The contest to produce five African representatives beside hosts and automatic qualifiers South Africa at the 2010 World Cup begins in earnest this weekend with 23 second-round fixtures.
All 12 group winners plus the best eight runners-up advance to the third and final phase of a competition doubling as an elimination process for the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola earlier the same year.
Here are the predictions:
l Group One (Cameroon, Cape Verde Islands, Tanzania, Mauritius): Cameroon, runners-up to Egypt in the 2008 Afcon, could field a reserve team and still finish first while Tanzania might pip Cape Verde Islands for second spot and the best Mauritius can hope for is some home points;
l Group 2 (Guinea, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kenya): Potentially the most competitive pool with each country capable of beating the others. Guinea reached 2008 Afcon quarterfinals and playmaker Pascal Feindouno is a class act. Greater experience should see Guinea shade Zimbabwe;
l Group 3 (Angola, Benin, Uganda, Niger): Angola were shock qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup at expense of Nigeria and they have unearthed a new star in Manchester United-bound striker Manucho. Little to separate hard-working but goal-shy Benin from improving Uganda;
l Group 4 (Nigeria, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone): Nigeria are favoured despite horror Afcon campaign in Ghana as they made meek last-eight exit to 10-man hosts. South Africa likely runners-up;
l Group 5 (Ghana, Libya, Gabon, Lesotho): The resignation of Ghana's French coach Claude le Roy leaves them vulnerable against hyper-ambitious Libya, and Gabon. Ghana from Libya and Gabon, but could go down to the wire;
l Group 6 ( Senegal, Algeria, Liberia, Gambia): Senegal have mere shadow of squad that took 2002 World Cup by storm as they reached quarterfinals. Algeria have also experienced better times, leaving Liberia as potential party poopers under young German coach Antoine Hey;
l Group 7 (Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Botswana, Madagascar): No contest on paper with Didier Drogba-inspired Ivory Coast on far higher plateau than modest rivals, the best of whom should be Mozambique;
l Group 8 (Morocco, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mauritania): Similar to previous group in that Morocco are hot favourites to come first, but do not write off even lowest seeds Mauritania in what could be an exciting tussle for second spot. Rwanda are capable of coming second;
l Group 9 (Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Seychelles): Tunisia are battling to replace French coach Roger Lemerre. Luckily, they are in weak group. It must be Tunisia with Burkina Faso the best of the rest;
l Group 10 (Mali, Congo, Sudan, Chad): Only Chad can be discounted as Mali, under Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi, seek to improve on disastrous 2006 World Cup campaign. Sudan tipped to finish second in close chase;
l Group 11 (Togo, Zambia, Swaziland. Original third seeds Eritrea withdrew): Promises to be a shootout between shock 2006 World Cup qualifiers Togo and Zambia, with Swaziland nowhere; and
l Group 12 (Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Djibouti): Though Egypt won a record sixth Afcon title three months ago they dare not underestimate the talented if temperamental Congolese while Malawi have improved lately under new coach and former star Kinnah Phiri. Verdict: Egypt first, followed by DRC. - Sapa-AFP