Africa’s top national teams are set to square off this weekend to settle the continent’s final three places at the World Cup in Russia.
In this feature, we profile five players whose performances could prove decisive in exactly who pockets the remaining three tickets.
Wilfried Zaha, Ivory Coast: Zaha has already sparked something of a revival at Crystal Palace since returning from injury this season.
He netted the winner against Chelsea, and followed that up with a late, late equaliser as the Eagles salvaged a point at home against fellow strugglers West Ham United.
Now his nation need him – more than ever before – and with Wilfried Bony and Jean Seri both absent, Marc Wilmots will surely be relying on Zaha stepping up to use his guile and find a way through what’s sure to be a resilient Moroccan backline.
Karim El Ahmadi, Morocco: Midfield general El Ahmadi will set the tone alongside the more expressive Mbark Boussoufa in the heart of the park. He’ll be charged with doing all of the ugly stuff, breaking up play, ensuring the team hold their position, and making sure the referee questions any decision that he’s tempted to give against the North Africans.
El Ahmadi is exactly the kind of performer you’d want on your side in this kind of scenario, and as he demonstrated with a late equaliser for Feyenoord against ADO Den Haag at the weekend, he knows how to step up when the chips are down.
Youssef Msakni, Tunisia: Tunisia are without talented forward Naim Sliti and influential left-back Ali Maaloul, while Mohamed Amine Ben Amor has been training alone in a bid to be fit.
Without these key elements, the side’s other star performers will need to step up to break down a Libyan backline who will be keen to spoil their neighbours’ party.
Msakni has already delivered a series of inspirational displays to get Tunisia this far – notably netting a hat-trick to defeat Guinea away – and how his compatriots would love for him to step up again.
Idrissa Gueye, Senegal: The performances of Gueye-the man charged with marshalling the Senegalese midfield and protecting the Lions’ defence-will be key.
He’s enduring a dismal start to the season with Everton, but few on the continent can match him for his ability to read a game from midfield, intercept opposition moves and win back the ball.
Siphiwe Tshabalala, South Africa: Stuart Baxter rolled the dice ahead of his side’s D-Day, specifically recalling Shabba after his fine performances for Kaizer Chiefs over recent weeks.
While his recall provides mixed emotions and highlights a dearth of top new talent coming through, his recent form has merited a return from the international wilderness.
He knows how to carry a struggling team through tricky spells, while his experience – at 33 – could prove invaluable as Bafana look to reach Russia.
When South Africa win back the ball against Senegal, it’s imperative that they use it wisely, and Tshabalala – who could be handed a brief operating behind a loan forward – could be a key man as Bafana seek to use the ball wisely and make the most of their opportunities.
An appearance in Russia would be a worthy career swansong for such a fine performer in his prime, but can Shabba get South Africa over the line?