African champions Algeria head Group A and will have two interesting games against the Etalons of Burkina Faso, with the Niger Republic and Djibouti also in the pool.
Algeria will be even more motivated to qualify this time around. The other three teams in the pool will be just as driven to perform well, not least because none of them have ever appeared on football’s greatest stage, although Burkina Faso did come close to qualifying for the 2014 edition.
Tunisia’s Carthage Eagles head Group B which also has Zambia, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea, but the presence of Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire in Group D makes that pool most interesting. They are joined by Mozambique and Malawi. Zambia will be determined to reverse that trend, while Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania – who held the Tunisians to a draw last year – are also likely to play a pivotal role.
Three-time World Cup participants Côte d’Ivoire find themselves pitted against the African side that has qualified for the World Cup most often (seven times), Cameroon. At least one continental powerhouse will therefore not make it to the third round.
Meanwhile, Group E looks the most evenly set, with Mali, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda -none of which has been to the FIFA World Cup previously. However, Mali appear best equipped to reach the third round, but Uganda are capable of springing a surprise, as they demonstrated by qualifying for the last two Cup of Nations tournaments.
Ghana and South Africa, two nations with substantial World Cup pedigree, will face off in the standout duel in Group G. In addition, Bafana Bafana have a clash with neighbours Zimbabwe to look forward to. With Ethiopia, who are capable of competing with the best on their day, also in the mix, the pool promises to be a closely contested affair. “It’s a very even group,” noted Marcel Desailly, who assisted with the draw in Cairo. “Teams will have to get off to a strong start. Wins build momentum and generate confidence.”
In Group H, the highest-placed CAF representatives in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Senegal, boasting an attack featuring newly crowned African Player of the Year Sadio Mane, appear to be the team to beat in this pool. However, Togo, who competed at the 2006 World Cup, Congo and Namibia will not be there to simply make up the numbers.
On paper, the outcome of Group I should come down to the matches between Morocco and Guinea, who both have players performing all over Europe. That said, Guinea-Bissau, likely to be galvanised by their rivalry with neighbours Guinea, and Sudan are more than capable of gatecrashing the party.
Certainly, Group J is similarly something to savour as it is arguably the most open section, Group J features four teams who all took part in the last Cup of Nations, two of whom – Benin and Madagascar – surprisingly reached the quarter-finals. Les Leopards, who enjoy a more elevated position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking than the other three countries, were eliminated in the previous round by Madagascar at Egypt 2019, which suggests that some significant drama could lie ahead.