Nations Cup qualifiers set for busy week of friendlies

Shola Ameobi

Fourteen of the 16 teams who reached next year's African Cup of Nations will be in action this week, playing friendlies across three continents.

Ghana, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Angola, Morocco, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Tunisia and Togo are the qualifiers involved in a busy international week.

Mali and Ethiopia are the only two of the challengers for the Nations Cup in South Africa who are not playing.

Ghana and Cape Verde face each other in Lisbon on Wednesday.

The Black Stars will be missing captain Asamoah Gyan, who has been granted leave to be with his family after his mother died following a road accident at home in Accra.

Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah will give a chance to some fringe players and among those called up are striker Abdul Warris, who has quit Swedish side Hacken for a five-year contract with Spartak Moscow, and teenage Inter Milan midfielder John Duncan.

As well as the grieving Gyan, Ghana will miss defender Jonathan Mensah after he injured his thigh playing for his French club Evian.

Cape Verde will make their Cup of Nations debut next year and the Blue Sharks want to prove that a qualifying victory over four-time African champions Cameroon was not a fluke.

Jacob Mulenga
Jacob Mulenga could get a chance to force his way into the Zambia team

African champions Zambia will meet next year's tournament hosts South Africa at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Wednesday, with both hoping they will be returning to the 2010 World Cup final venue for the last game of the Nations Cup on 10 February.

Zambia's squad includes the starting XI from the 2012 final victory over Ivory Coast.

Collins Mbesuma and Jacob Mulenga missed the Libreville penalty shoot-out triumph and the strikers could get a chance to impress France-born coach Herve Renard.

Bafana Bafana, who failed to reach the last two editions of the Nations Cup, have to permanently adjust to life without Everton midfielder and former captain Steven Pienaar after his retirement from internationals.

South Africa coach Gordon Igesund and assistant coach Serame Letsoaka have just returned from a trip to England to negotiate with club managers over the release of some players early next year.

But Igesund has said he has now given up trying to convince Norwich City's Johannesburg-born midfielder Andrew Surman to play for Bafana Bafana.

Ivory Coast, the continent's top-ranked team and perennial favourites for the title, are away to Austria.

They will be without injured Arsenal forward Gervinho and a January warm-up against DR Congo is the only other friendly planned before they face Togo in their opening group match at the Nations Cup.

Didier Drogba
Time is running out for Drogba to lift the Nations Cup

The Nations Cup title has eluded the Ivorian 'golden generation', led by Didier Drogba and including Kolo Toure, Didier Zokora and Boubacar Barry, and South Africa is seen as the last-chance saloon for the ageing stars.

Nigeria face Venezuela in Miami without Chelsea pair Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel, but Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi (main picture) is set for a long-awaited international debut.

Coach Stephen Keshi will see if the 31-year-old Ameobi is worth a place in his final squad after the English Premier League forward was finally cleared to play for his country of birth having represented England at youth level.

Ameobi was "sure to play" against Venezuela, said a Nigeria Football Federation spokesman.

Good form for Spanish La Liga side Levante has earned striker Obafemi Martins a recall, with Keshi scanning a large talent pool as the Super Eagles seek a winning formula ahead of a tournament they last won 18 years ago.

The North African trio of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are all in action at home on Wednesday. Morocco host fellow finalists Togo, Tunisia play Switzerland and Algeria welcome Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Niger take on a Senegal side minus a number of leading lights, including Newcastle United striker Demba Ba.

DemocraticRepublic of Congo face Burkina Faso in a match that sees two Nations Cup qualifiers go head-to-head in Morocco.

DR Congo had been hoping to persuade Stoke City defensive midfielder Steven Nzonzi to play for them - his father is from the Central African country - but the 23-year-old has turned down the offer.

Alex Song
Injured Song has been ruled out for Cameroon

Gabon - who failed to qualified for South Africa next year - host Portugal, although the Gabonese fans will not get to see Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo after he pulled out of Portugal's travelling squad because of an eye injury suffered in Spanish league action last weekend.

Cameroon and Egypt, with 11 African titles between them, play in Europe but the former powerhouses can only look ahead to next year's World Cup qualifiers after they were eliminated from the 19 January to 10 February continental championship by minnows Cape Verde and Central African Republic respectively.

Cameroon will be without Alex Song, who has withdrawn from the squad because of lower back pain - he was an unused substitute for his club Barcelona in their win over Mallorca at the weekend.

With two months to go to the Nations Cup, many top countries are already struggling with the limited availability of their foreign-based players.

There will likely be more friction between clubs and national teams early next year in the immediate build-up to Africa's top tournament, which falls in a busy period for European leagues.

Fixtures/results from Wednesday's friendlies involving African teams:

Tanzania 1-0 Kenya (in Dar es Salaam)

Georgia 0-0 Egypt (in Tbilisi)

Cape Verde Islands v Ghana (in Lisbon)

Austria v Ivory Coast (in Linz)

South Africa v Zambia (in Johannesburg)

Gabon v Portugal (in Libreville)

Tunisia v Switzerland (in Sousse)

Venezuela v Nigeria (in Miami, USA)

Rwanda v Namibia (in Kigali)

Algeria v Bosnia Herzegovina (in Algiers)

Cameroon v Albania (in Geneva, Switzerland)

Morocco v Togo (in Casablanca)

Niger v Senegal (in Niamey)

Democratic Republic of Congo v Burkina Faso (in El Jadida, Morocco)

Angola v Congo Brazzaville (in Estoril, Portugal)

Swaziland v Mozambique (at Manzini)