JOHANNESBURG: Political turmoil has affected the third round of qualifiers for the 2012 African Cup of Nations with Libya and Ivory Coast losing home advantage and Egypt facing a crucial match with doubts over the readiness of its team.
Libya’s Group C game against Comoros was moved by the Confederation of African Football from Tripoli to the Mali capital, Bamako, because of the escalating conflict in the north African nation. It has been rescheduled for Monday.
Group H leader Ivory Coast has been ordered to play Saturday’s game against Benin in Accra, Ghana and not Abidjan due to violence resulting from the refusal of the Ivorian president to relinquish power after losing internationally recognized elections.
In Johannesburg, struggling African champion Egypt faces a Group G qualifier against South Africa, with Egypt’s preparedness under scrutiny after its domestic league was suspended as protests swept long-serving leader Hosni Mubarak from power.
Already under pressure after taking just one point from two qualifying games to lie bottom of the group, Egypt plays its first international on Saturday since domestic fixtures were called off in early February. It’s left the squad’s home-based players without valuable match practice ahead of a game the six-time Cup of Nations champion desperately needs to win to revive a flagging campaign.
"Yes, we’ll try because we stopped for three months … for some political reasons," Egypt manager Samir Adly said at a training session in Johannesburg on Thursday. "But we will try to play well. All the Egyptian local players are starting to be fit."
For South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, it’s a chance to increase their lead to four points ahead of second-placed Niger’s hosting of Sierra Leone in the group’s other fixture on Sunday.
But, Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane does not believe Egypt’s political problems will help his team record a first-ever competitive win over the Pharaohs.
"We are playing at home and our main aim is to get three points," Mosimane said. "We should not underestimate our opponents because of the current standings on the table and the fact that their country has been unstable.
"In fact, they will be more dangerous as they believe this is the time to win and get their campaign back on track."
Mosimane also dropped long-serving captain Aaron Mokoena from his squad for the tie, suggesting the end of the 30-year-old defender’s international career. Tottenham midfielder Steven Pienaar was named captain.
In Group B, Nigeria hopes to continue its revival under new coach Samson Siasia when the Super Eagles play Ethiopia at home in Abuja on Sunday having won a friendly over Sierra Leone in February in Siasia’s first game in charge.
Former Nigeria international Siasia has recalled strikers Obafemi Martins and Ikechukwu Uche, who has not played for Nigeria since two serious knee injuries put him out of action for his country for over a year. Group B leader Guinea travels to Madagascar.
Algeria hosts Morocco in a north African derby in Group D, with Morocco under Belgian coach Eric Gerets for the first time in a competitive match. World Cup qualifier Algeria is last in the group, with one point from two matches.
Leader Senegal plays second-placed Cameroon in Dakar on Saturday in Group E’s biggest matchup so far, with the west African pair already opening a significant gap over Democratic Republic of Congo and Mauritius.
"We want to win this match to consolidate our position as leader of the group and continue with our work of rebuilding our national football," said Senegal coach Amara Traore, appointed after the 2002 World Cup quarterfinalist failed to reach the 2010 edition in South Africa.
Unlike, Libya, Ivory Coast and Egypt, Ghana was boosted by politics this week with the country’s former president, Jerry Rawlings, visiting Africa’s No. 1-ranked team at its training base in Kenya ahead of Sunday’s Group I match in Congo.
"This is the best team ever to be assembled in Ghana," Rawlings told the squad. "Let’s start our march to the title by beating Congo in Brazzaville on Sunday."
Ghana’s Sunderland midfielder Sulley Muntari is a doubt for the tie with a right leg injury, however, while AC Milan’s Kevin Prince-Boateng was ruled out with an ankle problem. Chelsea’s Michael Essien is still missing as he continues an extended break from international football.
Ghana and Sudan are tied on four points at the top of Group I. Sudan plays bottom team Swaziland.
In the five-team Group K, surprise package Botswana will be the first team after co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea to qualify for next year’s tournament if it beats Chad on Sunday. Botswana has never reached the finals of the African Cup of Nations.
African Cup of Nations qualifying:
Third round fixtures:
Group A: Cape Verde vs. Liberia, Mali vs. Zimbabwe; Group B: Nigeria vs. Ethiopia, Madagascar vs. Guinea; Group C: Mozambique vs. Zambia, Libya vs. Comoros; Group D: Algeria vs. Morocco, Tanzania vs. Central African Republic; Group E: Democratic Republic of Congo vs. Mauritius, Senegal vs. Cameroon; Group F: Burkina Faso vs. Namibia; Group G: South Africa vs. Egypt, Niger vs. Sierra Leone; Group H: Ivory Coast vs. Benin; Rwanda vs. Burundi; Group I: Sudan vs. Swaziland, Congo vs. Ghana; Group J: Guinea Bissau vs. Uganda, Kenya vs. Angola.
Sixth round fixtures:
Group K: Malawi vs. Togo; Chad vs. Botswana.