Nigeria national football team players pose prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying football match between Nigeria and Cameroon at Godswill Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo, southern Nigeria, on September 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI
Nigeria, Egypt and Tunisia could all book their spots at next year’s World Cup in the penultimate round of African qualifiers at the weekend, but the other two slots will only be decided next month.
A home victory over Zambia – a side they beat away at the start of the group phase – will be enough to see Nigeria return to the finals after reaching the second round in Brazil in 2014.
Last month’s convincing 4-0 win over Cameroon, inspired by the return of Victor Moses to the team, saw them eliminate the reigning African champions and establish a three-point advantage, with two games to play, at the head of Group B.
“We must wrap this race up on Saturday. Our team has shown professionalism, dedication and determination to be in this position,” captain John Obi Mikel said in the build-up to the match in Uyo.
Zambia’s young side upset Algeria away in their last game to stay in the race and give themselves hopes of an unlikely turnaround, after picking up a solitary point from their opening two matches.
Egypt play on Sunday against Congo in Alexandria in a match expected to produce a routine win and which follows 24 hours after their two rivals in Group E – Uganda and Ghana — go head-to-head in Kampala.
Uganda are two points behind Egypt and Ghana four points adrift of the group leaders, as they face missing out on the World Cup after appearing at the last three finals.
For Egypt, World Cup qualification has been something of a Holy Grail since their last appearance at the tournament in Italy in 1990 with several heart-breaking failures since.
Injuries to key players have ratcheted up the pressure as coach Hector Cuper told a press conference in Cairo at the start of the week.
“The challenge is stressful, of course, I‘m taking hypertension medicine because of it.
“Life is full of stress, but the challenge of reaching the World Cup is the toughest stress I’ve faced,” he said.
Tunisia’s three-point advantage over the Democratic Republic of Congo in Group A has also put them in a strong position to qualify although both countries play away on Saturday in their penultimate ties.
Tunisia are away in Guinea while the Congolese take on Libya.
In Group C, the Ivory Coast have a narrow one point advantage over Morocco, but have a tough match in Mali on Friday.
Morocco host Gabon, who have Pierre-Emerick Auabemyang back, on Saturday.
In Group D, all four teams are still in with a chance as the Cape Verde Islands host Senegal and Burkina Faso are away in Johannesburg to take on South Africa.
Only the five group winners advance to next year’s World Cup finals.