Stars failing to shine in Africa
African teams have raised the bar at the World Cup in recent tournaments and with Ghana impressing in Germany in 2006 and Senegal having made the quarter-finals in 2002, the expectations of the continent are high. Especially with the next showcase event set to take place in South Africa.
Yet, of all the regions in contention for 2010, the African section of qualifying regularly throws up surprises. Minnows Togo were the shock of 2006, despite failing to register a point once they arrived at the competition, and this year the likes of Rwanda, Benin and Burkino Faso all look well placed to progress to the next round of qualifying.
While it is exciting for such sides to be given the chance to test themselves in the world's biggest football tournament, their presence could come at the expense of some of the continent's more dominant forces.
Firstly, and most incredibly, is the situation of Ghana after their impressive run to the knockout stages in 2006. The Black Stars dispatched the highly fancied Czech Republic in Germany, but have looked a shadow of their former selves as they have struggled in their qualifying group.
Still in a decent position (as their final group game is against bottom side Lesotho), Ghana must win by a big margin this weekend to go through as group winners, while their fate will also depend on the result in the other group match between Gabon and Libya. If, as expected, Gabon and Ghana both win, then all three sides finish on 12 points and goal difference becomes a factor.
Gabon have failed to qualify for any major tournaments in the last ten years, and qualification would represent one of the country's finest moments. Credit must go to them, but it is almost unthinkable for a side like Ghana to go out at this early stage.
Even if the West Africans do struggle through, they must improve if they are to make it past the next round and ensure themselves of a place in South Africa. Results like defeats to Libya and Gabon away from home cannot be repeated, while they nearly suffered the embarrassment of a draw against Lesotho as a final few minutes of drama in June nearly provided the shock of the year.
The source of the side's troubles appears to be a lack of squad depth. With established players like Junior Agogo and Asamoah Gyan comfortable in their positions, there has been very little competition for places and the team has suffered as a result. With important figures like Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah missing through injury, the players who have filled the breach have underestimated their smaller opponents and have paid the price for their malaise.
While the appointment of new Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac may take some getting used to after the success that predecessor Claude LeRoy brought to the country, the Serb has moved quickly to stamp his authority on the Ghana setup by leaving Birmingham winger Quincy Owusu-Abeyie out of his side for a breach of discipline, suggesting that he won't tolerate disruptions to his plans.
Another side to have struggled in qualifying, Senegal, also boast a history of relative success in the World Cup; but also have their own issues of discipline to deal with.
With their decisive game coming against local rivals Gambia this weekend, the country will be hoping to get the best out of captain El Hadji Diouf, although he has yet to win the full support of the fans after being suspended for breaking a curfew along with Tony Sylva and midfielder Ousmane Ndoye before being knocked out of the African Nations Cup in January.
Having made the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2002, Senegal now need to beat a Gambia side who have only conceded two goals in their qualifying campaign thus far and they cannot afford to rely on Liberia to upset group-toppers Algeria.
It is clear that all is not well within the Senegalese camp, with coach Lamin Ndiaye springing a major surprise by dropping star duo Mamadou Niang and Souleymane Diawara for the decider. In a side that already struggle for creativity, the recall of 33-year-old Khalilou Fadiga, who has resurrected his career in Belgium with Germinal Beerschot after recovering from heart problems, is also a shock.
With the side having failed to qualify for Germany 2006, Fadiga's inclusion could be the spark they need although he has been out of the international setup for over two years and surely cannot have the same impact that he had in 2002. It is a gamble, but the Lions of Teranga need something, or someone, to remind them of their successes in Korea.
Angola are another side that could with drawing upon the memory of some their past glories. However, with coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves departing before their vital final game with Niger, their preparations couldn't be worse.
Goncalves had been hailed as a hero for leading the side to Germany 2006, but a home draw with Uganda and a defeat to Benin in Luanda changed the fans' perceptions of him. With star striker Manucho back in the squad for the first time in qualifying there is hope that the side will get a boost, although nothing less than a win will be good enough for the Palancas Negras, who will have to rebuild themselves in the space of just a few days.
Yet if Angola's fall has been something of a recent occurance, such a fate has been on the cards for Togo for some time. Struggling in a three-team group including Zambia and Swaziland, the side who impressed so much in qualifying for the 2006 event have been decimated by internal problems since their World Cup exit.
Star striker Emmanuel Adebayor has temporarily retired from international football, citing the fact that the Togolese Football Federation is too poorly run for him to consider travelling to games; while the rest of the players have apparently forwarded a list of demands to the TFF ahead of their final qualifying match against Swaziland.
After their preparations for the 2006 event were disrupted by shambolic organisation and by rows over wages and bonuses, the squad were rocked by the departure of French coach Henri Stambouli in September, after only four months in charge, and can only rely on a miraculous second place finish to get them through.
Without an established structure, or their star player, it is hard to see how Togo can recover to anywhere near their best; although their place as 'rising stars' of African football may be taken by another minnow for 2010.
Benin, Rwanda, Kenya and Burkino Faso have been the star performers in qualifying thus far and have done well in groups against the more established teams like Morocco, Tunisia, Guinea and Angola. It would certainly not be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that one of these sides could make it through the third qualifying stage to end up on a plane to South Africa.
Out of the big boys, it is really only Nigeria who have made any impression at all. Having won five out of five, conceding no goals in the process, Shaibu Amodu's men have led the way and (unlike Egypt, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast) have not been subjected to the odd anomaly in their results.
It would be churlish to suggest that the big sides won't stand a chance of topping their groups in the next round, but the Super Eagles have given the chasing pack something to think about in terms of the way they play the game and how their squad has evolved in recent years. Undoubtedly they will go into the next round as firm favourites to qualify. But, with the eyes of the world on South Africa in 2010, there is a risk that some of the continent's other leading lights may miss out on the party altogether.