Morocco, Central African Republic share Africa Cup of Nations qualifying spotlight

The Africa Cup of Nations matchday five qualifiers will shine the spotlight on both powerhouse Morocco and underdog Central African Republic (C.A.R.), despite their vast 111-place difference in the world rankings. While Morocco prepares for their first competitive fixture since their remarkable journey to the 2022 World Cup semi-finals, C.A.R. aims to secure a historic qualification by defeating Angola.

In December, Morocco achieved a groundbreaking feat as the first African or Arab team to reach the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar. Their impressive performance included a group stage victory over Belgium and knockout wins against Spain and Portugal. However, since their fourth-place finish, the Atlas Lions have been without a competitive match due to the FIFA ban imposed on their scheduled Cup of Nations opponents, Zimbabwe.

Although Morocco and South Africa have already secured the two qualifying spots from Group K at the expense of Liberia, their match in Johannesburg has generated tremendous interest. Officials at Soccer City stadium anticipate a crowd of 50,000, encouraged by the reduced ticket price from 50 rand ($2.70/2.50 euros) to 20.

For South Africa, playing in front of a large crowd will be a welcome change, as their performances in recent years have led to a decline in support. In contrast, Morocco’s squad features stars like goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, defender Achraf Hakimi, midfielder Hakim Ziyech, and forward Youssef en-Nesyri, all of whom play in top European leagues. Notably, no South African players featured in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, or Bundesliga last season. Forward Lyle Foster, who scored in South Africa’s 2-1 defeat to Morocco last year, has joined Burnley and is poised to compete in the English Premier League next season.

The Africa Cup of Nations has a rich history spanning 67 years, but there are still 10 countries, including C.A.R., that have never qualified for the tournament. C.A.R. came close to breaking through in the 2021 qualifiers but fell short in a decisive match against Mauritania. Despite being considered underdogs, the “Wild Beasts” have achieved notable victories in qualifiers, defeating teams like Algeria and Egypt. A win against Angola would secure their first-ever appearance in the finals.

Due to their national stadium in Bangui not meeting international standards, C.A.R. has been forced to host matches at neutral venues, with the upcoming match against Angola taking place in the Cameroonian port city of Douala. Under the guidance of Swiss coach Raoul Savoy, the team selected 24 players for the Group E game, with Atletico Madrid midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia being the most recognizable name.

As matchday five unfolds, 14 teams have the opportunity to secure qualification, potentially raising the overall total to 21 and leaving only three spots up for grabs in the final round in September. Nigeria can ensure qualification with a draw against Sierra Leone in Group A, while victory in Madagascar would guarantee Ghana’s place as leaders of Group E. In Group D, record seven-time champions Egypt face Guinea, and a draw would see both nations progress. Zambia, the surprise champions of 2012, can end their three-tournament absence by avoiding defeat at home against Ivory Coast, who have already qualified as hosts but are competing in Group H to gain match practice. Out-of-favor Chelsea forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been convinced to come out of international retirement by Gabon’s president for a crucial Group I clash with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Due to the lack of international-quality stadiums, nine teams will play at neutral venues. Sudan, facing civil war, will play Mauritania in

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