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Africa Cup of Nations 2021 qualifiers: The road to Cameroon begins

Less than four months have passed since Baghdad Bounedjah's bizarre, looping second-minute effort secured the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations title for Algeria, yet the continent's major sides are resuming hostilities.

In October, the eight lowest-ranked nations in Africa played off for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the big boys, but Wednesday's group stage openers mark the proper kickoff for the Cameroon 2021 campaign.

Defending champs get tricky start

Algeria begin their title defence against Zambia in Blida, with the Chipolopolo one of several heavyweights who will be desperate to bounce back after missing out on the 2019 tournament.

Djamel Belmadi has largely stuck with the players who served him so well in Egypt, but with retired Rafik Halliche, unattached Mehdi Zeffane and Yacine Brahimi among the few absentees from the Afcon-winning squad.

Dual-nationality Italo-Algerian centre-back Maxime Spano has been introduced, following a fine start to the season with Ligue 2 Valenciennes, while El-Arbi Hillel Soudani returns after hitting five goals for Olympiakos.

Amusingly, Haris Belkebla, who was axed from the Afcon squad on the eve of the tournament after unknowingly revealing his buttocks to the watching world during a live Fortnite stream, has been handed a recall.

Zambia, now under Aggrey Chiyangi following the disastrous tenure of Sven Vandenbroeck, have nothing to lose away at the champions, but can ill afford to drop points at home against Zimbabwe (who meet Botswana on Thursday) in their second group game next Monday.

The Warriors will be without Charlton Athletic striker Macauley Bonne despite procuring a Zimbabwean passport for him after "unforeseen medical grounds" prevented him from joining up with the team.

"I've been working extremely hard at club level," he wrote in a statement on his @MBonne9 Twitter handle, "and to receive [the passport] is something I dreamed of as a boy."

Senegal return to fortuitous venue

In Group I, Afcon finalists Senegal begin their campaign against Congo-Brazzaville at the Stade Lat-Dior in Thies, where they won the WAFU Cup of Nations a month ago.

Coach Aliou Cisse has opted not to recruit from that squad, although a team containing Sadio Mane, Idriss Gueye and Kalidou Koulibaly again looks to be among the strongest on the continent.

While Mane will feature for the Teranga Lions, his Liverpool teammate Mohamed Salah will not, after withdrawing from the Egypt squad on Tuesday after picking up an ankle injury in Sunday's Premier League victory over Manchester City.

The Pharaohs star will now sit out the home match against Kenya on Wednesday, as well as Monday's trip to the Comoros.

It's imperative that Egypt, under new coach Hossam El Badry, get off to a strong start after a miserable Nations Cup on home soil and the subsequent dismissal of Javier Aguirre.

El Badry has restored Mahmoud Kahraba - unfancied under his predecessor - to the squad despite his ongoing dispute with club side SC Zamalek, and the 25-year-old will now take on even more importance following Salah's injury.

"Egypt are still a strong nation because they have good players, and we are too," former Gor Mahia captain Kenneth Muguna told ESPN.

"We have to be at our best if we're to get a positive result on Thursday."

Kenya endure less-than-ideal build-up

Kenya, meanwhile, have serious problems of their own, with the Football Kenya Federation threatening to withdraw the Harambee Stars from the Afcon qualifiers due to a lack of funds, amidst the domestic pull-out of SportPesa and following the federation's alleged failure to back the team with the Afcon prize money.

The pre-match complications regarding funding for plane tickets and the organisation of logistics has completely overshadowed what will be a first full competitive match for new coach Francis Kimanzi, who replaced Frenchman Sebastien Migne after the Stars' poor Afcon showing.

He's opted to recall Jesse Were and Teddy Akumu, both of whom were perplexingly cut by Migne, while striker John Mark Makwatta is an exciting inclusion after his fine start to the season with AFC Leopards.

"It's not about one player in Salah, it's about the whole team," Akumu told ESPN. "I know there are others who are as good.

"We respect them as one of Africa's best, but this is football and we're ready for the task."

Can Bafana maintain form against Ghana?

The biggest match of gameweek one comes in Cape Coast, where a Ghana side ravaged by injuries host a South Africa team who arguably over-performed in Egypt to reach the quarter finals.

Now under Molefi Ntseki following Stuart Baxter's exit, they'll be quietly - if cautiously - confident of taking at least a point from the Black Stars.

"We are very careful in our approach," Ntseki told journalists, as per BusinessLIVE. "Our tactical strategy has to be one of being protective‚ but at the same time we should not be dropping too deep and giving Ghana possession‚ because they can always be dangerous."

Unconvincing at the Afcon, Ghana are without Harrison Afful, Mubarak Wakaso and uncapped Mohammed Salisu (all through injury), as well as Christopher Antwi-Adjei, who didn't receive his passport in time.

Also under new management heading into the qualifiers are Morocco, where former Algeria boss Vahid Halilhodzic has replaced Herve Renard, and will be keen for a strong response against neighbours Mauritania.

Halilhodzic has pedigree in African football; he was a CAF Champions League winner with Raja Casablanca, and took both the Ivory Coast and Les Fennecs to the World Cup, but he's already encountered some criticism after a series of disappointing friendly results across September and October in which he trialled 32 players.

Again, as had been the case under Renard, Morocco struggled to put away their goalscoring chances, and this is a pressing issue that Halilhodzic must resolve as a matter of urgency, although he's opted not to call up in-form Schalke 04 starlet Amine Harit.

'A Weaponless War' for Burundi

Also in Group E, the Central African Republic will be without key midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia of Valencia for their meetings with Burundi and Mauritania after he was injured in La Liga action.

"We're planning a weapon-less war on the pitch against our brothers from the Central African Republic," warned Burundi coach Olivier Niyungeko in his pre-match press conference, "and we're taking the best possible result back to Bangui."

Uganda, favourites to advance from Group B, begin their campaign with a tough away fixture against Burkina Faso, who will be desperate to bounce back after missing out on the tournament in Egypt.

New coach Johnny McKinstry has assured ESPN that "all systems [are] go ahead of the first qualifiers," although he'll be aware that he has big shoes to fill after the successful tenures of Milutin Sredojevic and Sebastien Desabre, both of whom broke new ground with the Cranes.

The Democratic Republic of Congo are also turning over a new leaf after Florent Ibenge stepped down in the aftermath of the Afcon, bringing to an end his five-tear stint at the helm.

He's been replaced by Christian Nsengi-Biembe, the Leopards' former technical director, who will be charged both with revitalising a squad that had begun to appear a little jaded, and continue the fine recruitment of his predecessor, who consistently bolstered the Central Africans with diaspora talent.

Stoke City midfielder and ex-France U21 international Giannelli Imbula should finally make his DRC debut after his international clearance came too late for him to make the 2019 Afcon squad.

The Leopards meet Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's Gabon on Thursday, before an away trip to much improved Gambia on Monday. The Panthers square off with Angola in their first Group D bout.

No pressure on the hosts

Cameroon, who qualify for the 2021 edition automatically as hosts, are also under new management after Clarence Seedorf's promising but ultimately confused tenure at the helm ended soon after their Afcon elimination by Nigeria.

He's been replaced by low profile Portuguese manager Toni Conceicao. The 57-year-old is an intriguing choice, with zero experience of the African game and a limited trophy haul behind him.

The new man, who is being assisted by Indomitable Lions great Francois Omam-Biyik, is talking about a long-term project, with part of his focus set to be on developing young talent, although he will come under increasing scrutiny if results don't go his way in one of the continent's most demanding jobs.

"We have a big construction work ahead of us," he told journalists, as per 24 Cameroun. "It doesn't make us afraid, but it motivates us. We just want to do well to represent the country.

"I don't feel any pressure. The only pressure I have is to work and be professional with my staff."

That may soon change if Cameroon struggle against Cape Verde at home and Rwanda away during this international break.

Finally, while Nigeria have retained the services of Gernot Rohr, the Super Eagles are also entering into a new chapter following the post-Afcon retirements of the influential John Obi Mikel and Nations Cup top scorer Odion Ighalo.

Despite a semi-final finish in Egypt, Rohr is still to truly convince that he can get the best out of this promising Super Eagles generation, and a slow start against a resilient and dogged Benin side in Uyo on Wednesday could spell trouble.

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