fortune.
Coach Mondher Kebaier was shown the door by Tunisia one day after the team’s elimination in Cameroon.
His replacement is assistant Jalel Kadri, who has coached extensively at club level in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East but this is first national team appointment.
Last year, Tunisia won seven games, lost twice and drew one and progressed easily through their World Cup qualifying group.
Egypt v Senegal
A goalless draw at the Cup of Nations final in Yaounde on February 6 was followed by a narrow win for Senegal on post-match penalties and their first continental crown.
Egypt had begun the tournament with a defeat to Nigeria in their opening Group D match but bounced back to get through to the final, edging likes of the Ivory Coast, Morocco and hosts Cameroon along the way in a rugged display of resilience.
They played seven games at the tournament, winning three, featuring in three goalless stalemates and losing the clash with the Super Eagles.
Egypt had bene unbeaten since Bafana Bafana eliminated them at their own Cup of Nations in 2019. After that, they went on a 15-match unbeaten run, including unbeaten progress through their World Cup qualifying group even though new coach Carlos Queiroz was appointed only days before the campaign began.
In effect, Egypt have lost only one of their past 22 internationals.
Senegal were also unbeaten in the group phase of the World Cup qualifiers, winning five of their six games, and are on a 19-match unbeaten run.
Their last defeat came in October 2020 when Morocco beat them 3-1 in a friendly match played in Rabat.
Senegal are seeking to play at the World Cup finals for a third time after 2002, when they became the second African country to get to the quarterfinals, and in Russia four years ago.
Egypt were also at Russia 2018, ending a two-decade wait for a World Cup appearance.
They had previously competed in 1934 and in 1990, where they held the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland to draws but were then eliminated after a narrow 1-0 loss to England.
Senegal shocked Egypt when the two countries met for the first time in the opening game of the 1984 Cup of Nations tournament with Egypt going down 1-0 in Cairo but then recovering to win the tournament.
Egypt have won six, Senegal four and there have been three draws in 13 past internationals between the two countries.
Senegal’s last visit to Cairo was in 2014 when they won 1-0 in Cup of Nations qualification.
Ghana v Nigeria
The Black Stars play under a new coach Otto Addo, whose only previous experience is as a youth team coach at Borussia Dortmund in Germany. But Ghana have also employed Chris Hughton, the former Brighton and Hove Albion manager, as technical advisor for the ties against regional rivals Nigeria in the World Cup playoffs.
Addo’s appointment follows their disastrous Cup of Nations campaign in Cameroon earlier this year where a humiliating 3-2 loss to the Comoros Islands saw the Black Stars eliminated at the first hurdle.
Ghana have not won any of their past four matches since a controversial penalty gave them a 1-0 victory over South Africa at Cape Coast in November and a disputed top place in the group phase of the World Cup qualifiers.
Ghana have played 14 internationals since the beginning of 2021 with five wins, four draws and five defeats.
Nigeria’s last game was a 1-0 loss to Tunisia in the round of 16 at the Cup of Nations finals in January and ended a six game unbeaten streak, five of which were victories.
But last year, the Super Eagles also suffered a humiliating home loss to the Central African Republic in World Cup qualification, the first time they had been beaten in a World Cup qualifier since Angola beat them in Luanda in 2004. In between, they had played 38 World Cup qualifiers without defeat.
Nigeria first went to the World Cup in the US in1994, getting past the opening stage on their debut appearance, and have been to six finals in total.
Ghana first qualified for the World Cup in 2006 – at the expense of South Africa after a 2-0 win at Soccer City in a key qualifier – and were quarter-finalists in 2010, when they should have got to the final four, but Asamoah Gyan missed a last gasp penalty to squander the opportunity.
They last played at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
This will be the first clash between the west African rivals in over a decade since Ghana’s 4-1 demolition of Nigeria in a friendly played at Watford’s Vicarage Road in October 2011. – Mzansi Football
Below are fixtures of the cagey encounters
First leg fixtures:
Friday 25th March, 2022
DR Congo v Morocco
Cameroon v Algeria
Mali v Tunisia
Egypt v Senegal
Ghana v Nigeria
Second leg fixtures:
Tuesday 29th Mar 2022
Senegal v Egypt
Nigeria v Ghana
Tunisia v Mali
Algeria v Cameroon
Morocco v Congo DR