Africa’s World Cup playoffs will serve up a Mohamed Salah versus Sadio Mane sequel as the Liverpool teammates face off on opposite sides again with their countries, this time for a place at football’s biggest show.
Salah’s Egypt will face Mane’s Senegal in one of the continent’s five decisive World Cup playoffs, with the first leg in Cairo on Friday.
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The draw for the playoffs was made before the two Liverpool stars met in last month’s African Cup of Nations final, which was won by Senegal in a shoot-out thanks to Mane’s winning penalty.
The second leg is at Senegal’s new 50,000-seat Abdoulaye Wade Stadium on Tuesday.
Egypt versus Senegal headlines the playoffs but there is also a big West African derby pitting Ghana against Nigeria.
The five winners of the two-legged ties will seal progress to Qatar 2022.
Egypt v Senegal
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp recognised the significance of the game when he rested Mane for Sunday’s FA Cup quarterfinal against Nottingham Forest because Salah was already out with a minor injury.
“Because the game is too big in Africa,” Klopp said.
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse has largely kept faith with the players that became African champions in Cameroon earlier this year when considering his squad.
Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz challenged Salah and his teammates to succeed this time “because there is no room for sorrys or tomorrows”.
Ghana v Nigeria
Four-time African champions and former World Cup quarterfinalists Ghana are in damage control following an embarrassing group-stage exit at the African Cup at the hands of Comoros.
Ghana have new leadership in head coach Otto Addo and technical adviser Chris Hughton after Milovan Rajevac was fired for the African Cup failure. The team is without captain Andre Ayew because of his red card in that loss to Comoros.
Nigeria were at times impressive at the African Cup and has been strengthened by the return of strikers Victor Osimhen and Odion Ighalo, who were both unavailable for that tournament.
Cameroon v Algeria
Like Ghana, Algeria have to restore their reputation after a dire defence of their African title in Cameroon, when they finished bottom of the group without winning a game.
Veteran striker Baghdad Bounedjah and midfielder Yassine Brahimi have been dropped from the squad by coach Djamel Belmadi.
Cameroon are now coached by former national captain Rigobert Song, who was appointed a month ago with the support of new Cameroon federation president Samuel Eto’o, his former teammate.
The Indomitable Lions’ buildup has been complicated by goalkeeper Andre Onana’s involvement in a serious car crash this week – he escaped unhurt – and the unavailability of key midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa because of injury.
DR Congo v Morocco
DR Congo could be the story of the playoffs if they surprise Morocco to reach the World Cup for the first time since their only previous appearance at the 1974 tournament as Zaire.
That may be remembered for the 9-0 loss to Yugoslavia that still shares the record as the World Cup’s biggest defeat. But this Congo team is led by experienced Argentine coach Hector Cuper and can call on former Belgium youth player Theo Bongonda for the first time after the winger switched allegiance to his parents’ country of birth in January.
Morocco are the clear favourite to advance even without Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech, who has turned down a recall because of his continuing feud with coach Vahid Hallihodzic.
Mali v Tunisia
Mali are the only one of the 10 playoff contenders to have never played at a World Cup before.
They have now been able to call up two former France under-21 players in Eintracht Frankfurt defender Almamy Toure and Everton midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure against Tunisia.