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