Bob Bradley-led Egypt closing in on World Cup qualification
JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Egypt is closing in on a World Cup place, an achievement that would wipe away two years of pain for the country's game and put it back at football's top tournament for the first time in over 20 years.
Unbeaten and leading Group G, Egypt plays Zimbabwe on Sunday and a victory can just about clinch the group and a place in the final playoffs for former U.S. coach Bob Bradley's team.
But Africa's tricky and demanding qualifying process for Brazil next year can still spell trouble for the bigger teams.
The 10 group winners have to face off in those decisive two-legged playoffs to be one of Africa's five countries at the World Cup, a change that means the trip to Brazil will ultimately hinge on one tie and not a prolonged group competition like last time.
A slip there and a team loses everything.
"Qualification in Africa is difficult,'' Bradley said recently. "That home-and-away tie against another group winner. There will be no margin for error.''
Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon also lead their groups, although none of them convincingly, while Ghana trails Zambia and is under pressure. Morocco's hopes appear to be over, and South Africa is in danger of going from World Cup host to absentee.
The next two rounds of qualifiers feature 40 games packed into 11 days, leaving just one more group date in September before the playoffs.
Egypt has a perfect record and a five-point lead over Guinea, a surprisingly smooth ride so far after political upheaval at home over the last few years led to the seven-time African champion's failure to qualify for successive continental championships in 2012 and 2013.
Victory in Harare and Guinea's failure to beat Mozambique will send Egypt to the playoffs, a step away from what would be a second World Cup appearance and first since 1990.
Top-ranked in Africa, Ivory Coast will be at Gambia on Saturday, Group C's bottom-place team, and hoping to extend its one-point lead over Tanzania without striker Didier Drogba. Coach Sabri Lamouchi decided to rest Drogba from World Cup qualifying since the African Cup at the start of the year to look to Ivory Coast's future.
"We need a dynamic and youthful selection,'' Lamouchi said ahead of the Gambia game, adding Drogba would be back in August. "I remain convinced that Ivory Coast holds many talents. My concern is to create a balance between old and new.''
African champion Nigeria beat Kenya 1-0 through a late goal by Ahmed Musa on Wednesday to open a two-point lead over Malawi at the top of Group F. Those fixtures were brought forward so Nigeria can travel to the Confederations Cup this month - a possible distraction to its World Cup qualifying effort.
Cameroon has a slender one-point lead over Libya to protect when it visits Togo on Sunday without striker Samuel Eto'o, who was injured playing for Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala. Cameroon also has brought in Germany's Volker Finke as the new coach, a risky time to make a change.
Ghana, Africa's only quarterfinalist at the 2010 World Cup, has to go to Sudan on Friday, while rival and Group D leader Zambia is home to Lesotho on Saturday.
South Africa's trip to Cameroon to face Central African Republic on neutral territory raises another challenge for teams playing in Africa - travel problems. The Bafana Bafana squad left South Africa early Tuesday, but only arrived in Yaounde late on Wednesday after flight cancellations in Douala and an eventual five-hour bus trip and a 36-hour journey in all.
"Waiting at the airport for the next flight was not going to be an option as there were no guarantees that it would arrive, and we didn't want to find ourselves stranded again in the middle of the night,'' South Africa coach Gordon Igesund said. "The fact is that it is not the ideal preparation but we will not allow it to upset us, what is done is done.''
The weary South Africans are two points behind Ethiopia, which is away to Botswana in Group A's other game on Saturday.
Elsewhere, Tunisia leads Group B by five points ahead of its visit to Sierra Leone, Republic of Congo surprisingly leads Group E by six points, Algeria and Mali are locked in a battle at the top of Group H, and Senegal tops Group J.
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