Dramatic headlines over the outbreak of the Ebola virus in some West Africa nations and search for new venues by Guinea and Sierra Leone, the retirements of superstars Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o and the heartrending death of Cameroonian Albert Eboosse, the legal skirmishes of Rwanda and Congo all now pave way for the anticipated top action of the heavyweights, the underdogs, rising stars and dawn of new eras as the race to Morocco sets off in earnest.
Holders Nigeria, with a warning from world governing body FIFA over off-field administrative concerns host the Red Devils of Congo in Calabar with Stephen Keshi looking to get off to a fine start in a group they face intricate trips to South Africa and Sudan. The Super Eagles will be favourites but nothing can be taken away from a battling Congolese side.
Sudan warmed up for the start of this phase of qualifying away in Lusaka where they were beaten 1-3 by Chipolopolo who also get into the qualifiers with a new man at the helm of the technical bench – Honour Janza, who took over from Frenchman Patrice Beaumelle.
Janza has kept faith in the squad that has been on the scene since Chipolopolo's 2012 triumph and recalled TP Mazembe striking duo of Given Singuluma and Jonas Sakuwaha to the fold.
Chipolopolo host the Mambas of Mozambique at Levy Mwanawasa before they take a long flight to the Atlantic Ocean archipelago of the Cape Verde for their 10th September clash against the Blue Sharks in Group F.
New Egyptian coach Shawky Gharib makes his official debut as Pharaohs mentor away to Senegal in Dakar as he starts the crusade to return the record Nations Cup winners to the tournament they have failed to qalify for the last two editions. The former Egypt midfielder won the continental title as a player in 1986 on home soil, before achieving the same feat as assistant to Hassan Shehata three-times in a row; 2006, 2008 and 2010.
And he has no illusions as to the amount of work required in a group where they have to contend not only with the Lions of Teranga but would have to work hard to outwit the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia as well as negotiate their way against the unpredictable Zebras of Botswana.
“To qualify for the 2015 AFCON, we have to start well”, Gharib said ahead of the trip to Dakar adding: "Our group is a tough one and we have to start on a positive note. We respect Senegal, Tunisia and Botswana the same way, but our target is to qualify for the final tournament in Morocco. Egypt has missed the last two editions and that doesn’t match for a team with our name and reputation.”
After the sojourn to Dakar, Gharib will be leading his Pharaohs back to Cairo to face Tunisia while the Lions of Teranga will be headed to Gaborone for a date against the Zebras. The Zebras start their gallop to make a second Nations Cup final tournament away in Tunisia – a side they beat on their way to their maiden finals at Gabon/Equatorial two years ago.
The African stars of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Algeria are up against Mariano Barreto's Walia who will seek better fortunes against the Desert Foxes after an intensive training camp in Brazil. Algeria impressed in Bazil, narrowly losing to eventual winners Germany in the second round. While Ethiopia's training matches in Brazil did not return impressive results, Barretto remains confident the outing was worth the while as their target was not winning training matches but shaping up for the six qualifiers.
During their stay in Brazil, the Ethiopians suffered three defeats and managed two draws from five games. The Walyas drew 2-2 with Anapolina and 1-1 with Club Gama. Their losses were against Club do Reamo (1-0), Luziana (1-0) and Brasiliense (2-0).
“Victory in the friendly matches was not our target. The important thing was to test our players. Brazil is a football country where close to 70 to 80 million people are playing football. It is also the topmost exporter of footballers in the world. Three weeks in such a country was very useful for the players and will be useful in the game against Algeria and Malawi," Baretto said.
Herve Renard starts a new era with the Elephants as he begins the campaign to return them to the continental soccer show piece and have a go at the title which the recent Ivorian 'golden' generation failed to clinch to add to their last triumph of 1992. The Elephants also have dates against the Indomitable Lions who have missed the last two editions and coach Volker Finke will be eager to be in Morocco to signal a new era for four time winners whose talisman Eto'o has retired from international football. The DRC and Sierra Leone, with 1994 and 1996 the only times they have been at the finals, are other sides in the Group D. The Leone Stars face a major test as Johnny McKinstry's side have to play "home" matches in Lubumbashi following CAF directives as a result of the outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone.
After an absence of over 35 years from the Nations Cup finals, Uganda's Cranes are in Kumasi to face the Black Stars who are also eager to open a new chapter after a disappointing World Cup in Brazil.
Kwesi Appiah says the debacle of Brazil is behind them and is now fully focused on turning a new page; the clash against the Cranes provides the opportunity. But past matches between these two sides have been tight affairs and Cranes trainer Milutin Sredojević will hope for a positive outing to build from ahead of other Group E matches against Guinea and Togo.
In other fascinating match-ups, the Flames are away in Bamako to face the Eagles of Mali while 2013 finalists Burkina Faso host Lesotho with Gabon taking on Angola in Libreville while Niger take on 2013 finals surprise package Cape Verde.
A total of 15places will be birthed to join hosts Morocco for the 30th edition of the Orange Africa Cup of Nations which runs across the cities of Rabat, Marrakech, Agadir and Tangiers from 17th January to 8th February 2015.
The two teams in each of the seven groups qualify and will be joined by one team, to be placed in a third spot which betters all other third placed sides.
05-09 Sudan – South Africa (1700 GMT)
06-09 Nigeria - Congo (1600 GMT)
06-09 Ethiopia - Algeria (1300 GMT)
06-09 Mali - Malawi (1900 GMT)
06-09 Gabon - Angola (1600 GMT)
06-09 Burkina Faso - Lesotho (1600 GMT)
06-09 RD Congo - Cameroon (1300 GMT)
06-09 Côte d’Ivoire - Sierra Leone (1700 GMT)
05-09 Guinea - Togo (2000 GMT) à Casablanca
06-09 Ghana - Uganda (1600 GMT)
06-09 Zambia - Mozambique (1300 GMT)
06-09 Niger - Cap Verde (1630 GMT)
05-09 Senegal - Egypte (2000 GMT)
06-09 Tunisia - Botswana (1915 GMT)