Desperate Egypt, Cameroon face crucial qualifiers

Powerhouses Egypt and Cameroon – with 11 continental titles
between them – face critical qualifying matches for the 2012
African Cup of Nations this weekend as both teeter on the brink of
shock eliminations.

A desperate Egypt effectively needs to beat South Africa in
Cairo on Sunday to avoid missing out next year on the championship
it has dominated and won a record seven times, including the last
three.

Defeat for four-time winner Cameroon at home to Senegal on
Saturday will likely rule it out and rob the African Cup of the
likes of Inter Milan’s Samuel Eto’o and Arsenal’s Alex Song.

Michael Essien is expected to return for Ghana for the first
time in over a year for Friday’s meeting with Republic of Congo,
but top-ranked African team and World Cup quarterfinalist Ghana
faces a battle for an automatic place as an unpredictable
qualifying competition passes the halfway mark.

The two best second-place teams from the groups will join 12
automatic qualifiers and co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea for
the 16-team Cup of Nations, but poor form leaves Egypt and Cameroon
off the pace even for a backdoor entry.

Both will seek retribution against opposition that beat them
with an injury-time goal last time round to compound their
problems.

Three-time defending champion Egypt faces its biggest football
disaster in recent memory after two losses and a draw in three
qualifiers.

The Pharaohs are bottom of Group G with one point and will fail
to qualify for the African championship for the first time since
1978 if they lose to unbeaten leaders Bafana Bafana and
second-place Niger beats Sierra Leone. A draw will leave Egypt –
already drained by political turmoil at home and a cruel
injury-time loss in Johannesburg in March – six points behind with
two matches to play and with little hope of making up the
ground.

”It’s a decider for us as a team,” Pharaohs assistant coach
Shawky Gharib said this week. ”We have to win on Sunday.

”Egypt’s national team has got a great will and strength and we
will never surrender. Our players always show what they’ve got when
they face situations like that.”

The already high-profile match was moved to the Cairo Military
Academy Stadium from the much-larger Cairo International Stadium as
violence in the Egyptian capital threatens to spill onto the field
if the result goes against the local team.

”Unfortunately we are facing the Egyptians in their back yard
and in desperate times,” said South Africa coach Pitso
Mosimane.

Bafana Bafana was boosted by the recovery from injury of captain
and playmaker Steven Pienaar, while Egypt has fitness doubts over
experienced attacking midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika.

A late goal saw Cameroon lose at Group E leader Senegal, forcing
the Indomitable Lions – who are five points behind with three games
left – into their own perilous situation.

”It was Cameroon that dominated possession from the start up
until the 90th minute,” Cameroon midfielder Andre Ndame Ndame said
of the 1-0 defeat in Dakar, ”but Senegal scored in extra time. So,
I think Cameroon can handle Senegal (this time).”

Cameroon won back to back Cup of Nations in 2000 and 2002 and
has missed one tournament in the last 30 years.

Chelsea midfielder Essien trained with Ghana this week after a
16-month absence and will likely play his first international since
January 2010.

”When I took this job I made his (Essien’s) return a
priority,” coach Goran Stevanovic said. ”He is a great player and
a great man and we are happy to have him back.”

Essien will need to find his international feet immediately as
Ghana – level on seven points with Sudan atop Group I – can’t
afford to slip up against the Congolese. Sudan plays winless
Swaziland.

Elsewhere, Nigeria aims to continue its revival under coach
Samson Siasia away in Ethiopia. Nigeria trails Group B pacesetters
Guinea by a point. Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast can qualify with a
fourth win in four games in Group H if it beats Benin and Rwanda
doesn’t beat Burundi.

Minnow Botswana will seal top spot in a five-team Group K if it
beats Malawi, adding to its historic achievement of reaching a
first-ever African Cup of Nations finals. Botswana was the first –
and so far only – team to come through qualifying.

In the same group, 2004 African Cup winner Tunisia, the last
team to claim the title before Egypt, is another former champion
facing an embarrassing failure as it trails Botswana and Malawi
ahead of a home game against Chad. Two teams qualify from Group
K.

Libya leads Group C by a point from Zambia and is on course for
Gabon and Equatorial Guinea next January despite the distraction of
a war-torn home.

African Cup of Nations qualifying fixtures (round 4 of 6):

Group A: Liberia vs. Cape Verde, Zimbabwe vs. Mali; Group B:
Ethiopia vs. Nigeria, Guinea vs. Madagascar; Group C: Zambia vs.
Mozambique, Comoros vs. Libya; Group D: Morocco vs. Algeria,
Central Africa vs. Tanzania; Group E: Mauritius vs. Congo, Cameroon
vs. Senegal; Group F: Namibia vs. Burkina Faso; Group G: Egypt vs.
South Africa, Sierra Leone vs. Niger; Group H: Benin vs. Ivory
Coast, Burundi vs. Rwanda; Group I: Ghana vs. Congo, Swaziland vs.
Sudan; Group J: Uganda vs. Guinea-Bissau, Angola vs. Kenya; Group
K: Tunisia vs. Chad, Botswana vs. Malawi.

Gerald Imray can be reached at
http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP