The second round of African World Cup Qualifying has come to an end and the 10 group winners have progressed to the playoffs. These hotly-contested fixtures will see five home-and-away ties, with only the winners advancing to the World Cup proper in Brazil next summer.
The CAF qualifying programme has not been without drama or controversy thus far.
A number of the continent’s "bigger" sides have fallen by the wayside, while more still have been penalised for breaking rules.
Expect to see high-octane action and pure footballing theatre as these 10 teams collide in October and November. For some of the competing players, these fixtures will represent their last chance of making it to a World Cup, for others, the spectacle of football’s greatest occasion has never been closer.
Read on as we run-down the remaining 10 sides and evaluate their chances of progression.
Group Stage Record: Made heavy work of what ought to have been a straightforward pool in Group F. Dropped points to Malawi, Kenya and Namibia. W3 D3 L0.
Coach: Stephen Keshi was a national hero in his day as a stalwart centre-back in the heart of the Super Eagles’ backline. Today his popularity has soared following Nigeria’s recent success under his bold and brave stewardship.
Star Man: Lethargic and clunky for Chelsea, John Obi Mikel is majesty personified when on duty with the Super Eagles. He guides those around him, inspires the squad’s younger members and acts as the side’s creative heartbeat.
World Cup Pedigree: Serial qualifiers, Nigeria have made four tournaments—only missing the 2006 showpiece between 1994 and 2010. Their first two appearances ended in the second round, but since 1998 they haven’t escaped from the group.
Prognosis: According to Goal.com, when questioned, 40.5% of Super Eagles fans said that their preferred draw was Ethiopia. Nigeria will be overwhelming favourites, but their group stage labours against much weaker sides are concerning.
Group Stage Record: Struggled away in Libya and the DRC, but performed well enough at home to seal progression. W4 D1 L1.
Coach: A veteran of German football, Volker Finke was head coach at Freiburg for over 15 years before stepping into international management with Cameroon earlier in 2013.
Star Man: There is quality throughout the side, but Samuel Eto’o, Africa’s finest striker and now Chelsea frontman, remains an irresistible, inspirational talent.
World Cup Pedigree: The pioneers for the modern African aspirations. Cameroon broke the glass ceiling in 1990 by racing to the quarterfinal with an iconic—if over-zealous—team led by the irrepressible Roger Milla.
Prognosis: Recent stumblings at the crunch end of qualifying programmes may well send a tremor of caution through the squad, if Cameroon can avoid defeat away in Rades they will surely be in the driving seat to end four years of disappointment.
Group Stage Record: Tore through the field in Group G and guaranteed their place in the playoffs without breaking sweat. W6 D0 L0.
Coach: Former USA boss Bob Bradley has excelled as Pharaohs coach. He has made the most of the country’s difficult situation, embraced victims, players and families alike, and has made it his mission to bring pride to the country through football.
Star Man: Mohamed Salah might be the name on everyone’s lips, but even though the prodigious Basel man is the current top scorer in CAF World Cup qualifying, Mohamed Aboutrika remains the brains of the operation and the side’s heartbeat.
One of the finest players, let alone midfielders, Africa has ever produced, Aboutrika will be desperate to build on his Olympic showing and demonstrate his prowess before a worldwide audience.
World Cup Pedigree: Despite their recent decade of dominance, Egypt have only managed to qualify for two World Cups (in 1934 and 1990). They are yet to win a game at the international showpiece.
Prognosis: Ghana represent a massive challenge for Bradley and company however, I back an ebullient crowd in El Gouna to carry their Pharaonic heroes to glory
Group Stage Record: Beat Zambia in a crunch match in Kumasi to eliminate the 2012 AFCON champions and to escape, themselves, from Group D. W5 D0 L1.
Coach: Kwesi Appiah was a left-back for Ashanti side Asante Kotoko and the Ghanaian national side during the late 80s and early 90s. He took over stewardship of the Black Stars in 2012.
Star Man: Take your pick. Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Andre Ayew recently stepped back into a squad already containing the likes of Asamoah Gyan, Kwadwo Asamoah and Emmanuel Badu giving the Black Stars a surplus of superstars.
World Cup Pedigree: Surprisingly faible considering Ghana’s continental reputation. Finally qualified for the "big one" in 2006 and impressed en route to the second round. In 2010 they went one step further.
It could (and should) have been much more had Luis Suarez and a well-placed hand not interfered.
Prognosis: Ghana’s talent-packed midfield will look to starve Egypt of the ball and close out the tie in the first leg in West Africa. They certainly have the quality to make the World Cup but need to be wary of Egypt’s dangermen.
Group Stage Record: Continued their recent Giant Killing form by taking four points from South Africa and besting Bafana Bafana to top spot. W4 D1 L1.
Coach: Sewnet Bishaw is an experienced local boss who is currently in his second stint in charge of the national side. He is a national hero having succeeded in taking Ethiopia to the 2013 Cup of Nations—their first for over 30 years.
Star Man: Look out for Saladin Said and Adane Girma, two excellent forwards who are more than capable of troubling some of Africa’s finest defences. Also, Addis Hintsa is a midfielder of wonderful vision.
World Cup Pedigree: Ethiopia are yet to qualify.
Prognosis: Will head into contest with Nigeria unshackled by fear or expectation. Little will be expected of them, but as they have demonstrated recently, they are capable of upsetting the continent’s giants.
Group Stage Record: Thrived following the rule-breaking of their opponents to pip the Republic of Congo to first place in Group E. W4 D0 L2.
Coach: Belgian Paul Put managed various sides in his homeland before turning his hand to Africa, with a stint as The Gambia boss preceding his current position. Was once allegedly involved in a match-fixing scandal.
Star Man: A very balanced squad throws up accomplished players in almost every position. Attackers Jonathan Pitroipa and Alain Traore, of Rennes and Lorient respectively, are the nation’s key threats. Both endured testing times at the Cup of Nations and will be keen to make up for lost time at a major tournament.
World Cup Pedigree: Never previously qualified.
Prognosis: Will need to channel their Cup of Nations resilience and get the big guns firing in order to make their inaugural World Cup. Algeria represent a friendly draw.
Group Stage Record: Made amends—somewhat—for their recent Cup of Nations nightmare by escaping from Group H ahead of Mali. W5 D0 L1.
Coach: Bosnian boss Vahid Halilhodzic was a fine forward in his day. As a manager he has led a number of diverse sides including Raja Casablanca, Cote d’Ivoire, Paris Saint-Germain, Trabzonspor and Dinamo Zagreb.
Star Man: Many of the team that qualified for the last World Cup remain. Madjid Bougherra, formerly of Glasgow Rangers, captains the side and is a rock in defence, while Adlene Guedioura is a dynamo of a midfielder.
World Cup Pedigree: Qualified for the 1982, 1986 and, after a break of over 20 years, the 2010 World Cups. Haven’t won a match at the competition since Spain 1982.
Prognosis: Will feel confident of completing their post-AFCON disaster redemption and making the big stage next summer. They have the strength across the side to keep the clash tight and make it to Brazil.
Group Stage Record: Were initially eliminated only to be reinstated following Cape Verde’s penalisation for fielding an illegible player. Escaped from the controversial Group B. W4 D2 L0.
Coach: Currently vacant after Nabil Maaloul resigned following a home defeat to Cape Verde. The result was later overturned—it is a decision that Maaloul may live to regret.
Star Man: Youssef Msakni disappointed many European clubs by choosing to move to Qatari side Lekhwiya. He is an attacking midfielder capable of changing the complexion of a contest in an instant.
World Cup Pedigree: Four-time qualifiers, but with a dismal record at the big one. Tunisia have never escaped from the group stage.
Prognosis: A good result in the first leg, at home, is imperative. If it is not forthcoming, then the second contest in Yaounde could be particularly uncomfortable.
Group Stage Record: Riots in Dakar during their Afcon qualifier with Cote d’Ivoire back in 2012 meant that Senegal played their last two home fixtures on foreign soil, they managed to cope with the inconvenience to seize top spot. W3 D3 L0.
Coach: Alain Giresse—Elegant French midfielder who was the nation’s Footballer of the Year on several occasions in the 80s. Has held a number of top jobs in his homeland and across the African continent since the mid-90s.
Star Man: The side’s firepower is exceptional, with Moussa Sow, Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba, Mame Biram Diouf and Dame N’Doye all capable of chipping in goals. Mohamed Diame, however, is a key player and a driving force from midfield.
World Cup Pedigree: Burst onto the scene in 2002, beating France, dumping out the holders, eliminating Sweden and making it all the way to the Quarter-final. Senegal would love to muster the team spirit of a decade ago and relive that glorious summer.
Prognosis: A West African derby with Cote d’Ivoire is not what the doctor ordered, particularly considering the explosive qualifier between the two ahead of the Cup of Nations. They will do well to keep their cool, let alone advance.
Group Stage Record: One of the first teams to advance after sleep-walking their way through Group C. Aided by Morocco’s failings. W4 D2 L0.
Coach: Sabri Lamouchi—A former France international who was a surprise choice to take the job in 2012.
Star Man: Didier Drogba, when he plays, remains the team’s iconic figurehead, but it is Yaya Toure in central midfield that truly carries the most clout these days.
World Cup Pedigree: The Golden Generation made it to two World Cups, in 2006 and 2010, but a pair of extremely taxing group stage draws made progression impossible. Will hope for better this time around.
Prognosis: Slip-ups have become almost common place for the Elephants over the last few years, particularly at the business end of competitions. They haven’t failed to make it to a World Cup at the last two attempts, however, and will be optimistic of coming good against their local rivals.