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